44-year-old 23-time TT winner remains the Superbike and Senior benchmark by which all others are judged
n the first morning of North West 200 practice the television cameras beamed images of a pensive John McGuinness on to the big screens. The 23-times TT winner appeared lost in his thoughts as he waited on the grid for the action to begin.
“I was nervous,” he explained afterwards. “The whole winter’s work, all the testing and the discussions, all the work on the bike and with the mechanics, it was all coming to an end and the season was beginning for real.”
That a rider of McGuinness’s experience, with 26 seasons of competition under his belt, still gets butterflies before the start will offer some comfort to this year’s crop of TT newcomers. However the 44-year-old may suffer a few more nerves on the Glencrutchery Road start line this year as 2016 also represents a very special TT occasion; it will be his 20th year of racing on the Mountain course since his debut in 1996 on a 250cc Honda. Over those two decades the Morecambe man has become a TT legend and he repays that accolade with a deep affection.
“I always think to myself, why do I want to go back?” he reflects. “I’ve done a million laps round here so what’s different to the last lap I did? But then you go out there and it’s just something special, it’s a mega track. I love that it’s just me, the track and the stopwatch. I don’t mind being wheel-to-wheel, but maybe it’s because I’m getting a bit older that I feel a bit safer on my own. It’s always easier to follow, to hook on to the good guys, but it’s part of the challenge of the TT to race on your own. At the North West you could be the fastest rider on the track and still finish sixth. If you are the fastest rider on track at the TT you normally win.”
McGuinness has enjoyed the sweet taste of success 23 times now and has stood on TT podiums more than any other rider in the entire history of the event. Few would disagree that he is the greatest big bike rider to have ever graced the Island’s roads. His Senior victory last year, underwritten by a new outright lap record speed of 132.701mph, equalled Mike Hailwood’s tally of seven Senior victories, but the ever-versatile McGuinness also has seven Superbike TT wins and a Superstock race victory to his credit, too, not to mention two TT Zero wins.
Yet it will be in this year’s Superbike and Senior TTs, the two hardest races to win, that Morecambe’s finest export will be most focused on his quest for further TT glory.
And he will be out on his own, starting at Number 1 on the factory-backed Fireblade. McGuinness has no qualms about having a target on his back as the first rider to set off down Bray Hill. “I have chased people before who aren’t actually going fast,” he recalls. “If you are catching someone and they are not on the pace then you are not on the pace. Psychologically, you think you are flying but you aren’t really, you are just catching someone who is slow. And then if the rider at No. 2 or 3 breaks down, 4, 5 or 6 can get held up with yellow flags, so I’m happy to go off as No. 1. There are no distractions and I just do my own thing.”
Even after 20 years, McGuinness still retains a huge hunger to win and nothing spurs him on as much as any suggestion that he is no longer good enough. A poor performance in last year’s Superbike race, when he finished off the podium in fourth place behind race winner, Bruce Anstey, saw him relegated by the bookies to an 18-1 shot for the grand finale Senior race.
Fired up by what he regarded as an insult to his talent, the Morecambe Missile demolished Anstey, Michael Dunlop, James Hillier, Ian Hutchinson, Guy Martin and the rest of the field to prove he remains the unchallenged King of the Mountain. “I saw what the bookies were saying and I thought, f**k them, I’m better than that,” he smiles.
Just as he had done in 2013 when he dug deep to overcome his dominant young Honda
Racing team-mate, Michael Dunlop, in that year’s Senior event, McGuinness demonstrated once again that his rivals write him off at their peril. “I know they think I’m old and I’m fat, but I’m still fast,” he smiles.
Can he go even faster this year, raise the bar once more? “Maybe we will go a bit faster this year because the tyres have improved or the engine performance is a little bit better but there is no way that I could have gone round any faster than I did last year,” he says.
“All of my 19 years of TT experience, with all the bikes I have ridden and all the laps I have completed, were mashed into that one lap. There was absolutely nothing left.”
McGuinness is too long in the tooth to put any pressure on himself by making loud declarations of intent. “I never make predictions; you just look such a prick when you don’t pull it off,” he says. “Actions speak louder than words. If you do it on the track you have done your talking and nobody can take that away from you.
“I just want to get on the bike and go. I look down that hill and think it’s time to go, time to do what I do. If I’ve done my best that’s all I can do. Where it’s all going to end, I don’t know. Yes, I do worry about not being able to perform, letting the people around me down. I worry about finishing 6th, 7th or 8th, that’s the bit I’m not looking forward to because I will have to let go of it, that feeling you get when you win.
“But I won’t quit until that happens.”
23 wins and counting
McGuinness will also race his own EMC liveried CBR1000RR in the Superstock class alongside a Jackson Racing prepared CBR600RR in the Supersport races. With his appearance in the electric bike Zero TT race on the Mugen, McGuinness will have six chances to take a TT victory and close the gap to Joey Dunlop’s all-time record tally of 26 Mountain course victories.
Whether or not McGuinness’s single-lap electric bike TT victories, against a very small and uncompetitive field, equates with Dunlop’s achievements is a topic that sparks plenty of heated debate amongst TT fans, especially in Ireland.
But Dunlop’s TT record is the only significant mark left now for the Morecambe racer to pursue.
“Joey won three TTs in 2000,” McGuinness says. “I am 44 and Joey was 48 and still winning so I could have three or four more seasons left.”
McGuinness admits to having concerns about the wisdom of continuing to take huge risks in pursuit of his goals.
“The only thing I worry about are the averages in racing in 20 TTs,” he says. “Where does it all end? Joey was never going to stop was he? The result was always going to be what happened.
“But I don’t think about that, I just think that the TT’s the greatest race in the world. It is the most challenging and the most rewarding, and the feelings I’ve had over the years when I have finished and had good results, no-one can ever take that away from me.”
Fireblade still up to the job
With a new and more powerful BSB-spec motor in his official Honda-backed CBR1000RR for 2016, McGuinness is confident he’ll have the horsepower to hold off his Kawasaki and BMW-mounted rivals.
“The team worked really hard to keep up with the opposition over the winter,” the 44-year-old says.
The Fireblade may essentially be an eight-year-old motorbike but it has been honed to have the perfect blend of power and handling for the TT course in that time and McGuinness is considering taking another step in that evolution for the TT year.
“I ran Öhlins suspension in practice and in the race at the NW200,” the Morecambe man explained as he weighs up whether to make the shift to the Swedish manufacturer’s products that are used by almost every team in the MotoGP paddock, or stick with his tried and tested Showa shock and K-Tech forks set-up.
“The Öhlins system is good but whether it is for me I can’t say yet,” McGuinness says.
“There is no gun to my head to use it and I won’t be able to make my mind up until I try it during TT practice.”
Words: Stephen Davison Photos: Pacemaker Press International/Jamie Morris