Motorcycling: Risking all for a win at speed
Infamous Isle of Man TT circuit poses extraordinary dangers but riders just keep coming
John McGuinness, 40, will today kiss his wife Becky, look up at his children Faye and Kurt in the grandstand, and then attempt to win his 18th TT race on a course on which around 240 riders have died.
McGuinness, an ex-bricklayer and cockle fisherman from Morecambe, Lancashire, will race his 1,000cc Honda Fireblade at up to 190mph on a course that streaks through village streets and over open moorland for 37.73 miles on the Isle of Man.
Yet almost every year the TT culls riders. Three died in last year's races, including 67-year-old Bill Currie, a father-of-two and a company director, and the passenger in his sidecar outfit, Kevin Morgan, 59. An air ambulance arrived minutes after they crashed near the famous Ballaugh Bridge, but both were pronounced dead at the scene. Twenty riders have died on the circuit since 2000 alone.
"It wasn't until I was 25 that I started racing here," McGuinness says, explaining his love of the TT Mountain circuit. "First time out I got a 15th and won best newcomer. To do six laps on a 210bhp superbike, with pit stops, to link every corner and make the most of every single section is amazing. To do that faster than anyone else in the world and win is such a hard feeling to explain, but that's what keeps me coming back."
Guy Martin, the 30-year-old racer-cum-TV star, broke eight ribs and his back, and punctured his lungs in a terrifying 170mph crash on the TT course in 2010. But he's still trying for his first TT win, and says: "I ride a motorbike because of the danger, and there is no place more dangerous than the TT.
"If you keep going back the chances are it will catch up with you. Don't let your mind wander – a split-second lapse in concentration and you can clip a kerb – dead."
The TT is an anomaly that thrives in a world where health and safety is an obsession. The MotoGP series, where Valentino Rossi makes his millions, is conducted on carefully constructed circuits such as Silverstone, which have huge run-off areas and keep the crowds well back.
But on some parts of the TT circuit spectators can perch on an earth bank just feet from riders hurtling past at 160mph. The event was thrown out of the World Championship series in 1977 because it was killing too many riders. But now the race organisers are considering launching a separate TT World Series in 2014, using public-roads circuits in other countries.
While the Formula One and MotoGP series are constantly trying to stop cars and bikes from going too fast, the talk on the Isle of Man in practice this week is about whether McGuinness's 2009 lap record of 131.578mph will be bettered, possibly by a lap in the 132mph zone. Rossi races on tracks where the average speed is a massive 20mph slower.
Yet the TT is addictive to many riders – even when they have already shattered their bodies in motorcycle racing. Conor Cummins broke his left arm and suffered two bone fractures in his back, a dislocated knee and ligament damage, bruised lungs and a hairline pelvis fracture when he plunged over the edge of the Mountain section of the circuit at 140mph in 2010. The 26-year-old is now riding with two broken bones in his hand following a recent crash.
Ian Hutchinson, 33, won five TT races in a week in 2009 but almost had his lower left leg destroyed in a crash at Silverstone in 2010. He rebroke the leg this year playing with a dirt bike, but he's seeking his ninth TT victory today.
McGuinness will compete in six TT races over the next six days, including the innovative Zero Challenge race for silent electric bikes, and could bring his tally of Isle of Man wins to 20. And this is a man who has said: "I'm waiting to hear that demon in my head saying, 'Right John, that's it, pack it in now.' Because it'll get you, eventually. It has to, it's got other people and eventually it'll get me."
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