The Last Word: The Isle of Man TT, Robert Dunlop's death, and a race that defies the nanny state
Contact with a wall, a telegraph pole or a traffic sign is usually fatal
Sunday 09 June 2013
Robert Dunlop's last conscious act was to jam on the front brake. There had been a puff of smoke as his motorbike seized at 160mph and slewed sideways. He was launched over the handlebars on to the road, where he was struck by a pursuing rider. He died from severe chest injuries that evening. He was 47.
Thirty-six hours later Michael, his youngest son, won the race for which his father had been practising, the North West 200. His suppressed grief mutated into anger. In the five years since, he has ridden with a disconcerting fury and a grim sense of destiny. He has been on the ragged edge.
Perhaps he will find peace in the achievements of the past week. Michael won four TT races on the Isle of Man, and surpassed his father's record. In another reminder that death wraps itself around his sport like a creeping vine, it earned him the trophy named in honour of Joey Dunlop, his late uncle.
Joey, a monosyllabic publican from Ballymoney, is biking's warrior king. No one has won more TT races, 26. He, too, died in competition, when he crashed into trees in Estonia after losing control on a rutted road sluiced by torrential rain. There were 50,000 at his funeral yet, to millions, the pursuit to which he gave his life is beyond redemption.
Had someone come up with the notion of the Tourist Trophy races in 2007, instead of 1907, the event simply would not have been allowed. It challenges the orthodoxy of the nanny state, defies the panoply of risk assessments, liability waivers, health and safety officers and ambulance-chasing lawyers.
Road racing is a world in which mundane objects and everyday occurrences are deadly. A dog off the leash, a patch of melted Tarmac or an ill-positioned telephone box can kill. Contact with a dry-stone wall, a telegraph pole or a traffic sign is usually fatal.
Its heroes are the wraiths of international sport, relentlessly ordinary men capable of consistently extraordinary acts of bravery and precision. Many sleep in caravans, tents or lock-up garages – the antithesis of the airbrushed stars of Formula One.
This is hardcore, and difficult to defend when the safety of spectators is compromised, as it was on Friday. Jonathan Howarth from Barnsley was little more than 10 seconds into his first TT race when he lost control on the descent of Bray Hill.
His bike disintegrated on impact with the kerb. A wheel and the petrol tank span into the crowd congregated beside a burger van. He slid on his belly into a lamppost. Remarkably, he suffered only minor fractures, and walked away. Eleven spectators were taken to hospital.
Rumours spread disconcertingly until an official announcement that no injuries were life-threatening triggered applause from fans around the 37¾-mile mountain course. This will sound callous, but there was "only" one death this year.
Yoshinari Matsushita, from Japan, who crashed at Ballacrye in practice, was the 21st rider to perish this century, the 240th victim of the TT since its inception. Death has no dominion when it is so common, but these men deserve our respect. They are important because they provide a bulwark against the sanitisation of sport, the mediocrity of conformity.
They ride at speeds of up to 200mph on the edge of reason and adhesion. The money is minimal and the motivation is difficult to articulate. John McGuinness, who won the restarted race, admits: "You don't care about anything but getting on the bike and riding."
I've had breakfast with these men, and wondered whether they would be alive at lunchtime. They are terrifying to watch. Michael Dunlop was once asked why he rode so fiercely. His reply said it all: "Because I'm a Dunlop."
Has Jose kept up with the pace?
Jose Mourinho will doubtlessly beguile and incite when he returns to Chelsea tomorrow. Expect him to champion the virtues of love at second sight, and offer hints about the identity of his next victim.
Someone of his relentlessly confrontational nature needs a hate figure on whom to concentrate fire. Rafa Benitez has left the building. Arsène Wenger has become as threatening as a grandfather tending his tomatoes.
Andre Villas-Boas will be reminded of his debt of loyalty, and Manuel Pellegrini will get a taste of what is to come. That leaves one man, who may well emerge as Mourinho's nemesis.
Anyone who listened to David Moyes address 350 leading coaches in New York on Wednesday will appreciate Manchester United have selected a manager of rare stature to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.
He shares his mentor's thirst for self-improvement, though he cited Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager and Uefa technical director, as his inspiration.
He spoke of his faith in sports science, his readiness to be tested by his players, and his comfort with the ruthlessness of his trade.
His observation that "the speed of change in football is incredible" could have been tailored for Mourinho. Suddenly, the Portuguese seems yesterday's man.
The crowd, identified as "financiers, bankers and opinion-leaders", eat octopus curry and drink industrial quantities of champagne. The dress code is "glamorous" and Binky from Made in Chelsea is maid of honour. For all its pretensions, Polo in the Park, staged this weekend at the Hurlingham Club, is trash sport of the worst kind.
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