Roundtable Discussion: The TT and the Future of Road Racing
TT & Motorsport Manager, Isle of Man Government
After what seems like a lifetime of planning, the Centenary TT has come and gone. There was a massive level of expectancy on the team responsible for putting the Centenary TT together and rightly so. The eyes of the world were firmly focussed on this historic event and without doubt we delivered. The increased interest offered obvious financial and promotional opportunities for us as event organisers, and we grasped these opportunities with both hands to ensure that this great event can flourish into the future.
With the commercial infrastructure of the TT now on a solid footing, it has allowed us to further invest in the safety side of the TT, as well as being expansive with the Grandstand Complex and other areas of the event.
Prior to this years TT we took delivery of another £100,000 worth of Recticel Safety Fence, which is in situ on the circuit. We have further invested in the marshalling and medical cover on the TT circuit for 2007, with almost £200,000 being spent this year alone, with masses of training and full time staff and offices for both organisations. We also have two medical helicopters at our disposal, at a significant cost, which means we have the fastest Air Med response times in the world!
The Grandstand is now almost unrecognisable, with almost ¾ of a million pounds invested over the past year. The main improvements can be found under the west side of the Grandstand itself, where a number of high spec retail units have been constructed. The existing hard standing areas of the paddock have been resurfaced and levelled, whilst all operational areas of the Grandstand have been decorated and improved, including new control room and timing room.
Just about every inch of the complex has been painted, cleaned or replaced, including all the signage and overall the area looks a lot more professional. The layout has been improved, whilst more power and a television distribution network has been installed, pumping out the live timing system to a large proportion of the site. Speaking of the timing system, further investment has been made, with a holistic IT system now underpinning race control, timing and management. Incorporated into this is a state of the art speed trap located in the road on Sulby Straight.
We had world class hospitality available for the first time situated in Nobles Park, where we also have a three year lease on the land, to situate, not only our hospitality, but also car parking, a massive area of weakness of ours in the past.
But what about the racing? Well with all our ducks in a row, we were able to put together an entry fitting of the occasion. Just a few years ago, TAS Suzuki were the only manufacturer supported team in the TT paddock. Now you are looking at double figures, with all four Japanese manufacturers represented significantly, along with MV Agusta and Aprilia.
Nostalgia was the buzz word this year with fans submerging themselves in the history of the TT. Great riders like Agostini, Read, Redman, Surtees, Caruthers, Fogarty, McCallen, Ubbiali, Bryans, Fisher, Boddice, Simpson, Leach, Taveri and great machines from Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, MV Agusta, NSU, BMW, Ducati, Gilera converged on the Island to parade and display to the delight of everyone involved in the event.
Speaking of nostalgia, one of the highlights of the TT was the re-enactment of the first ever event in St Johns, at 10am on the 28th of May – 100 years to the second of the first TT, when Geoff Duke flagged away 100 vintage machines which lapped the original 9 mile circuit.
As well as all of that, there were improved festival activities, stunt shows, air shows, firework displays, laser shows, manufacturer meets and days, exhibitions and much, much more. It was a genuine once in a life time occasion not to be missed and despite being the hardest year of my life by some distance, I wouldn’t have missed a second!
Manager of Honda Racing, UK. TT team manager (1990 to 2007), TT competitor (1971 to 1989). Responsible for the HM Plant Honda team in the 2007 TT races. Winners: Senior TT (new lap record 130mph), Superbike, Supersport, Sidecar Race B (new lap record 116.7mph).
The TT races are very unique and there is no other motorcycle event in the world anything like the challenge of the TT races. Manufacturers, teams, riders and spectators have been attending this event now for 100 years and the fact that the races have survived for so long is a credit to the success of the event itself. The course itself is nearly 38 miles a lap and this presents riders with many challenges that they would never find on a conventional racing circuit and this challenge appeals to many riders. The race is also held as a time trial with riders setting off at 10 second intervals and being placed according to the time it takes them to complete the set number of laps in each race. Therefore riders are not competing on the course against other riders directly, but against the clock and this makes the TT also very different to other motorcycle races. All competitors who take part in the TT races agree that it is the ultimate challenge for man and machine, especially set against the high risk of racing on the TT course. Giacomo Agostini who won 15 World Championships and 10 TT races turned totally against the TT saying it was far too dangerous, but he still said that it was the most enjoyable racing he ever took part in. That in a nutshell is the unique appeal to the races because for a rider the TT is so enjoyable to take part in.
Spectators attend the races because again the event is so different to any other form of motorcycle racing and also they are held on a beautiful Island where normally they would not go to except for the TT races. Also spectators get the opportunity to watch the races at many different vantages points and can get very close to the action which is not the case on most short circuits in the UK. The other point for spectators is because the event goes on over a period of two weeks spectators can turn the event into a holiday too.
In summary the TT races continue to flourish in our ever changing world due to the unique challenge they offer to many different people when in our world today many challenges, especially those with an element of danger, have been removed.
Journalist and author of TT 100: The Official Authorised History of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Racing
Marking its centenary gave the Isle of Man TT a boost in 2007, attracting more than 55,000 visitors. Arguably many more would have been there, had it not been for acute accommodation shortages and frustrating transport issues. Now the party’s over, the races face a future just as uncertain as it was before the birthday celebrations.
