Isle of Man TT blog: Has the future of the TT changed?

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Has the future of the TT changed forever after Wednesday’s Supersport debacle?
Early morning rain delayed the start of the race and there were still damp patches reported around the course when everyone homed in the revised race start.

A decision was taken to run the parade lap with Nicky Hayden, Mick Doohan and co, ahead of the first race (originally it was later in the day) and while this was happening four of the top riders were voicing their concerns over the organisers’ decision to go ahead with a revised 12.30pm race start.

John McGuinness, never happy in patchy wet conditions on the TT course (and who can blame him?), Keith Amor, Bruce Anstey and Guy Martin were all worried about the prospects of being flat out on dry tarmac one second, slithering across a wet patch the next. It doesn’t take much imagination to contemplate the potential for a major accident.

McGuinness said, “I thought there was a unwritten rule that we didn’t race around here in the wet.”

He was starting number one and effectively the pace setter, the one with the scary prospect to encounter the wet first. How do you pace yourself for that on a raging 600 supersport that had hard compound tyres with virtually no tread to dissipate the water?

“They’re saying it’s only wet under the trees,” he added. “Well, that’s the point. We’ve been in there (the race office) and discussed things but it’s rained since then.”

Amor was more outspoken and said: “Us four don’t want to go. There’s too many damp patches. You could go into a corner at 140mph, hit a damp patch and it’s all over.”

Anstey agreed with McGuinness. “Like John said, wet patches are not good for any of us. We’re trying to get them to delay it (the start).”

And Martin agreed but added, “If they (the other three) don’t go, I don’t go. We’ve got to stick together on this.”

All of them went. McGuinness was clearly uneasy, leaving it to the last minute to get his gear on and bike to the line. And as we watched the riders set off, TT winner and outright race record holder Steve Plater said: “Without seeing the track it’s hard to know but if there’s any doubt, you shouldn’t go.”

Relentless by TAS boss Philip Neill added: “I agree with Steve but in this day and age I think the top riders should go out and look at the circuit if there’s any doubt. What’s the harm in taking say five of them in course cars? They could easily have tagged onto the back of the parade lap. If anything happens now to any rider it’s going to be seen as a bad decision.”

Clive Padgett though had a different view. “It’s a tough call. It’s half reasonable on track. I’ve rung people around various points on the course ad I think it’s better than we’re led to believe.”

The majority of riders obviously felt it was safe to go because there had their race faces on and were focussed on heading off down Bray Hill while McGuiness was still pulling his gloves on.

Typically Michael Dunlop and William Dunlop led the charge on the first lap – 1.9s separating them - and when everyone, bar luckless Gary Johnson who pitted with a misfire, flashed past the timing beam on the Glencrutchery Road, we had an interesting race on our hands with Manxman Dan Kneen up to fifth.

But then came news that Amor was off at Union Mills – but thankfully okay. That was followed by a red flag just after the leaders had gone through Ballaugh with Michael Dunlop leading William by 10.68s but all the other top men had lost over half a minute! What?

Amor’s crash was caused by rain. But his off was just one part of massively dramatic few seconds. McGuinness: “Cameron was leading on the road from Guy and I don’t know how or why, but I could almost smell the change in the air as we hit Union Mills. I thought it might be rain, you can pick up the smell off the wet leaves in the air, and then I saw that little sheen on Cameron’s and Guy’s rear tyres that said rain.

“I rolled it, sat the bike up and slowed. As I did that, Cameron did a flying W in front of me and Guy was off the side of his bike. If they’d been on superbikes, they’d have been off. I was already picking where I was going to thread through the wreckage.

“I had a rear-facing camera on my bike and when Keith went down behind me, his bike was about this far (indicates an inch with his finger and thumb) from taking me out. We could have lost four top riders in one go because of a bad decision upstairs (in race control).”

McGuinness’ rival competitors had similar views but others weren’t so happy. Michael Dunlop shrugged his shoulders to his crew when he came back to the pits. “It wasn’t too bad. There were a few who had big slides. Just jam the wheels in the kerb, she’ll be alright!”

His brother wasn’t so outspoken. “I’m disappointed to have lost second place but it as right to stop it. But should we have stared it in the first place, knowing the rain was coming?”

Donald was still getting over seeing his life flash in front of him. He said: “I came through Union Mills on the first lap and the lack of adhesion flags were out. They were still out on lap two but you have black tar under trees and it was impossible to see any change from the first lap.”

