Isle of Man TT 2023: At least, not as much

I had never been to the Isle of Man TT, so when Honda UK invited me to head out for the final five days of the 2023 edition, I couldn't say 'no'.

John McGuinness, 2023 Isle of Man TT, Superstock.

I never knew what to write about the Isle of Man TT. I never wanted to write about my own experience, because who cares? But, I can’t write about someone else’s experience, because I overestimated how much time I would have, and was therefore underprepared before I left (although I didn’t realise that until three days after I arrived) and, therefore, didn’t have time to speak to anyone about their experience. So, I have to write about mine instead. Apologies.

When I got back from the Isle of Man, where it had been sunny for five days straight, more or less (I’m told this is not standard), it was thundering, and spitting the fattest raindrops I’ve probably ever seen. The weather, as a result, made no improvement to my mood, which was pretty rock bottom having left behind one of the best five-day periods of my life. Unfortunately for me (and, maybe for you), my therapist is on holiday, so here we are.

Michael Rutter, Bathams Racing BMW M1000RR, 2023 Isle of Man TT Superstock Race 2.

Just to introduce the kind of person we're dealing with: I’m really fucking anxious. I’m anxious about writing news, writing this, getting a haircut, even just going outside- so, going to the Isle of Man for the first time... Yes, the anxiety was there. I don’t like flying, I’m suspicious of new people, I’m conversationally incapable- so, going to the Isle of Man for the first time, by plane, with people I’d never met... Yes, the anxiety was there. I’m bad at asking for help and I feel, generally, somewhere between a breathing inconvenience and a fraud who transmits death into everything they interact with- so, going to the Isle of Man for the first time, by plane, with people I’d never met and having had it all organised and paid for by someone else... Yes, the anxiety was there.

I went to a race for the first time in 2011. It was a British Superbike race at Donington. I didn’t really know anything about BSB at the time, but I remember being quite enamoured by the sound of one bike in particular - the Ducati 1198 of Michael Rutter, although I didn’t know that at the time. Not only was its engine note quite different to everything else, it backfired more than everything else, too- or, that’s how I remember it, at least. For me, it was the sound that made the most impact.

I was at Donington with a group of people I didn’t know, mostly, the exception being my dad, and I felt pretty out of place. In those respects, as well as the uniquity of the sound produced by Michael Rutter’s motorcycle (although, a different brand and model and concept entirely on this occasion), it was quite similar to my experience at the TT last week (the exception being my dad).

Dean Harrison, DAO Racing Kawasaki ZX-10R, 2023 Isle of Man TT, Superstock Race 2.

‘What do you do?’ was probably the question I was asked the most while I was on the Isle of Man and, because the anxiety was there (and because I think it’s true), the word ‘fraud’ was used on at least four occasions in five days in answers to that question. I don’t ride and, as I’m writing this, I’ve had to cancel my second motorcycle lesson for the second time as a result of rail-related logistical problems, and yet my job is to tell people about motorcycles. On the Isle of Man, among the others in the group I was a part of, I found encouragement from people about this when I expected ridicule. That was an expectation generated from my own view of myself, obviously, but the real-world encouragement I found in contrast to that expectation was one of the most important discoveries of the five days for me.

When you first arrive on the Isle of Man during the TT fortnight, you immediately realise something which is totally unappreciable from the TV - whether it is live streamed or just highlights, and regardless of the quality of documentaries made about the event - which is that the Isle of Man TT is far more than ‘just’ the races.

Formula One has turned itself into a mainstream sport by focusing on everything outside the racing. The way F1 is marketed makes it seem almost like they want you to ignore the racing because they understand that it is dull, and that they cannot fix that it is dull, and instead focus on that there are things to do to distract you from that dull racing. It is culture not developed from the product around which it revolves, and therefore is entirely interchangeable with something different that might make more money. So it has no substance.

John McGuinness leads Michael Dunlop, 2023 Isle of Man TT, Superstock Race 2.