To maintain status and credibility within motorcycle sport, the TT needs top-class riders, from all over the world. Much work has been put into attracting new competitors, mostly by two keen individuals employed by the IOM Department of Tourism: rider liaison officer and past TT winner Richard “Milky” Quayle and director of motorsport Paul Phillips. An example of their success was the presence of world-class rider Steve Plater on competitive AIM Yamahas in 2007. A winner of major Superbike and Endurance events, Plater was prepared to pull an orange vest over his leathers and become a raw novice on the Mountain Course. By the end of the fortnight he had won Silver Replicas in all four solo races and put in a best lap nudging 126mph. That is likely to encourage him to return to have crack at the big money.
The winnings are not bad: the Senior victor collects more than £20,000 ($40,000) and top riders can supplement start and prize money with helmet, clothing and tyre deals. There is a moral problem lurking here. Is it right to use large sums of money to lure racers onto a circuit on which so many have been killed?
The TT needs factory-backed teams to maintain prestige and in 2007 all of the “big four” Japanese marques were represented. But if paddock gossip is to be believed there are constant tensions between team principals and the race organisation, whether it be the Manx Motor Cycle Club or the UK-based Auto Cycle Union, whose authority—and insurance arrangements—make racing possible. Ducati walked out in the Nineties, saying they would not be back.
Then there is Manx politics. The Department of Tourism and the Manx Motor Cycle Club are two distinct factions, which often appear to be in disharmony.
However good the riders are, the TT needs spectators and lots of them to maintain its unique atmosphere. There is a hard core of super-fans who love to meet the riders and get their autographs, but many of them are now well into middle age. The majority of TT visitors since the Sixties have been bikers of all ages and backgrounds, riding a wide variety of machinery. They don’t all watch the racing, but love to be on the Isle of Man for an enchanted fortnight when the world revolves around motorcycles – a similar phenomenon to the Daytona or Sturgis gatherings in the US.
What will keep them coming? The sheer charm of the Island and the TT’s love of tradition draw many back year after year. A proportion of those who ventured to their first TT for the Centenary will return, albeit not necessarily every year.
The official evening entertainment on Douglas Promenade, with its accent on beer-swilling, stunts and occasional exhibitionism is arguably an attraction, but not as exciting as it was in wilder, more spontaneous times.
For the dedicated racing fan, there are rival attractions to the TT pilgrimage. Cheap flights around Europe make it more affordable than ever to follow several rounds of the MotoGP series and see the world’s most famous racers in action. Also, it is as easy to travel by motorcycle from England to sunny Spain as to the IOM, if you don’t mind a 24-hour ferry trip.
The Island’s ferry service is a key to keeping visitor numbers up. The Steam Packet company (owned by an Australian bank) needs to be more willing to please customers. After confusion reigned in 2007, some said “never again.”
Of all the threats to the TT’s future, issues of risk and safety always loom large. The Centenary racing was only minutes away from completing the no-fatalities fortnight everyone prays for when calamity struck. Near the end of Friday’s Senior finale, Mountain Course newcomer Marc Ramsbotham lost control of his 180kg 1000cc Suzuki at a slight bend on the Mountain climb named after Joey Dunlop. He was killed and so were two spectators. Two women marshals were injured: one, ex-TT rider Hilary Musson, has lost part of one leg.
The ACU withdrew the circuit’s permit until changes, which included cutting back an earth bank, were made. When the Manx GP was run in August, several new trackside areas were prohibited to spectators. An understandable response to the tragedy, but it irked those who believe being able to get close to the road is Island racing’s greatest attraction. So far, there are no plans for additional public viewing stands.
During post-incident investigations, the Manx police arrested one of the marshals responsible for the stretch of road where the crash occurred. The person was not detained, but the episode can only have exacerbated the most immediate practical problem for the TT: a shortage of marshals.
In the drive to improve safety, minimum numbers have been laid down as to how many marshals should be dispersed around Mountain Course’s 37.37 miles. At recent TTs and MGPs, there have been urgent last-minute pleas for marshals to come forward in order that practices, and even races, could be held. Fear of being held responsible for injuries or deaths is bound to deter world-be marshals. A further blow came in early October 2007, when chief marshal Roger Hurst resigned for “personal reasons.”
Another of the safety issue bearing down on the TT is the Island’s notoriously fickle weather. If low cloud or Mountain mist prevents the helicopter ambulances from operating over any part of the Course, practising or racing cannot start. It can seriously curtail practice time—in itself needed to maximise safety—and could cause races to be completely cancelled. The man in overall control of racing, clerk of the course Neil Hanson, says that making decisions based on weather forecasts is one of his toughest jobs.
An intriguing recent development is the proposal to run TT races for smaller capacity machines on the low-lying 4.25 Mile Billown circuit near Castletown. It is a demanding real roads course, used for national motorcycle races since 1955 and very close to the airport for day-trippers.
In the years leading up to the Centenary, people on the Isle of Man and further afield were saying that 2007 would probably be the last TT. Few asked who would actually stop it. It would have to be the Isle of Man government, which pays out millions to stage the racing but does benefit from revenues the influx of TT visitors brings in. Or possibly the ACU: if the UK government suddenly took against road racing it might put on pressure for the enabling permit not to be issued.
So far I’ve painted a gloomy picture, but it’s worth remembering that the TT has weathered many crises in its long history and survived, usually by change and adaptation.
There are some bright spots on the horizon. In 2009 Honda are expected to go large on celebrating the marque’s 50 years of participation in the TT. In 2011 the Mountain Course will mark its centenary and 2020 will see the actual 100th TT race meeting. By then, motorbikes propelled by fossil fuels could look dated, so maybe the TT should run an event to encourage the development of sophisticated future two-wheelers. That is, after all, what the 1907 Tourist Trophy was about.
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