You want to win as many TT races as the Padgetts? Mike Nicks takes a lap with Mountain circuit guru Clive to find the team's formula for success
he alarm goes at 5.30am in my Snoozebox portable hotel in Nobles Park, and at 6am I'm on the Glencrutchery Road, where Clive Padgett pulls over in the Valvoline Padgetts team van. We're going to drive a lap of the 37.73-mile Mountain circuit in the calm post-dawn hour, before Clive supervises final checks on the Honda CBR600s that Bruce Anstey, Cameron Donald and Dan Kneen will ride in the Supersport TT later in the morning.
Why are we doing this, when he must have so much else on his mind (there are seven motorcycles - Superbikes, Superstocks and Supersports - in the Padgetts TT stable this year)? Its because I want to get to the heart of a mystery that fascinates me - just what is the secret of the Padgett equipe's success? This family-and-friends team, operating from the unfashionable streets of Batley, Yorkshire, has won so many TTs that they've lost count of the total, and consistently humbles factory outfits and more lavishly funded private squads around the Mountain circuit. What is it that the Padgetts doing that others seem unable to achieve?
"Of course you want to be smooth and fast away from here, but you don't want to wreck the clutch - you know you've six laps to do on the big bike," Clive says, as he gets the Vauxhall Movano under way from the startline.
"When was the first time you came to the Isle of Man," I ask him.
"When I was born," he says. You can't tell whether he's serious or not.
"This is an important sector in terms of machine prep," he continues, talking about the dive down Bray Hill. "Where the bike bottoms out here, you're over to the right - boom! - and the fairing's touched the ground. Bruce comes past the start at 176, 178 or so, and he doesn't roll going down the hill, so he's in that area at the bottom.
"They used to time it there some years ago, and I remember that back in the days of the RGs (Suzuki RG500’s) John Williams came through at about 165mph, 20 years ago. I remember we were having a real great battle against Cam Donald back in 2008 with John on our bike in the Senior, and Cam bottomed out there and broke the crankcases on the Suzuki. He finished second and we won, but oil was blathered all over his bike.
"Down into Quarter Bridge now, hard on the brakes, and on the first lap you've a full fuel load of 23 litres of gas. It's a first gear corner that you can't gain a lot on, but you could throw the race away there by tucking the front."
How many people have the Padgetts got in the island to maintain the seven bikes, I ask "I'd have to count that up - I really don't know." The team has racked up another TT victory during the week, with Anstey taking the Superbike win on his CBR1000, but Clive does not keep a record of how many TTs in total the dynasty has claimed.
"We've never added it up," he says "But we've had wins from the sixties up to now. An Irishman who follows us and is good on stats told us that from the last 36 races that we've done around the Island, we've won 12 of them. A 33% win rate - incredible."
But how can a private team so consistently out-perform manufacturer teams?
"Get up early," he says. "And go to bed late. I don't mean to be clever, but it's just what I do. I think about the TT every day. In some way there's always something that I do that ends up working towards the end goal. I'm more passionate than most. No, I'm not passionate - I'm obsessed!"
But there are other team owners, crew chiefs and technicians who are also obsessed with racing. What is the secret Padgetts ingredient, I persist.
"It's a huge team effort," Clive continues patiently. "Not just from the lads on the island, but everyone back home. We're a bike shop selling Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki from three shops on the Bradford Road in Batley, and we couldn't go racing without the staff back there. You want a part that's back at home, you call and the guys get it over to you for the next morning. It's that infrastructure."
By now our van is making its steady progress through Crosby, another of the TT circuit's searingly fast sections. What is the maximum time, I wonder that a superbike engine is held on full throttle on the Mountain circuit?
"It's something I can't tell you because we don't run data-logging," Clive says, "because it's heavy, it's something else that can fall off, and it's something else you have to analyse. Bruce Anstey's our data-logger. And before that it was Ian Hutchinson, John McGuinness and Steve Plater. You do a lap as we're doing now, and the guys talk to you and tell you what they're seeing and feeling. You can't just take a piece of paper and draw a lap of the Mountain circuit as you might at a BSB meeting."
"Just passing the Highlander now and coming into Greeba Castle - a very, very fast section and it's somewhere that only the very experienced guys get so right, Clive continues. "It's real critical this section to Ballacraine and Glen Helen if you want to creep into the 131s. The guys that are doing 129mph laps are running from the start to Glen Helen five or six second slower than the quickest guys."
There's no safety margin anywhere on this circuit, I reflect. "No, there isn't," Clive agrees. "It's the most unforgiving race course in the world, and you've just got to hope that your riders get it right. I don't ask any rider to commit to riding for Padgetts, they ask us. That gives me some solace."
What is the key to bike set-up at the TT, when there are so many contrasting sections, I wonder. "Chassis and suspension, building a strong motorcycle, and downloading data from your rider," he says. "And experience. This year Bruce hasn't made one millimetre of change - nothing whatsoever - to any of his three bikes. Each one he has ridden as it was wheeled out of the van. It was the same working with John McGuinness for eight years. After the first couple of years, when you'd got his bikes in the zone, it wasn't necessary to try and reinvent the motorcycle."
How long does it take a rider to learn the Mountain circuit sufficiently to get on the podium?
