“How long have I even been racing? I think my first year was in 1989,” a perplexed Michael Rutter responded when I asked how he’s still going almost 30 years from that debut season.
I’d hazard a guess that the 17-year-old Michael Rutter that followed in his father’s wheel-tracks didn’t expect to still be racing, and winning, some 28 years later at the ripe old age of 45. At least, that’s how old we think he is – his age may well have got lost in the years of trying to haggle the best possible British Superbike ride as he moved into his mid and late thirties.
From short circuit racing to road racing, British Superbikes to Grand Prix, Rutter has been there and done it all and generally been pretty successful at whatever he’s turned his hand to.
This year, he won the Lightweight race at the Isle of Man TT (as well as the North West 200), his first petrol-powered win on the mountain course in 19 years. It’s not just on the roads he’s still enjoying success either. Last year he finished fourth in the National Superstock 1000 championship – against many racers young enough to be his kids – with four podiums and a win. He also sits third in this year’s championship chase with two rounds to go.
We went for a pint with the veteran ace to find out how, and why, he’s still at it…
Michael, why the hell are you still racing at your age?!
That’s a good question, I sometimes have to ask myself. Luckily, I’ve got a really good team around me, Bathams have been funding it, and for the last seven years it’s been really enjoyable to go racing as I’ve been able to do my own thing and go in whichever direction I choose.
Roger Marshall once said to me that the biggest mistake he ever made was giving up racing. He told me to make sure I was 100% sure it was right for me when I chose to give up, but even when I’ve had a shit year I’ve had something to enjoy. If the short circuits have been shit then road racing has been alright so that’s kept me going I think. You get so much satisfaction in getting paid to race a bike.
In Superstock you’re racing against some lads young enough to be your son?
It’s frightening. I remember looking up at people like Hislop, Terry Rymer and those sorts and thinking ‘look how old they look, why are they still going the silly sods?’ but when you are at that age you still feel the same!
The biggest thing for me is if you’re going for an overtake you think about it instead of just doing it. It annoys you a bit because before you’d just do it.
Do you not question your sanity racing against the kids that perhaps aren’t thinking as much as you might before those overtakes?
You do watch them and you think ‘oh my god’. You have to laugh though because I was exactly the same. You can see them doing things and all they need to do is just slow down a bit and they’ll find a second a lap! We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it and you learn with age.
What do you make of their sunglasses and flat-peak caps?
They all go through stages, but we’ve all been there! Some of it is sponsorship, but it’s definitely that kind of era. It’s not as bad these days but there was a period about five or six years ago where everybody had to look like Tom Cruise.
Your riding style doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years…
That’s the problem, it hasn’t! That’s what holds me back massively now. In 2000/02/03 you could get away with loads of corner speed, lean angle and using the side of the tyre. If I’ve got grip on the side of the tyre I’m OK.
All this moving around the bike, sitting the bike up, I’ve tried to do it. Every time I go into a corner I try to get myself to sit it up but I’m stuck in my old ways.
I brake with my whole hand too! Years ago, you couldn’t stop the thing without pulling on the lever like hell so I really can’t get used to using just two fingers. I went around in Spain for a whole week just trying to use two fingers as we’d worked out I was losing so many tenths of a second in going for the lever in a corner! It didn’t go so well, so I thought sod it!
Do you regret not winning BSB in 2004?
Which year was 2004? Reynolds? Oh god. That was the closest I ever came. It was a funny old year that, we had the best bike on the grid by far, we had the best tyres by far for most of the circuits.
It was the first time HRC had really put loads into BSB and we were expected to win. Honda are so stubborn in their ways, brilliant in others, but we had some problems.
Another element was the Michelins. When they worked they were a tyre from God. They were amazing, but unfortunately when they don’t work there’s no warning or anything like that it’ll just throw you on the floor.
They basically took an artic lorry full of tyres for me and Kiyo. The tyre bill was £450,000 for the year! That’s the kind of effort they put in to it.
Qualifying at Thruxton was a big turning point, I was doing quite well but we had this special tyre and I had two big warnings. It came down to the last few minutes and I got my head down and the thing flung me through my air and I displaced one collarbone and cracked the other. I raced the same day but it wasn’t great, that put us a bit behind.
Tady Okada also said if I was going to win a championship I had to win it myself, there’d be no help from Kiyo. Kiyo beat me as much as I beat him, so there were no team orders to help out at the end of the season and there were a few meetings where if I’d had a bit of help it could have been different.
That was a trick bike, wasn’t it?
They were amazing. The Suzuki was very close, but the Honda was better. I rode John’s bike last year and couldn’t believe how good it was, but the Honda just had that special thing with HRC. All the Japanese were around you and it’d give you that bit of a boost.
How much of an influence was your father in racing?
Massive. I’d been to most circuits in England and the roads and some around the world before I even started. I grew up through it and it’s amazing to be part of that, seeing both the highs and the lows. Dad went through a horrific crash in 1995 that put me off quite a lot. I’ve seen the up sides to racing but I’ve definitely seen the downsides too, when you’re adjusting bolts in your Dad’s head, it’s pretty horrendous.
Is he surprised you’re still winning?
I think he is in some ways, but he also asks me what’s gone wrong every time I finish third or whatever when I think I’ve had a good day!
What’s your favourite racing memory?
Short circuits, probably World Superbikes at Brands Hatch in 1997. I was on my V&M Honda and we qualified way down. I can’t remember where we finished in the first race but the second race was a two-part race, dry and then it rained. Luckily about two weeks before we had had a wet race at Brands Hatch so we already had a good setting. I had absolutely nothing to lose and started to over-take people and found myself in P3!
I got behind Foggy, he was leading, and I didn’t want to pass him! If I’d taken him out I’d have been shot. I followed him round for two laps but he was holding me up so I thought sod it I’ll go past him, got my head down and pulled a bit of a gap. Foggy was one of my heroes so to pass him at Brands with all that crowd. Beating Kocinski on the factory bike, he was devastated, he wouldn’t even get on the podium, he was not happy at all. [Rutter finished third on aggregate.
What did you learn from your year in Grand Prix?
You need a good bike. To be fair to the team, they put in all their own money and it cost him an absolute fortune, but it didn’t work. I remember Kenny Roberts Jnr pulling out of the pits on the Suzuki as I was coming down the straight at Paul Ricard on a flying lap and he’d passed me by the end of the straight. I was something like 30mph down, I had absolutely no chance.
I stuck at it though. Every season I’ve tried to finish what I’ve started. I wanted to do every GP, and I did. I nearly had a chance at testing the Red Bull Yamaha and you only need one bit of luck. If I’d had a go on one I could have gone a lot better than I did on that thing.
Was racing better 20 years ago?
I was very lucky in my era as the money was good. Until about 2005/06, when someone asked me to ride for them the question was how much are they paying me! Now they’re asking how much you can bring! It’s a completely different world, there are a handful of riders doing alright but it’s criminal when you think how hard others try and that it’s costing them to be there.
How much longer can you go on?
It depends what I’m doing. I think on the roads, if I still enjoy it, I can do it for a few more years. Short circuits are getting more difficult, I’ve got a brilliant team and a brilliant bike, but I could do with being 20 years younger sometimes! The bike is capable of winning, sometimes I’m not!
I’d quite like to find someone who can take over from me and do what I’m doing, but it’s so difficult to find someone who can do a bit of both and be competitive. It’d be good to find someone from the Midlands area too!
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