Isle of Man - Manx Grand Prix 2012
We arrived on the IOM late on Thursday night, to the greeting of Ade, a buddy we were staying with, and Ronnie who had generously provided a ZX6 for my use on the Newcomers race, it was raining hard. It had been for several weeks. On Friday we trudged through registration and all of the other admin items, it took the whole day. It was still raining and the mountain part of the track was closed due to parts of the road being washed out.
Saturday morning, I had a Newcomers tour of the track via bus, still raining. The bikes were tech’ed in the afternoon with a supervised lap planned for the late afternoon. It started to dry, although “some” wet sections were reported on the track. Oh dear, at this stage I had completed only one lap of the track in any form at a very slow speed in the bus. Well at least it was a follow the leader lap behind a marshal. As this was a newcomers event, I rode the ZX6. After ¼ of the lap I lost my group and was totally lost, I had no idea which way the track went, let alone how fast I could take a corner, did I mention there are many blind corners out of the 200+ on the 38 mile course, most lined with things that would hurt you. I came in stunned, knowing I needed some prep and quickly.
I borrowed a road bike from Ronnie, Ade guided me around for four laps on Sunday, then on Monday I completed another five, by this time I had figured out the major corners and where the track went, well at 80 mph on the fast sections and 30-40 in the towns. On Monday afternoon, another practice was planned, however, it was raining again. They delayed the session due to fog on the mountain and eventually I ran one half a lap on the ZX6 stopping at Ramsey due to the visibility issues. That half a lap was better, I knew where the road went, I was still slow as I worked out the line using both sides of the road but I was making progress.
The weather improved on Tuesday and we were scheduled for practice on both bikes. I started out on the P&M, these were my first two fast complete laps of the track. I came in then went straight back out on the ZX6 for another two laps.
On the first lap on the 6 another bike blew an engine right in front of me near the start of the lap, just before Greeba Castle, covering my helmet screen with oil. Only a minor visibility issue normally, but the sun was low in the sky and I was heading directly towards it. I was blinded by huge rainbows of light. I tried to clean it with my hand, no luck, then raised the visor and ran a couple of miles until I turned away from the Sun at Ballacrane. I was sure I would come in after the first lap, but as I came over the mountain, I saw the sun was going behind some clouds, so I continued for the second lap.
As I got off the bike after four laps my brain was “on overload”, I had been riding at speed on tiny roads which I half knew, for nearly 2 hours. Although I generally knew where the course went, each corner still needed to be identified, assessed, and the bike setup whilst pushing as hard as I could to build and keep the speed.
I did an 88mph lap on the P&M and 91 on the ZX6. Ade tried to pull me back to the local for a beer, but I just needed alcohol right then to calm me down. I was shell shock and babbling. Three beers later I was ready to move again, but still a little overwhelmed with the whole thing.
In the morning after a good beer induced sleep, I started to target where I could go faster on the course. I had a top 8 corners for improvement and another 8 behind them. I took the road bike out again and worked through these completing another 4 laps in traffic. The P&M forks were too stiff so we made some changes.
Off we went on Wednesday afternoon for another 4 laps of practice, the corners I had tagged were working much better. My debrief with Ade and Ronnie was now about the places where you take off and the huge wheelie points. They smiled as they knew I was going faster. I posted a 98 mph lap on the 6 and 94 on the P&M. I was still generally weak on the mountain section, but felt better on the section from the start to Ballacrane then Sarahs Cottage to Ramsey. On the P&M the forks were much better, but the strap that holds the petrol tank in place came off, which meant I needed to keep the tank in place over the jumps, etc. using my belly and legs. Not ideal, but I got around.
After a little more road work, I had another 4 laps of practice on Thursday. I was starting to get my confidence and was blocking out the violence of the track, happy to keep the bike heading in the right general direction. I posted 98.6 mph on the P&M and 100.2mph on 6. I achieved my 100 mph lap!!!! Zero, absolute zero to 100 mph in 7 days on one of the toughest tracks in the world. That felt darn good.
The next event was the Newcomers race on Saturday. It rained hard all day Friday and through Saturday until early afternoon, the road was a mess, some flooded areas and some streams across the track. Oh dear, I hate riding in the rain and was not looking forward to the race at all. I hoped it would be cancelled and scheduled for another day when the weather would be better. On time we assembled on the line and the start was delayed one, twice then three times due to poor visibility on the mountain. At least the sun was out by this time. Just before the final time for cancelling the race they announced we were going to start, but the visibility on the mountain was still poor and we should also look out for wet sections of the track.
