As a biker myself for a little over a year now, and having recently purchased my very first motorcycle, my interest is not purely focused on cars anymore. Admittedly, next to watches cars are my biggest passion, but the love affair with two-wheeled motorized fun is growing stronger and stronger with every ride I take. This perfectly blends in my love for racing, on both four and two wheels, although I have no intention of taking to the tracks myself. Instead, I am much happier watching from the sidelines and seeing man and machine in perfect harmony dancing from corner to corner at breakneck speeds. Those breakneck speeds are to be taken quite literally with the oldest continuous motor race in history; the Isle of Man TT. And with the 2023 edition just behind us, I felt it was time to take a look at this pure adrenaline-fueled insanity!
Admittedly, racing motorbikes on closed circuits is one thing, but what we’re looking at in today’s Petrolhead Corner episode is a very different beast. First of all, a motorcycle race on open roads is extremely rare today, as most countries would simply not allow it to be organized. There have been some in the past, even today there are events like the Horice Road Race in the Czech Republic, the Macau Grand Prix (already a challenge on four wheels, let alone two) and the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb that hosts a motorcycle class. But the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, simply called the TT, is probably the most (in)famous. What’s also important to note, before we get into the details, is the fact it’s a timed event. Drivers race the clock, let loose with it10-second intervals, rather than battle it out on track. That doesn’t mean, however, there’s no close racing as some of the fastest competitors will almost definitely encounter slower ones at some point on the twisty 37-mile long track.
The oldest motor race in the world
The history of the Isle of Man TT goes back to the year 1907 which makes it not only one of the oldest motorcycle races in history but one of the oldest races in the world, period. In fact, the TT is the oldest continuous motorised racing event in the world, only not taking place during World War I and World War II and being cancelled in 2001, 2020 and 2021 due to viral outbreaks. To put it in perspective, the Targa Florio predates it by only 1 year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has just celebrated its centennial.
The racing under the TT regulations has changed quite a bit in the 116-year history of the event. In the earliest of days, it was pretty much open to anyone, but now you must be in the possession of a valid National Entrants or FIM Sponsors License for Road Racing and be able to present a valid UK driver’s license or one of a country with comparable laws. And although the majority of the entrants are from the UK area, the TT draws in fans and racers from across the world.
Racing is done across six classes; Senior TT, Junior TT, Superbike TT, Superstock TT, Supertwin TT and Sidecar TT, contested over 3, 4 or 5 laps with some classes racing twice during the event. The classes are predominantly categorized by engine configuration and size, and type of motorcycle. The Superstock TT class, for instance, allows for production-based motorcycles to be entered, whereas the Senior TT, Junior TT and Superbike TT classes are open to complete ground-up built racing bikes. And yes, there is a class for sidecar motorcycles, where a driver straddles a low-slung three-wheeled contraption on his belly, head forward and feet back, while a passenger leans in and out to balance the machine through corners. As I said, sheer insanity!
A lawless island
There is a plain and simple reason why this mad, mad race is held on the Isle of Man, an otherwise tranquil 222 square mile island between the UK and Ireland; it has no speed limits outside of residential areas. Back in 1903, as cars and motorcycles started to become more and more common as opposed to horses and carriages, the UK imposed a nationwide speed limit of 20mph (or 32 kph) on its roads. With this in place, the Secretary of the Automobile Club of Britain and Ireland, which was renamed the Royal Automobile Club or RAC in 1907, approached the local Isle of Man authorities to ask permission to race on the island’s public roads. A special Act was drawn up, which passed in 1904, allowing the use of a 52.15 mile (83.93km) Highroads Course across the island for the Gordon Bennet Trial for cars, the precursor to the Isle of Man TT.
A year later, motorcycles were entered into the event for the first time ever the day after the cars raced across the island. However, they couldn’t climb the steep Snaefell Mountain Road so the course for bikes was shortened. From that year onwards, motorcycles would race across the island almost every year, with the exception of the years from 1915 to 1919, 1940 to 1946 and the years 2001, 2020 and 2021.
To this day, the Isle of Man remains free of speed limits, although an enforced speed limit is in place in residential areas and speed controls are very strict during the racing weeks. So basically, you can drive across almost the entire island at any speed you feel comfortable with. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The Tourist trophy
Racing nowadays is done on the Isle of Man Mountain Course, which starts in the island’s main town of Douglas and runs for 37.73 miles or 60.18 kilometres across the island. The course is run in a clockwise direction, and as the competitors leave behind Douglas, speeds in excess of 200mph or 320kph are reached are no exception. A total of 219 corners, some quite simple but some very tricky ones, have to be navigated in an attempt to be the fastest over the course of the multi-lap race. To say this is risky business is a huge understatement as the Isle of Man TT is considered the most dangerous road race in existence. Since its inception, 267 people have died in the event. This year Spanish driver Raúl Torras Martinez fatally crashed out near Aline Cottage, just outside of Ramsey in the northern part of the island.
The immense risks TT drivers take become apparent when you watch one of the countless YouTube clips of the Isle of Man TT. The roads are lined with sidewalks, flint-rock walls, posts, and all sorts of other immovable objects. And it’s not just that, it’s also the bumps and blind corners racers have to face, often resulting in full aerial jumps at speeds of 300kph or more. One of the most iconic bits of the course is Ballaugh Bridge, a humpback bridge that sits right in the middle of a left-and-right corner in Ballaugh along one of the fastest sections of the course. It’s utter insanity, but it remains absolutely mindboggling to watch!
The Isle of Man TT has seen some competitors grow into absolute legends of the sport. The names of Joey Dunlop and his nephew Michael Dunlop are atop of most people’s wind when it comes to the TT, winning 51 races between them (you can race in multiple classes each year). Going back a bit further in history, names like Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini pop up. This year was professional motorcycle racer Peter Hickman’s year though, winning 4 races in total and setting a single-lap average speed record of 136.358mph (219.447kmh) on his BWM M1000RR (the clip above shows the mental footage from the bike!). Mind you, this is across a daunting 37.73-mile-long track! His number of wins is now at 13, and he can also claim to have set the fastest-ever sector times across all six sectors of the lap.
Editorial note: All images in this article are used with permission of and provided by the Isle of Man TT organisatio.