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The Isle of Man TT: The Deadliest Race in the World

Written by Katy Watson

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For motorcycle lovers, speed enthusiasts and thrillseekers the world over, not much comes close to experiencing the TT races held on the Isle of Man. With riders flying by at speeds averaging well over 100 miles per hour, this stand-alone annual event puts the combination of human and machine to the ultimate test. Let’s delve into the history of the TT races and see if it earns its other title of the most dangerous race in the world.

The History of the TT Races

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The Isle of Man is a small island located between Great Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It covers an area of 572 square km (221 square miles) and at the end of May every year, it hosts an international motorcycle event that takes place on its public roads. 

While you might think that “TT” stands for “time trial”, it does not. While the TT races are held in a time-trial format, “TT” actually stands for “Tourist Trophy”. Originally this referred to the trophy that winners who were not local to the racetrack could win, but in time it came to refer to specific races in a series. While “Tourist Trophy” races for cars predate those for motorcycles by a few years, the TT races held on the Isle of Man were the first Tourist Trophy motorcycle races.

The first two-wheeled TT race was held on the island in 1907 with 25 riders on a variety of motorcycles battling it out over 10 laps of the St. John’s Course which was 15.8 miles, or 25.4 kilometres long. This anticlockwise course contained hairpin bends, long straights and checkpoints with names such as “Devil’s Elbow”. The competition was laid out as one week of practice and qualifying sessions followed by one week of racing, which remains the format to this day.  The first official winner of the Isle of Man TT Race was Charlie Collier on his single cylinder Matchless motorcycle. It was a controversial victory, however, as he had pedals on his motorcycle which eked out his miles per gallon efficiency. The second place competitor would arguably have won if he had had pedals fitted but it was decided that to avoid issues in the future, pedals would henceforth be banned. Collier won a huge trophy for the win and £25 which is the equivalent of about £3,200 or 4,300 dollars today. If you’re wondering about his time, it took him 4 hours, eight minutes and 8 seconds to complete the course, averaging a whopping 38.2 miles per hour or 61.5 kilometres per hour. This inaugural TT race was organized by the Auto-Cycle Club and as well as tweaking the no-pedal requirements for forthcoming competitions, it also came up with various other changes to future races. For the 1907 practice week, the roads of the course were still open to public traffic, leaving some areas very muddy and others very dusty. In what turned out to be an unwise move, the organizers decided to spray parts of the course with an acid solution to try and keep the levels of dust down. As well as not doing anything at all to help with the dust issue, the acid solution also burned through the racer’s clothes, making this one aspect of the TT that was not repeated in subsequent years. 

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The race was held on the St. John Course until 1911 when it transferred to the much longer Mountain Course, also known as the Snaefell Mountain Course. The bike classes also changed slightly with the introduction of the Junior TT race for 350cc motorcycles and the main event Senior TT for 500cc bikes. The original version of the Mountain Course was 37.4 miles (60.19 km) long but it was slightly adjusted in 1920 to the current length of 37.73 miles (60.72 km). The course starts at Douglas, the capital town of the island, heads west and then north through Ramsey before heading back south to Douglas again. This includes a seven mile climb to push the limits of the constantly evolving specs of the motorcycle, with the highest point of the route being 422 metres (1385 feet) above sea level at a point called Hailwood Heights. As has always been the case with the Isle of Man TT, the practices and races take place on public roads with spectators able to sit in grandstands or just watch from literally right alongside, as the riders thrash by at breathtaking speed. 

The Need for Speed

As it’s a time trial, speed and average speed are of the essence. The first senior race on the Mountain Course in 1911 was won by British racer Oliver Godfrey on a USA-made Indian motorcycle in a time of three hours, 56 minutes, 10 seconds. His average speed was 47.6 miles per hour or 76.8 kilometres per hour. Compare this with the race record which was set in 2018 by Brit Peter Hickman on a BMW and you can see how far motorcycle racing has come. He completed 6 laps, one more than Godfrey did in 1911 and his overall race time was 1 hour, 43 minutes and 8 seconds, carrying an average speed of 131.7 miles per hour or 212 kilometres per hour. Just so you know, that’s extremely fast and he had to maintain it for over 226 miles or 363 kilometres. The current outright lap record across all classes is Peter Hickman’s 16 minute, 42.8 second lap as part of his 2018 run. According to the Isle of Man TT website, taking all the fastest recorded lap sectors into account, the perfect lap could theoretically be completed in 16 minutes, 35.7 seconds which would mean a person maintaining an average speed of 136.4 miles per hour or 219.5 kilometres per hour. On modern bikes, it’s not unusual to see riders blast by at over 200 miles per hour or 320 kilometres per hour on some straights. Remember though, that the course is long and 6 laps need to be completed to finish the race, usually including 2 pit stops for fuel and rear tyre changes. 

Different races for different bike classes have been introduced over the years, from Superbikes to Ultra-lightweights to even a motorcycle and sidecar race which started in 1923. The TT is not only a test of speed but also of physical stamina and mental concentration. These riders are sometimes going for over an hour and a half, twice as long as a MotoGP race. 

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The Isle of Man TT has always been seen as one of the pinnacle events of motorcycle racing, the ultimate road race, and has taken place every year since 1907, apart from breaks for both world wars. It was cancelled for non-war reasons for the first time in 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease was sweeping across the UK and it was considered too risky to try and disinfect the expected 40,000 incoming riders, spectators and bikes. The Senior race was also called off in 2012 due to bad weather and, of course, in 2020 and 2021 the race was also cancelled thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic but it looks set to restart in summer 2022.