"If you take the likes of Steve Plater, three years,'" Clive says. "But it's a continuous process. If you ask Bruce, I think he'd say that in some areas he's still learning it (Anstey rode in his first TT in 1996). You have to relearn things as motorcycles get quicker, and brakes, tyres and chassis improve. You may have to change a line because the bike's working differently."
At Bishopscourt, 16 miles out from the start, Clive reflects on riders and their differing styles. "This a lovely section, and one that Bruce particularly likes," he says. "When he set the absolute lap record of 132.298mph in 2014, he wasn't actually fastest on any of the six sectors, but he's great on them all. Michael Dunlop is particularly fast from the start to Glen Helen - two or three seconds better than anyone. The bloke's got it right - he understands it and he works it."
How would Clive contrast the approach of Dunlop and Anstey? "Michael probably has the right style for the types of motorcycles he's been on recently," he responds. "Bruce is smooth and our bike is pretty planted most of the time. Michael has had some great wins, but if you watch the bikes they've been dancing about and all over the place. I think his type of style makes that motorcycle work."
Would Michael be better off staying with one manufacturer, instead of changing annually? "I'm sure some continuity, as we've see with Bruce and John, would have to help. But Michael is good at adapting, and I love the guy. You've got to admire what he's done.
"We're now on the fast run out to Quarry Bends," Clive continues. "Even in the van we're feeling the bumps. This is where the guys are stood on the pegs. You're working with the bike and using your thighs to absorb some of the bumps."
We pass the Ginger Hall Hotel, where you can buy a pint of Padgett's Pacer, brewed by a brewery in Skipton, Yorkshire, and we head into Glen Duff. "Twenty-one miles out now, and this is the bumpiest section of the course," Clive says. "Even in the van at 45mph we're joggling and floating about more, and the guys might be doing 150mph in fifth here. We've got trees and banking on the right, and kerbs and trees to the left.
"Everything's a compromise in bike set-up - the Mountain circuit is 211 corners." On that statistic Clive is very precise. "Brakes, chassis, suspension, gearing, gearbox - you have to work out where the biggest gain might be in your compromises."
The TT is the most extreme of all extreme sports, I suggest. "That's right," He agrees. "No airbags round here, yet we're talking MotoGP speeds. This is the Conker Trees section. One of our boys was watching Bruce through here and said he was drifting the bike through. It's an iconic place where they're exiting with a wheelie.
"This is now Milntown Cottage: it's bumpy, the bike's out of shape, you're bouncing around, and it's light-dark, light-dark, through the shadows of the trees."
By now we've gone through Ramsey as Clive continues to download his TT wisdom: "Bruce is in his element on the Mountain section - you can see that when he claws a bit back on every lap. He absolutely loves all the fifth and sixth gear stuff - he considers anything less than 100mph a hairpin! There are sections of the Mountain Mile where the bike hits the rev limiter because you're on the smaller diameter when you're on the side of the tyre, and it changes the gearing.
"This is so lovely up here - it makes you tingle," he continues "When you're running at 180mph you've got to be so precise, and you may have to position the bike differently, not necessarily on the line that you'd like to be on, because of the wind. Sometimes it's so bad that you might have to change your line by maybe three feet."
We approach the Creg, where Anstey ran wide on his 2014 record lap. "He came in a bit and locked the back up," Clive says. "But you always knew he was going to get round the corner, because his head was looking there (Clive points down the road towards Brandish) and not there (looks at the pub ahead of us).
"It's considered that the fastest part of the circuit is the run down here from the Creg to Brandish. We're doing 208, 210mph through this section with the rpm and gearing that we're pulling. Brandish used to be a second gear corner, with the white railings on the inside, but now it's fourth or fifth. What a corner!"
Back at the start, we sip tea as the fast-food stalls behind race control open up at 7.30am. "I wasn't joking when I said I was born here," he muses (spiritually that is - his actual birth took place in Yorkshire). "My dad Peter raced here. My uncle Don raced here. Phil Read won a TT in the 1960s on my dad's bike. I've been brought up around it. A lot of the infrastructure and logistics of the whole TT, it's second nature to our team. Most of our team members have raced and have been here for many years. They have a better understanding of the event and what we should do.
" My wife Susan got up at seven o'clock one morning last week to drive across to Immingham to pick two more fairings, seats and tanks up from the spray place. A friend of mine, a plumber, then brought them across for us in his motorhome. You've loads of people who will help you pull it together. Helen and Fiona, my two daughters, are so passionate about it all."
I revert to the question of the Padgett success formula. "There's no one secret," Clive says. "It's an accumulation of knowledge and skills. We've lost a bit of hair and the eyes are not so good, but we've got more experience. Mick Grant, Paul Smart, Phil Read, Stuart Graham, Malcolm Uphill, Jon Ekerold, Dave Leach, Phillip McCallen, Steve Hislop, Rob McElnea - all these guys have ridden for us. But we're always looking forward - we've done with what we've done.
"I've only slipstreamed my dad and uncle. My dad had the balls to start all this. He borrowed £300, rented some premises, and started selling Norton, AJS and so on. It was his desire to come here. I was brought here, and that's a massive difference."
Clive finishes his tea and prepares to join his team at 8am. "We're Batley boys - we still have pie and peas," he says, as he wanders off. So that's the secret.
Words: Mike Nicks Photos: Pacemaker, Dave Kneen, Bauer Archive