The TT is the same, but also almost totally the opposite. If you have only ever experienced the TT from the sofa - rather than a grass bank, a garden, or a hedge - it is likely that, on arriving to the island for the first time, you will simply be blown away by the amount of people there, and the amount of motorcycles. There is a lot going on outside the racing, but it is all created by people who are there primarily for the racing, so it doesn’t detract or distract from the racing, because it is, ultimately, generated by the racing. So, it is not interchangeable with something else, and it has legitimate substance.

In this respect, the Isle of Man TT is fortunate in its position. It is an almost unique event, and it transcends motorcycling, motorcycle racing, and motorsport, because of the things which make people, who love it, occasionally hate it.

The danger of the TT makes it culturally similar to something like freestyle motocross. Those taking part are truly gnarly, and the right kind of crazy. These aren’t people with a death wish, but they are people who are totally uncontent with the mundanity of normal life, and even of short circuit racing. They require something more, and road racing, of which the TT is the pinnacle, provides that.

This is why the TT is important to motorcycling. Being a festival-like event focused around one of the most dangerous sporting disciplines in existence, it has the capacity to be attractive to the sort of young people who might consider riding themselves. When the average age of a UK motorcycle rider is in the mid-50s, anything which can bring young people closer to motorcycling is of vital importance to the industry.

Your perception of the Isle of Man TT changes once you arrive. It shifts from being two weeks of racing on the world’s gnarliest race track to what feels like the epicentre of motorcycle culture, which, itself, feels - such is the nature of being on a small island - disconnected from the troubles of reality. Disconnected the event itself is not, of course, as 2020 and 2021 proved (or any year it rained, take your pick), but, once you’re in it, there’s no space for what’s outside of it. Perhaps, if I was there for more than five days, that would have felt overwhelming, but I was not there for more than five days, so it did not.

The TT is a cultural marvel, in that it can be enjoyed from afar quite contently, but with so much more intensity by the people who are physically there. In comparison to other cultural events, like music festivals, for example, which have to be experienced in person to be appreciated at all, or a short circuit motorcycle race where it is quite possible to leave thinking ‘I might have been better off watching that at home,’ the core aspect of the TT - the racing - is very enjoyable from home, especially with the live stream which began last year, and yet all of the additional things which can only be experienced while physically at the event are of no detriment to the enjoyment of the races, because of the aforementioned derivation of the event’s culture from the racing. So, while watching from home is perfectly fine, physically being at the race brings additional value to the experience which is unquantifiable. My anticipation is that, when the 2024 Isle of Man TT rolls around, I will spend any time watching from home itching to leave and head to the races. 

Some sheep on the Isle of Man.

Part of this kind of undeniable attraction, of course, is the island itself, partly for the aforementioned ‘disconnection’. Additionally, though, being as small as the island is, it’s hard to escape a view of the sea, and the scenery, in general, is spectacular. Together, the relative isolation you feel on the Isle of Man, and the beauty you’re surrounded by while you’re there, allow you to enjoy the entirety of your time there - it is never a case of ‘the racing has stopped, what do I do now?’ There is always something.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and on Thursday ‘we’ rode out. The inverted commas are important because on Thursday I was not involved in any riding on account of my not having a licence and not being able to fit both my colossal waist and a pair of jeans into a pair of riding trousers, and could therefore not pillion, either. C’est la vie.

When everyone else in your group heads off to ride around the island on Fireblades and Hornets and Transalps, and you, through your own fault, have to go in the back of a Honda Jazz Crosstar e-HEV, the overwhelming feeling is somewhere between embarrassment and self-hatred. 

The cliffs which outline the Isle of Man, and the sea which surrounds it.

But, when I managed to actually look at what I was looking at, the beauty of the place was impossible to ignore.

From rolling hills, lightly sprinkled with sheep, to small towns and an amount of woodland, the Isle of Man pretty much has it all from a landscape perspective. While travelling around the island, there are also - in case you forgot while in transit - reminders of why you’re there. From simply the black and white kerbs to signposts denoting the section of track you’re currently on, the races are essentially inescapable wherever on the island you go.

The padding applied to lampposts, and other such road furniture, also stand as a reminder of the Isle of Man TT’s reality, faced most directly by the competitors, but consequently felt by those around the races, with the intensity of that feeling decreasing as the distance from the centre of the sport grows.

