Robin Miller: Safety must now be the ultimate TT priority

Picture: Impact Images

‘Pretty special’ was how Peter Hickman described his feelings after winning one of the most spectacular Senior TT in most people’s memory. And recording the fastest lap of all time at 135.452mph.

It capped an Isle of Man fortnight which itself was pretty special. Not forgetting, or indeed forgiving, accidents which took the lives of local hero Dan Kneen and newcomer Adam Lyon, or the incredible cockup which put Steve Mercer in a hospital bed fighting for his life. The call for additional safety measures has never been louder.

But a combination of the weather, titanic struggles for road racing supremacy and amazing record-breaking laps by Michael Dunlop, Dean Harrison and Hickman, had 40,000 plus fans leaving the island putting the dark side behind them and thinking of 2019.

While safety and the ongoing enquiry into how a rider and a course car were in collision continues to dominate the agenda of the organisers and Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson, there was one aspect of TT week which should give them encouragement.

Road racing which, in recent years, has been condemned as being for ‘specialists’ not capable of hacking it at Brands Hatch is now being seen as fair game for short trackers who are able to hold their own on roads. That was made deafeningly obvious by Hickman’s record breaking last lap dash to pull back Dean Harrison’s lead and claim his second win of the week.

And Josh Brookes fifth place in the same race on an Aprilia-engined Norton, not capable of holding its own with the BMWs, was more than commendable.

The fact that they have sprung into prominence very recently should not disguise the short circuit achievements of TT winner Michael Rutter or the true giants of road racing John McGuinness or Ian Hutchinson, all of whom have enjoyed considerable success on the mainland and elsewhere. It also reminds us of the great days of Steve Hislop and Carl Fogarty who could compete on any circuit.

But it must be a considerable encouragement to those looking for opportunities outside, for instance, of British Superbikes that their skills and determination can bring rewards elsewhere. The maxim that a good rider is a good rider anywhere was writ large in Friday’s memorable TT.

And we must not forget that short circuit scratchers, as they were often dismissively described, achieved great things whizzing along country roads. Derek Minter, the King of Brands, was the first to set a 100mph lap on a single in 1960.

The cynics will say that the modern ‘transcircuit’ riders are only doing it for the money. It is true that unless you’re consistently winning or with a big team, you’re unlikely to make as much as your local plumber and, indeed, you might be paying to get a ride. So that might be an initial factor, even bearing in mind that 90% of TT riders will go away poorer than when they arrive.

But you can bet your life that Hickman, Brookes or others would be insulted if it was suggested that was the sole reason. And even with all the dangers they would confess that lining up on the Glencrutchery Road, particularly when the sun is shining, gives an adrenaline surge not matched at Knockhill or Silverstone.

But the fact remains, the 37.73 mountain circuit is much more dangerous than tracks approved by governing bodies for championship events where the great risk is being hit by other machines, a fate which befell Ian Hutchinson at Silverstone.

MotoGP at Le Mans had, would you believe, 109 crashes during practice and racing with no serious injury.
The TT threat is ‘furniture’ - lots of it and it is very unforgiving.

So what can be done? First of all it must be recognised that it can never be made safe. It is an extreme sport and that is part of its appeal. But it must be a tired or irresponsible mind that believes improvements cannot be made and while acknowledging it is the rider who volunteers for, and is responsible for, his or her own actions it must also be recognised that from time to time we all need protecting from ourselves.

Technology in the form of better, faster communication plus the use of a helicopter has saved many lives. The most recent episode of riders and a course car being allowed, or mistakenly instructed, to head towards each other says that major improvements in terms of communications and signalling warnings can and have to be made. Isle of Man resident and former MotoGP race director Paul Butler is confident that lights, replacing many of the marshals and their use of flags, would be a major step.

Without volunteer marshals the TT couldn’t function but the numbers required are so huge that many are lacking in experience. Cable round the course would provide the conduit for far greater use of cameras and warning lights. And as the TT and the newly appointed production company have the ambition to go live, for spectators on the increased number of grandstands and broadcast tv, then it seems a natural progression bringing many benefits.

The other area which needs considering is the power and speed of the bikes which, added to the obsession with speed, is surely something which needs to be addressed. The shock effect of a litre Superbike barreling down Bray Hill and exiting Ago’s Leap, at more than 180mph, front wheel pawing the air, has newcomers staggering back in shock. And Sulby Straight, one of the bumpiest parts of the course, had speeds of 196mph clocked. Even that grand old man of racing Peter Padgett has concluded that it can’t go on.

The road safety slogan ‘speed kills’ is highly questionable, even if it were accurate, but 600cc sports bikes, built for the road, are now much faster than the works MVs or Hondas of Hailwood and Agostini.

And if the TT, as an event, is like some sort of drug to both riders and spectators it is also hooked on another drug. Fastest laps. No other race in the world has this sort of obsession and it is interesting, but maybe not relevant, that when a driver called Bill Elliot lapped Daytona Speedway at 210mph and Talledega at 212mph in 1987, the horsepower of the cars was restricted from then on. Too fast, too dangerous.

Reducing the power and therefore speed has, alongside other safety measures, to be considered and if that means leaving Peter Hickman’s amazing time in perpetuity so be it. And is even greater scrutiny of riders capabilities required?

There will, of course, always be newcomers but is sufficient experience and/or success on road circuits in general or the TT in particular taken into account. Three years seems to be the minimum amount of time needed to mount that podium.

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