You can’t underestimate how hard it is to compete at the Isle of Man TT.
It’s a mammoth task, and it’s almost impossible to convey with mere words the sheer scale of the mountain they have climbed, figuratively, and over the top of the island.
But forget about the riding for a second; the logistics, planning and organisation alone are an enormous nightmare. Then you have to build the bike, prepare for every eventuality, then transport your travelling circus to a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. Teams start planning their next TT on the ferry home, and this explains how Norton is already working on TT 2015, just days after packing TT 2014 back into the trucks.
Most teams in the paddock start with a basic set up and production bike. They know the road bikes work, so it becomes a matter of developing the changes needed to make it TT-ready. The big teams will have set-up data from previous years and will share data with short circuit ateams, too.
Norton doesn’t have that luxury. There is no road bike to evolve into a racer for the Donington Hall-based firm, no race teams to compare notes with, and while it has data from 2013, the 2014 bike was almost all-new. Cameron Donald is a vastly experienced road racer, but the first time he rode the bike at speed on the road was on the first lap of practice week at the TT.
Most teams had already competed at the North West 200, worked on their gearing and stability, and found their base settings. But not Norton. If racing the TT is comparable to climbing Mount Everest, Norton is trying to ascend the Kangshung Face, wearing flip flops.
Practice is the key to the TT, you have to get laps under your belt; I know this from three years racing at the TT. Each lap you push a little harder, try different lines, try another gear, a different braking point, take a corner that little bit faster. And the bike’s set-up is always evolving as your pace quickens. The bike which started practice week won’t be the same one that finishes race week. Norton was up against it, bad weather and mechanical gremlins all hampering progress, and allowing just five practice laps before the first race – nothing in TT terms. Their uphill struggle had suddenly gone vertical.
The speed of progress
Norton didn’t have the TT it wanted, leaving with two DNFs, and a best lap of 124mph. Those are the facts that will always sit in black and white on the results sheet, but they’re not the story.
They know it’s an on-going project, and there are always positives to take from the TT. An average lap of 124mph isn’t slow, and before Cameron
Donald pulled in, he was on target for a 126mph lap. Top speed was a big factor in their woes. Through the Sulby Speed traps the SG3 recorded 177mph, around 15mph down on the top teams, and slower than some
Speed and power are your best friends at the TT, and 10 seconds equates to roughly 1mph, so if Norton had comparable top speed, they’d have averaged more like 128mph, if not more.
Back at Norton HQ at Donington Park less than 72 hours after the TT finished, the small, and very tired, race team is already working on the 2015 bike. Thankfully I arrived just in time to stop them stripping the SG3, strapped on a trade plate, and nosed this Senior TT race bike out of the factory workshop and into rush-hour traffic.
I’m tired and jaded, two weeks and three races at the TT takes it out of you, not forgetting the week prior to that spent racing at the North West 200. Just 48 hours ago I was on the ferry returning from the Isle of Man, and now I’m trying to fit my battered and bruised body back into a set of race leathers to ride Norton’s priceless Senior TT prototype race machine. But if I ever needed waking up then the SG3 is the bike to do it!
Wow it’s angry, I mean really angry. The V4 is snarling through its
unsilenced ceramic-coated system, tearing at my ear drums. It’s an aggressively angry tide of noise, the revs rising so quickly from every blip of the fly-by-wire throttle. If the SG3 was a dog it would be a bulldog that’s just been kicked in the nuts. I can’t remember ever climbing on-board a bike with so much barely-contained aggression. You have to love it for that.
One click up on the race pattern shift and I’m into first gear, and immediately glad the race bike has no mirrors so I can’t see Stuart’s [Garner, Norton’s owner] worried expression as I pull away from the factory, readying myself to unleash their priceless race bike on the road.
I progressively feed in the throttle up the steep rise away from the stunning backdrop of Donington Hall, shattering the stately silence of this quintessentially British scene. The Cosworth dash is only reading 4000rpm, and my ear drums are already protesting.
Getting away with it
At the end of the long driveway there’s a small straight which leads away from the main hall. The sensible part of my brain thinks I should take it steady, but the devil in me is whispering ‘give it some’, and I can’t resist. I give it a handful in first gear, and tuck in behind the huge TT bubble. The surge is immediate; hold the throttle open and dab down on the quick-shifter. Oh my god. The backfire from the quick-shifter is like a gun shot, revs rising so fast, the noise flooding my senses. I love it. I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike which was so immediately involving, angry, loud and entertaining. It’s AC/DC at their best, with the amps turned up to 11.
It sounds just as good on the overrun, popping and banging as the mighty Brembo radial stoppers pull its nose down to the Tarmac. There’s a slight delay as you close the throttle, and the revs hover around 4000rpm for a second, but you still only need a solitary finger on the Brembos at normal road speeds.
There’s no conventional rear brake, just a thumb lever on the left bar, there to help control wheelies around the TT course while keeping the throttle pinned simultaneously over the many jump and crests. This works well at the TT, but not when you’re trying to execute a hill start away from the traffic lights in town.
But the SG3 is surprisingly tame in town, the suspension isn’t as harsh as you’d expect, plush even in the first part of the stroke, smoothing little imperfections in the road really well. I’ve ridden road bikes that are worse. The wide seat is a little high, the steering lock limited, but it’s not unrideable.
The biggest problem the race bike has in town, beyond inducing cardiac arrest in passers by, is overheating. It was designed to be ridden around the TT circuit flat out, not in traffic light GPs. The temperature gauge soon starts to read alarmingly hot – and the frame joins in, cooking my danglies like some sort of medieval torture machine. It’s time to get on the open road.
Heads nearly spin off shoulders as I pass the Donington Park circuit, Download festival-goers drunkenly cheering as I blip the throttle and head for the open countryside.
Don’t be fuelish
Obviously I can’t push the SG3 too hard on the open road, but I’m not testing the handling limits, this is all about the experience. The riding position is very relaxed, almost old-school, think RC45 or early Blade. You are very much in the bike, wrapped around the fuel tank, rather than perched on top. The bars are wide and comfortable, the pegs low and rear-set. It’s comfortable.
The steering is a little slow, and at under 100mph the suspension isn’t really working hard enough, I’m nowhere near the bike’s limits, and I have no intention of trying to find them with so many police encircling Donington.
With no sidestand, or team of race mechanics waiting at a fuel stop, I judged what I thought to be its range, and started to thread back through the countryside towards Norton HQ. I didn’t want to risk the humiliation of running it dry, or trying to negotiate a fuel stop solo at the local Shell garage.
It’s just the beginning
There are many who will jump on the bandwagon to kick Norton while they’re down. Yes, the team hasn’t achieved the desired results yet – but they have achieved so much else, and deserve to be applauded. This is just the beginning of a long-term assault on the island.
The SG3 looks amazing, sounds scary and packs plenty of power. I really like the balanced feel and stance, its wide bars, low pegs, and big seat. I just wish I could have a real go on a closed road, rather than dodging commuters and the long arm of the law.
But for now this is all I’ve got. And the memory will never leave me.