The experience I had was that you also must go around the island to watch the races in order to maximise your experience.

On Saturday, we went to the pit straight/paddock/grandstand area to watch the Senior TT. On the one hand, from the grandstand, you are able to see something which is almost non-existent in motorcycle racing: pit stops.

They add an element to the racing, but also allow you to see slightly more into the world of the racer, because they display more clearly than usual the necessity for trust, and the extent of that trust.

On this occasion, they also allowed a glimpse into other aspects of the TT, which were the fan culture in a racing context (which is, generally speaking, respectful, at least from my experience) and the camaraderie among the teams.

Rennie Scaysbrook, Team Kibosh BMW S1000RR, 2023 Isle of Man TT, Superstock Race 2.

While I was in the grandstand, I was writing the Senior TT report, knowing that, if I managed to get the text written before the end of the race, I could have a decent chance of getting the MotoGP Sprint report done in decent time, too. I’d shut my laptop for a bit, to conserve battery, when Rennie Scaysbrook came into the pits. Unfortunately, there was a problem with Scaysbrook’s bike which meant he could not get back out. Other teams clamoured to find the part Scaysbrook needed in their own inventories to get back him in the race, but in the end it was not meant to be.

Throughout the time Scaysbrook’s mechanic, a fellow rider who had pulled out of the TT earlier in the week, was working on the bike, he received applause from almost everyone in the grandstand. I know it was only “almost” everyone, because I was in the grandstand, but didn’t clap. I’d like to put that down to anxiety, too, but that seems like a cheap excuse by now. It’s not that I thought the efforts weren’t worthy of applause, I just didn’t applaud, somehow. I think it fell somewhere between not wanting to clap because I’d clap when they finally fixed the bike, and not wanting to clap in case they didn’t fix the bike.

Scaysbrook’s TT had been significantly complicated already by the time the Senior rolled around. Problems during practice week saw him switch from the Wilson Craig Racing team and their Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade to Team Kibosh’s BMW S1000RR. As Scaysbrook sat aboard his stationary BMW, trying to whip up more support from the crowd in the grandstand, you could almost sense his own recognition of the futility of that action, his resignation at yet another issue costing him at the TT, and his desperation for his interpretation of the situation to be wrong.

Peter Hickman makes his way to the 2023 Senior TT grid.

From the grandstand area, you are also able to feel the increasing tension that develops during the final minutes before the race, as groups of riders and teams are called to the grid, those at the back arriving in position only a handful of minutes before the road is opened by the first bike in-line.

However, the view of the race from the grandstand was relatively limited. It is exciting to see the bikes flat out in a straight line, but you also ‘only’ see the bikes flat out in a straight line. There is not much going on that you can actually see.

The people at Honda took care of and organised almost everything during my five days on the Isle of Man, and so in some respects it was difficult to get to places. But, the reality was that I had no idea where I wanted to go, or really where anything was, or any way to get there; and so when, on Friday, we went to the Bungalow to watch the second Superstock and Supertwin TTs, I was very grateful for this organisation, even if I was questioning why I was among the people to benefit from it.

It was on Friday that the TT really pivoted in terms of the battles at the front. Peter Hickman set an absolutely brutal 136mph lap in the Superstock TT, and led on the road from his 10th starting position on his way to the Supertwin victory as he swept the day. Hickman, of course, went on to win the Senior on Saturday as well, and, with the first Superstock TT going his way earlier in the week on Tuesday, he equalled Michael Dunlop on four wins for the week.

Friday also flipped the week for me. I spend almost all of my time watching racing. Whether it is MXGP, SuperMotocross, World Supercross, MotoGP, WorldSBK, BSB- you get the point. Unfortunately, I can’t teleport, so mostly I’m watching races on TV.

There is nothing from which I find more peace than being at a race track while racing is happening. It is the only place I feel like I really make sense, because it is the only place where I feel like all the people there are there for the same reasons as me, and there is not a lot of pressure involved in just watching something. That was no different on the Isle of Man, and racing finally happened on Friday. I was excited for it, but it hit me in a way which I did not totally expect.