And that’s what put him, Martin, Amor and McGuinness in such a dangerous position. Changing conditions but still the same flag signals.

Ian Lougher, probably the most experienced TT rider in the race, came up with what sounded like a good suggestion. He said: I had no idea anyone was complaining about starting the race. I thought the first lap was okay – I didn’t have one slide - and it was a good decision to stop it. I’d like to see the reinstatement of the ‘wet’ flag we used to have in the Nineties.”

Clerk of the Course Eddie Nelson didn’t agree.

On the face of it, he was the man making decisions but when I asked him why he started the race, against the recommendations of the TT’s leading four competitors, he said: “No one told me that the riders were complaining until after we had red-flagged the race.

“I wanted to start the race at the correct time but I was asked to hold it and run the parade lap instead. And it was a race management decision to start the race when we did.”

So how come the Clerk of the Course is not the one making these decisions – and who is ‘race management’ if it’s not him? I can’t answer for that for sure because Nelson didn’t want to be drawn further – but ultimately ACU Events is meant to run the racing while the Isle of Man Government’s job is to promote it. Is the fine line that separates the two merging?

I heard gossip that the race day schedules have to accommodate the Subaru rally car demo. It’s absolutely sacrosanct. I know they back the TT with course cars but surely the racing takes precedence ?

What’s more worrying is how come Nelson didn’t know about the rider protest? It was only late in the evening that John McGuinness revealed to me that he and the others had taken the matter up with Jim Parker, the Race Director. So don’t these two long-serving ACU officials talk to each other?

I put it to Nelson, a massively experienced Clerk of the Course, whether events like today could be averted in future by the implementation of new rule that says, there is no racing on the Mountain course in damp or wet conditions.

But Nelson replied: “The track is nearly 40 miles long. If we are now saying we have to have it bone dry all the way around the course….how many races would we actually be able to run?”

It’s a good point – but one which McGuinness would argue. It’s easy to harp back to the past and say there was never any question of running races in adverse conditions but in the black and white era bikes like Giacomo Agostini’s 500-3 MV Agusta had probably 80bhp compared to the modern supersport bike with 145bhp. And the corner speed of a modern 600 is actually higher than a superbike!
So what about a rain flag? Nelson is adamant on this one too: “The lack of adhesion flag is exactly that. To indicate to the rider that there is a lack of adhesion. If it’s held out for a second lap – there is still a lack of adhesion.”

While I understand what Nelson is saying – I also know from what the riders said, once you’ve been through the corner and seen only damp patches, how on earth can you know that the next lap around, 17-18 minutes later - whether it’s the same as before or now standing water?

The other big question is why on earth wasn’t the race simply delayed until later in the day when conditions improved?

Nelson said: “At 3.30pm it was lovely at the Grandstand but pouring with rain in Ramsey. I had a decision to make and with rain at that time, do I say leave the marshals on the Mountain until 6.00pm in the hope that the roads dry out or do we just call a halt to it and try again tomorrow? I have to think of them.”

Good point – especially poignant after he had to make public apology for saying the marshals on the Mountain should stop whingeing about the amount of time they were locked in the during practice week. 

But as McGuiness said that evening: “Look at the weather now. It’s 6.30pm. We were out on track at this time the other night. We could be racing now.”

Don’t get me wrong, the TT is not only the most demanding race track in the world, it presents race organisers with some incredibly unique situations that demand tough decisions.

Nelson had to make so really difficult calls today – hampered, it seems to me, by some outside forces. But maybe the TT has always been that way.

The thing is, when riders stand up and quite rightly say, ‘we don’t think this is safe,’ someone has to take notice because any accident thereafter would really put a lot of people in a difficult position.

This is nothing new. We saw it at the North West 200 a couple weeks back when some leading riders dragged their bikes off the grid claiming the wet conditions made it unsafe but the organisers still gave the depleted grid the green light. The issue there was one of visibility. But it all adds up to the same thing: rider safety.

And the more this happens, the more you have to question whether it is actually acceptable to start a race in such conditions. And, if that’s the case, the TT organisers (both race direction and promoters) have to take a serious look at exactly what the ground rules are.

Read the latest stories causing a buzz this week in Sport…

Gary Pinchin

By Gary Pinchin