Week one of the 2015 Isle of Man TT race meet, humbly called Practice Week, is wrapping up, with the usual mix of triumph and tragedy. I arrived on the Isle just as qualifying started, and made my usual rounds: Checked in to the Arrandale Hotel, ideally situated within walking distance to the grandstand, paddock and Douglas Promenade. Picked up a roarty little Triumph Street Triple, and did a few laps of the TT Course, followed some off the beaten path back roads, where the soundtrack of the three-pot mill acted as a handy sheep repellant. I registered at the TT Marshal’s hut, hit the Woodbourne Pub for reconnection with old friends (IoM pub reports to follow), and started to immerse myself in the wonder that is TT Practice Week which challenges TT Race Week for atmosphere and spectating with the added benefit of un-crowded motorbike touring.
The results of the practice sessions have been mind boggling, testing the ‘have we reached peak speed at the TT’ question raised in my earlier report.
Mid-week brought a chill to the paddock, and an outpouring of kind words and prayers, when popular French rider Franck Petricola was killed in an incident at Sulby Crossroads during a TT Superbike qualifying session. Much has been written about an event that has taken well over 200 lives since it was first run in 1907, but ‘King of the Mountain’ John McGuinness, a 21-time winner at the TT, said it best: “No one is pointing a gun at your head. Everyone knows the risks and they are happy to race on that basis.” So it was “press on, regardless” for the competitors come the next day.
Thursday evening’s qualifying session, held in almost perfect weather and course conditions, saw speeds that would have been lap records just a few years ago, with the resurgent pair of Ian Hutchinson and McGuinness both lapping at more than 130 mph. Current Mountain Course lap record holder Bruce Anstey turned in a 129.957, and teammates William Dunlop and Guy Martin diced it out at 129.419 and 128.963, respectively. With the leaders putting up these numbers in qualifying, the entire field for the Superbike class may be comprised of riders claiming 120-mph plus lap speeds.
The stunning announcement that Michael Dunlop would switch from the Milwaukee Yamaha Team, which he joined only a few months ago, after only three laps on the new YZF-R1M, back to the BMW bikes that he raced and won on at last year’s TT, absolutely blew away every other TT storyline so far. The Grandstand, paddock and pubs were buzzing with, well, buzz.
Dunlop will now be riding for the Buildbase BMW team in the RST Superbike Race, and the PokerStars Senior TT Race. As of last night, the team was scrambling to sort out the race bikes and secure ferry passage to the IoM for the machinery and gear.
“I would like to thank Milwaukee Yamaha for their support in bringing me into their team and I am genuinely sorry to be making this decision,” said Micheal Dunlop, “but unfortunately I don’t think there is enough time left with the sessions we’ve already lost at the TT to be truly competitive and get the bike to the level we need to in order to win races here.”
Dunlop will also be riding his own MD Racing BMW in Monday’s RL360 Superstock Race and will contest the two Monster Energy Supersport Races on his MD Racing Honda. He must now qualify on the BMW in the last Superbike qualifying session, giving him scant little time to get things right, but you know he will. Oh, and for bargain hunters, Dunlop/ Milwaukee Yamaha shirts are 50% off at the merchandise tent.
In the Superstock class, Michael Dunlop dropped a 129.659, the fourth-fastest lap of the night, with Hutchinson at 128.308 and David Johnson third with 127.470. The Superstock machines, when done right, are almost at par with the pukka-race Superbikes.
Gary Johnson, on the Mar-Train Yamaha, was quickest in the Supersport class at 124.307. The pace of the Lightweight class was set by three-time TT winner Ryan Farquhar at 117.432. The three-lap Lightweight TT, with riders on SuperTwin-specification 650cc two-cylinder bikes (mostly Kawasaki and Suzuki), has become quite popular with fans and riders since its introduction in 2012. The bikes sound and look distinctive, and offer opportunities for new competitors to the TT.
In sidecars, John Holden/Dan Sayle were quickest at 114.742, five seconds faster than Dave Molyneux/Ben Binns, who turned in a lap of 114.291. Tim Reeves/Patrick Farrance posted the third-best time at 113.966. Look for a report on the unique TT Sidecar scene next week.
Catching up with one of our homegrown heroes, in his sixth year as a TT competitor, American rider Brandon Cretu has a snazzy new look and credible machinery at his disposal. He’s riding for iconic Italian motorcycle manufacturer Bimota, teaming with seasoned roadracer Ben Wylie. The lads are campaigning BMW S1000RR- powered Bimota BB3s.
Speaking to Cretu at the beautifully turned-out Bimota awning/mechanic shop/bike and apparel showroom/ lifestyle area, he told me, “The bike is amazing, and while I had a little incident (a.k.a. crash) on the first night of practice, I’ve used practice week to get sorted. I achieved my fastest time ever, and I’m real optimistic.” Remarkably, in his words, “I’m pretty chill. I don’t want to ruin the experience. The Bimota team has been fantastic, the crew is world-class, I got some great experience on the bike at the North West 200. A little more practice and a few tweaks, and I’m good to go.”
For the eighth year running, I took to my TT Marshal post at Bray Hill and Ago’s Leap for qualifying sessions, holding caution flags, following Clerk of the Course, Chief Sector Marshal, and TT control instructions, and waving off potential human road kill leaning over hedges and barriers a bit too far. Still got chills every time one of the bikes blew by at speed, wheel in the air, only one mile in to each 37.7-mile odyssey. This never gets tired.
Unlike MotoGP and other more pedestrian motorsports events, where a fleet of Airbus Belugas drop off a traveling circus for a few days and fans get to pay exorbitant prices to sit 500 feet from a circuit before the show moves on to the next continent, the TT provides a full two-week experience, with excitement building the entire time. The paddock is open, the riders are in the pubs at night and pizza joints during the day, and racing is deadly serious from the first practice session on. Fans can sit or stand feet from the course, for free, with riders flying by at 190 mph. The sounds, smells and sights challenge spectators’ perception of what is possible … did I really just see that? Come to TT practice week, and you may just find it better than the actual races.
The final qualifying sessions will run this evening, Friday June 5th, and racing begins on Saturday, with the first six-lap/ 226-mile TT Superbike Race and three-lap TT Sidecar Race 1. Do not forget to set your DVRs for Velocity Network’s coverage.
More reports from the paddock and pubs in the days ahead.