Motor cycling: Surtees the island racer

On the eve of the 90th Isle of Man TT, the event's leading light takes a ride down the fastest memory lane of all; Norman Fox talks to the master of the world's toughest motor cycling circuit
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The Independent Online
We took off for the Isle of Man soon after dawn. It should have been earlier but someone said there was mist on the mountain. We might not be able to land, or the race could be cancelled. Long before he became the voice of Formula One, Murray Walker used to talk in grave tones on the wireless about "mist on the mountain" threatening the TT races. But the mist usually cleared and he would rev up to compete in decibels with the howling MV Agustas and hearty Manx Nortons.

The Dakota eventually rattled and bumped through heavy cloud and down to my first visit to the TT. We stood on the long straight which drops down the mountain to Creg-ny-Baa and heard the maroon signal the start. For a while sheep could munch quietly. Then, like Beethoven's gathering storm, this unearthly distant noise broke the calm. A distant whine, then a metallic shriek. Suddenly coming down the narrow road was a red and grey monster of a motorcycle - the four cylinder MV Agusta, the machine they called the fire engine - ridden by the world champion John Surtees, who was to become the only person to hold that title on two and four wheels. They came and went at some unimaginable speed, wrenching the neck, baffling the Kodak Brownie and with a sound as bold as the brass in old New Orleans. Even the brave Bob McIntyre once said: "You go up Snaefell on the machine and down on your nerves."

It was 1960, Surtees's last TT. He had won the Senior (500cc) race three times before and made his knowledge of those narrow public roads count with a swansong lap record of 104.08mph, phenomenal then, though now 228 riders have lapped the course at over 110mph.

"Knowledge", he recalled on the eve of this year's 90th TT races, "was and is the most important thing. You come along from general race tracks then you're confronted by over 37 miles, up hill and down dale and ever- changing weather conditions, which in recent years is why it's become a specialist's circuit for people like Joey Dunlop. They've turned it into their back yard. They have so much experience that they can even ride at 90 per cent and go so much quicker than the others because of their knowledge." Dunlop has recorded 199 laps at over 110mph and will be back for his double-century.

Surtees says he remembers going round the course trying to remember where puddles formed or where water might cross the road. "Anyone going new to the island has to work that much harder to go anywhere because they don't know where they're going."

He first faced the "daunting" mountain course, with its forbidding stone walls, bumps and bridges, and spectators within touching distance, in 1953. He was 19. "I took along my own 500cc Manx Norton that I got for the Ulster Grand Prix the previous year, having raced Vincents before that. When I got there as a total newcomer who had never seen the circuit, Joe Craig offered me the works Nortons." One of the works riders, Syd Lawrence, had been injured and the Norton boss saw Surtees as the most promising and successful young rider on short circuits in Britain. But the island is a very long course indeed, and uniquely unforgiving.

That year four riders were killed. Surtees immediately accepted the importance of respecting the course. "I wouldn't say I went there with fear, but certainly concern, for the simple reason that whereas you could go along to places where you had an intimate knowledge of the circuit and would get into a flow, a rhythm, and could do everything at 100 per cent, on the island you had to exercise extra control on yourself and only go as fast as you knew where you were. After I'd done a couple of years I did get into a rhythm but you never knew what to expect. In 1959 the hailstones were taking the paint off the fairing. In 1956 there was a cow in the road and I hit it amidships. The MV was written off, but the cow got up and walked away."

He recalls that his first visit came to very little. "I wanted to get as much experience as I could and I accepted an offer to ride an EMC 125cc machine in the lightweight race but on the first lap I went over Ballaugh Bridge and the forks broke. I broke a bone in my hand. So I was on the boat home. Joe Craig was so angry that I'd gone out on that bike, he refused me a works place for the following season, but I was only trying to get to know the circuit."

He never regretted making that a priority. "Some go there and try to go too quick too soon and either frighten themselves and never go quick there again, or they get hurt. It's a place to be treated with a lot of respect. It was then and is today."

The big MV machines on which he had six 350 and 500cc TT victories also demanded respect. "You had to hang on to them and use much more physical force than on the Manx Norton which handled so well. It was heavier, but it was high weight - it was thirstier, so when we had an eight-lap TT I started with over nine gallons of fuel on the top above the engine, not in side tanks. That's a lot of weight. You had to make a lot of use of the gearbox and to remember that when both wheels were off the ground, it was very easy to over-rev."

His greatest regret is not so much that the TT lost its world championship status but that the island and the motorcycling authorities have failed to appreciate the value of nostalgia. He thrives on it, regularly organising classic events, the next of which sees him riding his 1960 MV Agusta at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on the weekend of 21-22 June. He promises no lap records but plenty of four-cylinder sound. We will both be on our personal islands of memories.