I started carefully, looking for the wet track signals from the marshals, quite surprisingly the track had dried pretty well, although it was still quite wet around Glen Helen, I started to work up my speed as I headed to the mountain, as I climbed up towards Mountain Box the fog was bad, down to 50 yards of visibility. Although I was learning the course I realized that I still needed huge visual cues to help me around. The fog cleared at the 32nd and I sped up again. I was faster on the second lap, now more confident in the conditions, but slow again on the mountain.
I pitted to get more petrol and started my third lap, still going faster but slowed again by the fog. I pulled in happy to have completed my first race for an overall speed, including the pit stop of 93 mph, but certainly no 100 mph laps in the set. I had finished 19th out of 38 starters. Certainly not at the front of the field, but not at the back either.
On Sunday we went to Jurby for their motorbike festival and parade laps. Ade was riding his TZ250 and Ronnie had brought a ZX7RR and an H2R for other riders. It was a beautiful and sunny the best day of the trip by far. It was also quite uneventful and low key. A fun day.
I had an oil leak that had gotten progressively worse on the P&M, I suspected the sump gasket so we stripped the bike on Monday. Metal chunks were in the sump, something was getting eaten, after pondering this for the remainder of Monday, we stripped the top end on Tuesday and found that the cam chain tensioner was broken and the cam chain was chipping the cases. I ordered new parts from England for delivery the next day. They arrived at 1pm and Ade and I then reassembled the engine, taking it to a friend for cam timing setup and a dyno test. By 9pm on Wednesday the bike was ready to go again.
I had missed the practice sessions on Tuesday (delayed from Monday) and Wednesday so the next event was the Classic Superbike race on Friday, the big one. It rained hard on Thursday night, but the track was mostly dry on Friday morning. I had been running the track in my head to keep it fresh.
I had a good start, working up my pace on the first lap, it felt good, on lap two I started pushing hard, the bike feeling better now that it was lighter with less fuel. Shortly into the lap, the tank strap came off again, dang. After messing around I got it wrapped around the fairing mount so it was not flapping, then worked the belly and legs drill again, this was much more of an issue as my speeds were increasing, the tank was lifting at the front. All tucked in at 140mph on the Sulby straight, I looked up to sight the last kink, still trying to hold the tank down, I missed my brake point and then t-boned the bridge at 5 mph. I pulled the bike back which cost a long, long minute before continuing. I pitted at the end of the lap getting fuel, the strap fixed down and additionally loaded with a rag under it.
Off on lap 3, rain flags started to appear, as some showers rolled in. By Ramsey it was raining hard, but my tires were hot and the track still grippy. Lap 4 more rain, but it was clearly just showers, it would be raining at one place on one lap and somewhere else the next. I just tried to convince myself it was a dry track. Over Ago’s Leap, the front wheel flew up, the fairing screen hit my helmet and smashed, I was trying. As I headed up the mountain it was raining hard but then stopped again by the 33rd. I pushed on completing the race without and major incidents.
I finished 11th out of 25 starters and took the top newcomers award, presented by Mick Grant that night. My overall speed was 98 mph with a best lap of 99.6 mph on the wettest lap, lap 4.
The Isle of Man and the ManxGP are something else. There is no closed circuit that compares to it, just none. These are small country lanes, there are many places where you maintain speeds of 140 mph, and you have 200 corners to figure out. At 95 mph you need to figure out perhaps 75 of these at 100 mph another 50. The faster you go the more complex the circuit gets. It is very bumpy with 140 mph wheelies and jumps. The most intense experience in my racing career.
My Sulby bridge incident was unlucky, it would have been my 100 mph+ lap on the P&M, but lucky too, this was the biggest mistake I had made, and the price was small. During the week’s event two riders lost their lives, a simple mistake and the course bites and bites hard.
The IOM is out there, it is tough, challenging and exhilarating, I would encourage others to experience this pinnacle in racing. But you really, really need to want this or you will be blown away by the intensity. You also need some buddies on the Island to help out, people with experience of the course and who know their way around bikes. As a rider you need to focus on riding, just the riding, that is tough enough. Mega-thanks to Ade and Ronnie who kept the bikes under me and working well, they also kept the beer in my hands. Thanks guys!