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The history of… the Isle of Man TT races

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The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or the TT for short, has been going for over a century. It draws in newcomers and welcomes back seasoned road racers every year, despite commonly being referred to as the most dangerous motorsport event in the world. It’s because of this title that riders and spectators alike can’t keep away.

It’s virtually indescribable for people who haven’t witnessed the sights of the TT live from the grass banks, and even harder for the competitors to explain what it’s like to race their bikes at three-figure speeds within touching distance of stone walls, kerbs, lampposts, trees and houses. When riders can find something even remotely comparable, they say it’s like the strongest and most addictive drug, they just want to do it again and again.

The early days

There simply isn’t anything like the Isle of Man TT, but where did it all start? Motor racing first came to the island in 1904 in the form of the Gordon Bennett car trials, as it wasn’t possible to race on the UK mainland due to an act of Parliament that banned racing and introduced a 20mph nationwide speed limit. But motorcycle racing didn’t arrive on the Isle of Man until 1907.

The editor of Motorcycle Magazine at the time filed a formal proposal at the annual Automobile Club Dinner for a motorcycle race on Isle of Man, which was accepted, and the first Isle of Man TT motorcycle race took place on May 28th, 1907. Although the Mountain Course which is used today wasn’t part of the initial circuit until 1911, as it was merely a horse and cart track at the time, and bikes couldn’t cope with the hills and the terrain.

Two races were held in the opening year, a twin-cylinder class and a single-cylinder class, with Rem Fowler winning the twin-cylinder class on a Peugeot-powered Norton, and Charlie Collier took victory in the single-cylinder class on a Matchless. Collier went on to win the last TT on the short course before the mountain section was introduced in 1911.

 

Post-war TT races

When the world went to war in 1914, the Isle of Man TT races had to be postponed until 1920. The course was adjusted when racing resumed following the war’s conclusion and included the difficult addition of the Governor’s Bridge section leading back to the start and finish line on the Glencrutchery Road. This change lengthened the course to 37.73-miles, and it has remained largely unchanged ever since.

Following the second World War in 1949, the Isle of Man TT races were chosen to host the British round of the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championships. The TT course featured on the Grand Prix calendar until 1976 and saw some of the most famous names in motorcycle racing tackle the challenging road circuit, including Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini.

Barry Sheene had two DNFs in his first and only time at the TT circuit in 1971. He fell off at Quarterbridge in the lightweight 125cc category, and retired from the production 250cc race. Sheene decided that the dangers were too high to compete there again, so never went back in the five remaining years it was part of the World Championship series. Agostini followed suit a year later in 1972 after winning the last of his 10 victories, as the tragic death of close friend Gilberto Parlotti prompted him to quite racing on the Mountain Course.

The late ‘70s saw some historic TT events, with the most decorated TT racer of all time Joey Dunlop storming to victory in the 1977 Jubilee race, marking the first of his 26 wins on the island. Then the following year, the legendary Mike Hailwood returned after an 11-year absence and won the Formula One race on board his Ducati becoming World Champion again.

During the same year as Hailwood’s heroics, Hilary Musson became the first woman to ride in the TT as a solo rider since Beryl Swain in 1962. Thankfully, Hilary was offered a race licence and a place on the starting grid based on her talent and not her gender, and she went on to race in every consecutive TT through to 1985.

 

The TT today

The Isle of Man TT is as popular as ever today. Legendary road racers like 23-time winner John McGuinness, 19-time winner and nephew of Joey, Michael Dunlop, and 16-time winner Ian Hutchinson, as well as exciting newcomers, continue to bring crowds to the island from all over the globe. Despite the danger, its popularity shows no signs of slowing down either, with rider entries oversubscribed year after year, and attendance numbers continuing to rise.

The records on the track continue to be broken too, with the outright lap record now with Peter Hickman (pictured), posting an extraordinary lap in 2018 of 135.452mph, which is a time of 16m 42.778s.

 

Top five TT racing facts

  1. The late Joey Dunlop remains the most successful rider ever around the Mountain Course, taking his 26th and final TT win at the age of 48 in 2000.
  2. The TT races were cancelled for the first time ever due to the Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001. Nineteen years later, the coronavirus pandemic saw the cancellation of the 2020 races.
  3. Road racing legend John McGuinness has 23-wins to his name, and created history at the TT’s centenary event in 2007 becoming the first rider to post a 130mph lap of the course.
  4. In 2010, Ian Hutchinson became the first rider to win five TT’s in a week, which hasn’t been repeated since.
  5. For the first time ever, the Senior race was cancelled in 2012 due to bad weather.

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