The twin-charged Lancia Delta S4’s off-throttle supercharger whine gave it a ‘dark’ sound, and more so than the 037 that preceded it (at least, that is the impression I get from watching old Group B videos). It sounded wounded.

It is one thing to watch the races on TV, to see and experience the circuit in person, and even to see the race in person. But, especially out over Snaefell, the sound produced by the racing is otherworldly.

Somehow, in the expanse of the area around the Bungalow (I’m sure this relates to other places, too, but this was where I happened to be), the inline-four sound you know from Donington or Brands Hatch or Silverstone sounds much different when it is howling back at you from a mile away.

Maybe it was the setting, or the context, or the wind, but that howl felt meaningful. It made the bikes sound far more beastly than they ever do at a short circuit, whether that is representative of reality or not.

When you hear the first bike approaching, the mood shifts slightly. It becomes more serious, perhaps. Like the blue pads on the lampposts and such, the sight and sound of the first race bike that makes its way towards and past you is a reminder of the reality of the TT, and, set against quite an undisturbed backdrop, it purveys an immense loneliness.

Seeing the race outside the context of the race - something which is impossible at a short circuit race - allows you to see the beautiful rawness of it. You see only a motorcyclist, and his motorcycle, blasting through the countryside, and, from that, you can imagine, or guess at, the joy being experienced within that chaotic, yet perfectly rhythmic, isolation. That is something you cannot feel at the grandstand, or on TV, because everything there is about the race, or at least decorated as such. At the grandstand, it feels more about the result, whereas, at the Bungalow, it felt as though the experience was the most important factor. The size and scale of the course have their benefits beyond the challenge they provide.

One (1) sheep on the Isle of Man, just before the first Supertwin arrived.

Before the Supertwin race on Friday, we walked a bit further down from the Bungalow, just before the right-hand kink before it. From the grass bank there, you can see the riders for quite a distance, and through three corners going: right, left, right; before they head out of sight and into the left-right of the Bungalow.

But, before you see or hear any bikes, you see the tram making its way slowly down the mountain, the copse in the valley, the huge rolling hills, and quite a few sheep. Until the first bike arrives, none of what you see, hear, or experience at all is about the race.

At the Isle of Man TT, there is no room to be a fraud, or to be fake. From a competitor’s perspective, you are either prepared to ride through towns, between trees, and along the asphalt roads of the wilderness at an average speed of 125mph, or 130mph, or 135mph, or even greater speeds that mean effectively nothing beyond the actual number to ordinary people like you or I; or you are not. From the spectator’s perspective, you are either prepared to see those things, and be accepting of what they really mean - at least in a larger, broader context if not a more specific, racing context - or you are not. You cannot fake the attributes required to race the TT, and you cannot fake the understanding of the race required to appreciate it. They are quite simple, black-and-white, things.

What is not so simple, or black-and-white, is leaving it behind. John McGuinness, now the third-most-successful rider around the Isle of Man with 23 TT wins, is one example. McGuinness is obviously a winner, hence the extent of his success, but his days of winning TTs are seemingly behind him. But he keeps on going back, year after year, because he cannot cope without it.

It is not to the same extent, if you can believe it, but saying “goodbye,” to the island, and to the people I spent my five days with on that island, and coming back here - back to the lonely, anxious reality - is extremely hard to accept. My body is back here, but my mind seems unable to accept this, and won’t join it, because it feels like a regression to come back here.

I’m a loner. I listen to funeral doom and black metal, I play video games and escape into their fantasies and fantasies I create for myself within them. I don’t really go outside, or have friends, or really make any attempt to meet new people. Because the anxiety is always there.

But, for five days, on the Isle of Man, the anxiety sort of wasn’t there (at least, not as much), and I sort of wasn’t totally a loner. Whether I was in the back of a Honda Jazz, writing a race report in the grandstand during the Senior TT, or standing by myself at the Bungalow, I was always a part of something. And I’m finding it really hard to let that go.

Images by the same guy who did the words, hence the quality.

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