THERE have been many changes to the Isle of Man TT since I was last here in 2019 - among them the loss of the iconic scoreboard and the Manx Radio track commentary boxes around the course which were so much part of the coverage of the races.
I know that we have to move on, and that changes are inevitable, but the new era is somewhat hard to get used to, as the whole format of the famous race is missing the coverage for the “lower riders” and the stories of the legendary Roy Moore, which were really worthwhile to listen to, and informative.
We now see TT live coverage on a phone app, but what seems to be missing are the large number of fans that were anticipated after the three-year lay-off. Is this coverage part of the problem?
I also spoke to race fans who are not going to the TT after many years attending, and they blame the cost of getting to the island, the cost of accommodation, and the lack of it as well. Car hire is also a gripe of mine, but thanks to Noel Williamson and Phil Nightingale I had transport to get me around, which is badly needed for such a long course.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still a large number of fans here, especially from continental Europe, and more so from France, but with the UK extra bank holiday I, and so many more, thought that the island would be crammed with road race starved fans.
The pubs are quiet, as are the restaurants, but thankfully the weather, so far, has held up for the qualifying week, and the first Superbike race day.
One sad part of the TT that hasn’t gone away is the fatalities, and on Wednesday evening qualifying we sadly lost a young Welsh rider, Mark Purslow, when he crashed at the unforgiving Ballagarey section of the course. This tricky and very fast part of the 37.75-mile course has claimed a number of lives in the past few years.
Mark was a former winner of the Manx Grand Prix over the same course in 2015, and was competing at the TT for the second time.
Just under a mile after the start of the second race on Saturday, the Sidecar race one, the French outfit of Cesar Chanel and passenger Olivier Lavorel crashed just past Ago’s Leap, and tragically Lavorel died from his injuries, with Chanel airlifted to Aintree Hospital in a critical condition.
The race was abandoned after this, and was due to be rerun on Monday. The pair, newcomers to the TT, were 15th fastest in practice and had been moved to a higher starting position prior to the start of the race, having lapped at 108.240mph. They were very experienced and had numerous wins under their belts in the French F1 and F2 championships.
We also saw our own Micko Sweeney crash at the 11th Milestone during Tuesday qualifying, and he was airlifted to Nobles hospital, but released after scans, with heavy bruising.
I spoke to Micko and he said: “I really don’t know what happened, as I was just starting to change direction going into the 11th when down I went. Luckily I went down the middle of the road, but while there are no broken bones I am really sore, with plenty of bruising.”
Micko went back out in practice on Wednesday evening after being passed fit by the medical team.
The first race on the programme was the six-lap Superbike race, and it was the 100th TT start for 23-time TT winner John McGuinness. His Honda team had a special Fireblade ready for him to race, to mark this special occasion.
The 50-year-old Morecambe rider finished in fifth place but was unable to add to his 48 podium places.
The fastest rider in qualifying, Peter Hickman, started as favourite and led through Glen Helen on the opening lap, with Davy Todd 0.6 second adrift and Dean Harrison a further 0.3sec in arrears. Conor Cummins was in fourth, 1.2 seconds behind Harrison, with Michael Dunlop and James Hillier completing the top six.
By Ramsey, Harrison was leading on the road and up to second, albeit just as Todd was only 0.004sec further back in third. Cummins was still well in touch though, only seven tenths behind teammate Todd, but it was still Hickman in the lead and, indeed, he’d extended his lead to six seconds.
The BMW rider continued to build on his lead and with an opening lap of 133.17mph he was 9.3 seconds clear of Harrison and it was now Cummins in third, just under half a second clear of Todd. Dunlop was fifth and it was now Gary Johnston in sixth. Newcomer Glen Irwin, who improved during qualifying, was 11th after a first lap speed of 128.12mph.
By Glen Helen on lap two Hickman had increased his lead over Harrison to 11.9sec and he, in turn, had eked out a bit more time over Cummins, the gap between the two now 2.5sec. There was little to choose between the Manxman and Todd, but the latter’s race soon ended in a retirement at Sulby. The North West saga over Dunlop tyres raised its ugly head once more, and despite the Dunlop company withdrawing its slick tyres and giving the riders a harder compound treaded tyre, Todd was extremely lucky when his tyre was ripped to pieces just before the 190+mph Sulby straight, that could have spelled another disaster.
That promoted Michael Dunlop to fourth, with Johnston and Hillier now in fifth and sixth. None of them, though, could do anything about Hickman who was stretching his advantage at each and every timing sector. Indeed, with a lap of 133.461mph, he arrived at the pits for his first pit stop at the end of lap two with a lead of 16.8sec over Harrison.
Dunlop was third, though, as Cummins was out, having stopped just after the Creg, and fourth to sixth was now occupied by Johnston, Hillier and Coward.
Irwin had moved up to ninth after lapping at 128.32mph, but Johnston didn’t get much further as he retired at Quarter Bridge at the start of lap three.
It was proving to be a race of attrition, with all the Southern Irish riders retiring, including Brian McCormack, Derek Sheils, Micko Sweeney, Mike Browne and Thomas Maxwell, with Manx Grand Prix winner James Chawke not allowed to start as the organisers said his qualifying speed wasn’t fast enough.
At half race distance, Hickman was up to second on the road, having overtaken Dunlop at Windy Corner, and his lead over Harrison had moved out again to 22.8 seconds. Dunlop was a further 18.5 seconds back and McGuinness was up to fourth, albeit only three quarters of a second ahead of Hutchinson.
At the sharp end, and with a comfortable advantage, Hickman was controlling his lead, extending it to more than half a minute with two laps to go, but Dunlop tracked him for the entire fourth lap and that helped him cut the gap to Harrison from 18 seconds down to just six.
The battle for fourth was still wide open too, with only 13 seconds separating McGuinness, Hutchinson, Coward and Hillier. Irwin continued to hold on to eighth after another new personal best of 128.49mph.
There was to be no late drama for Hickman, and after two more trouble-free laps he duly took the chequered flag by almost 40 seconds, whilst Harrison responded to Dunlop’s threat to get the better of the 19-time TT winner by more than 17 seconds.
The race for fourth went the way of Hutchinson from McGuinness, with Coward, Hillier, Irwin, Anderson and Michael Rutter completing the top 10.
It was a very impressive Irwin who became the fastest ever TT newcomer, lapping the final 37.75 miles at 129.849mph, and taking home a silver replica, which is an amazing feat.
The Carrickfergus rider said: “I was so nervous going out today and I couldn’t even talk, but once I was on the bike I was fine.
“I kept watching my boards and saw that I was in 12th on lap one, so that was more than what I thought, and I just chipped away.
“On the last lap I had a go, as the bike and tyre were working well, but to break the newcomer record in the first race was something that I didn’t expect at all.”
Keep ‘er lit!