Column: Is it harder to win a TT than it was twenty years ago?

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There is nothing that provokes fiercer debate than trying to make comparisons between different eras of Isle of Man TT racing. Even the most mealy-mouthed opinion is enough to spark a row amongst aficionados of the world’s top road race.

I was party to such a debate amongst journalists at a launch event in Belfast last week. The two protagonists were implacably divided on whether or not we are currently in the midst of the toughest era ever to win a TT race.

 “There were ten men who could win a TT a few years ago but today you could almost pick the top three in every class.” was the strong retort to the suggestion.

“It is just a lot of hype to say that it is harder to win a TT now than ever before.”

Is it possible that the event’s recent resurgence and the hyperbole of headlines celebrating events such as Bruce Anstey’s breaking of the 132mph barrier in 2014 has dimmed our appreciation of former TT achievements?

Although I am no statistician, I decided to test the assumptions by, as my accountant often says, ‘running some numbers’.

I tried to make a roughly ‘like for like’ comparison by looking at events from two five year periods of TT racing over the last two decades that share certain parallels.

The period between 1996 and 2000 saw the end of the Joey Dunlop and Phillip McCallen Honda domination of the event and the beginning of David Jefferies’ glory years. The 2010-2014 TTs have seen Michael Dunlop supercede John McGuinness as the current star of the TT.

In 1996 McCallen was the first rider to win four TTs in a week, in 2014 Dunlop became the first man to accomplish the same feat twice.

Speeds have risen relentlessly over those 20 years. In 1996 the outright lap record stood at 123.61 mph, set by Carl Fogarty in 1992. It was seven years before Jim Moodie moved it on to 124.45mph in 1999. The following year David Jefferies broke the 125mph barrier.

Assisted by some significant course changes in the interim, John McGuinness shattered established the first 130mph lap during the centenary celebrations of 2007. From 2010 until 2014 the record became stuck in the 131mph groove until Anstey’s new record last year.

Perhaps more important, in both of the five year periods I’ve analysed, all of the superbike races have been dominated by four stroke machinery. These bikes have been largely based upon production road bikes rather than factory built specials.

Maths was never my strong point at school and I will admit that this is a pretty rudimentary effort at statistical analysis; more the back of a fag packet approach than Price Waterhouse methods! I compared the results of the 19 superbike races run over the two periods, that is the 1996-2000 Formula One and Senior events and the 2010-2014 Superbike and Senior TTs.

Eleven different riders stood on the podiums of the 1996- 2000 races compared to just nine between 2010 and 2014. (The non-running of the Senior in 2012 should be taken into consideration here though.)

The average winning margin in the five Formula One races between 1996 and 2000 was 44 seconds, dropping to 33 seconds in the Superbike TTs run between 2010-14.

In the four Senior TTs in the later period the average winning margin was just over 17 seconds, about five seconds a race less than in the events run in the earlier period.

From these figures the claim that you could ‘pick the podium’ of most big bike TT races before the start nowadays is not any truer now than it would have been 20 years ago. But there is little doubt that these same races are becoming tighter affairs that are now harder to win.

What really seals the deal on the premise that TT races are more closely contested currently than they were 15-20 years ago is the decreasing margins between the winner and the riders who finish further down the field.

The average gap between first and tenth in all of the superbike TT races run between 1996-2000 compared with those run from 2010 until 2014 has dropped by an average of just over one minute, from four to five minutes. The gap between 1st and 20th has fallen by an average of 1min 30secs over the same periods.

This simple study would seem to suggest two things: that the overall quality of the TT field HAS risen in the last 20 years And that the competition for a TT podium finish IS becoming fiercer.

It is news that at least one of those journos at that breakfast table isn’t going to be happy about!

Stephen Davison

By Stephen Davison

Biographer of John McGuinness & road racing's foremost writer & photographer