It’s known as a thrilling experience for spectators and riders alike as the competitors roar down narrow winding roads on their powerful machines, sometimes coming within a hair’s breadth of disaster multiple times in one lap. But of course, disaster does strike and this is why the Isle of Man TT is also known as the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world.

The Dangers

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Unfortunately, as the course got more challenging and the motorbikes got more powerful, the chances of fatal accidents also went up. Remember that the race is held on normal, narrow roads so there’s no luxury of a run-off area to swerve into if you misjudge a corner and riders are taking some of these corners at upwards of 130 miles or 209 kilometres per hour. The road surface itself is not a uniformly smooth racing surface, it’s a public road with all the unevenness and changes in surface type this entails. There are even humps and bridges that send riders several feet into the air and everything has to be tackled with pinpoint accuracy and concentration. In this ultimate test of speed, if you misjudge the slightest bend, you’re likely to end up in a hedge, lamp-post or someone’s wall. And with over 250 corners, bends and kinks per lap, there’s a lot of judging that needs to be done. It’s estimated that it takes experienced riders about 3 years to fully memorize this course and it’s a rare year indeed when the event doesn’t claim at least one victim. Even MotoGP superstar Valentino Rossi backed slowly away from racing the Mountain course, riding just one exhibition lap in 2009. He later commented to Top Gear magazine that while he thought the course was “unbelievable” and “great”, he went on to say “But, unfortunately, it’s too dangerous. Sometimes, riders are crazy…The Isle of Man is very difficult. If you make a mistake, maybe it’s the last mistake.”

The first fatality was in 1911, the year that the TT upgraded to the new Mountain Course. Victor Surridge died after crashing his Rudge-Whitworth motorcycle during a practice session. He was to be the first of many. In fact, until a fatal accident between a competitor and a van led to a rule change in 1928, the roads weren’t even closed for the practice week, leaving competitors to chance their luck not only against the course but daily traffic as well. 

Since the competition started 115 years ago, 260 riders have lost their lives on the Mountain Course, either competing in the TT race or Manx Grand Prix. The deadliest year for riders in the TT race came in 1970 when 3 riders were killed in accidents during practice, and a further 3 died during races the following week, including rising Spanish star, Santiago Herrero, who died from injuries following an accident on his last lap. Because of how little protection a motorcycle rider has, the course has claimed multiple lives almost every single year. The worst death toll overall so far was in 2005 when 3 TT racers and 6 riders in the Manx grand prix were killed, as well as one race official and one spectator. Just being at the course is a hazard in itself with at least 4 TT marshals and 4 spectators losing their lives over the years, including an incident in the 2007 Senior TT race when competitor Mark Ramsbotham was killed along with 2 spectators at the 26th Milestone bend of the course. Two marshalls were also injured in the accident which resulted in the bend being slightly modified for future races. At the most recent meeting held in 2019, one rider in the Classic TT was killed and another died after crashing into trees in the Superbike class. It’s not possible to say how many riders and spectators have been injured during the course of the race’s history but it’s also going to be a high number. In 2013, for example, 11 spectators were injured, one seriously, when a racer crashed into the crowd on the first lap of his race. 

The Future of the TT Race

For the less competent racers among us, the advent of on-board cameras means we can also experience the thrill of the race from a first-person vantage point from the safety of our own sofas and I would highly recommend viewing some of these videos if you’re in need of a quick adrenalin boost. If you feel like getting a little more involved, video games like Nacon’s recent “TT Isle of Man – Ride on the Edge” series can put you in the rider’s seat. Maybe you can emulate such greats as Joey Dunlop who scored 26 TT victories over various classes from 1977 to 2000, including 4 Senior TT wins. The most Senior TT wins is currently jointly held by John McGuinness and Mike Hailwood with 7 apiece. As far as bike manufacturers are concerned, Honda is currently top of the pile with 23 wins, although it hasn’t been ridden to victory since 2015. 

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The upcoming 2022 Isle of Man TT will consist of 8 race classes, including Superbike, Sidecar, and the most anticipated race, the Senior class. Nowadays the prize pot is a little bigger and racers can earn money for finishing the course in up to 20th place but the most a winner can claim at the moment is £18,000 or just under 24 and a half thousand dollars. This is a pittance compared with what professional MotoGP riders can earn but TT racers do it more for the experience and the history of the road race than for monetary gain. The winner of the Senior TT race also wins the prestigious Marquis de Mouzilly St Mars Trophy, named after the President of the “Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme” who donated it to the event way back in 1907. The trophy is silver and depicts the Roman god Mercury standing on a winged wheel. At 108 cm (3.5 feet) high and weighing just over 23 kilograms or 52 pounds, it’s become the iconic symbol of this most dangerous of road races.

While the Snaefell Mountain course has been tweaked and minorly modified over the years, the death toll has kept climbing. Every rider, official and spectator going into each practice or race session carries the knowledge that motorcycle racing is inherently dangerous and there’s not much you can do to change that. In today’s safety-obsessed world it seems crazy that this race still exists but the popularity of the event brings needed millions in tourist cash to the Isle of Man every year and it’s still viewed by manufacturers, riders and racing enthusiasts as the world’s last great motorsports event.

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