Isle of Man TT | What It's Like To Take On The Deadliest Race In The World
UK motorcyclist James Hillier explains what keeps him coming back to the infamous TT...
We’ve teamed up with Dainese to shine a spotlight on luminaries from across the world of action sports and adventure. Here, we speak to James Hillier, the English road-racing motorcyclist hunting victory at the world renowned Isle of Man TT.
“There’s no margin for error. You can’t make a mistake. It’s actually incredible that it’s still going in this current world with all these stupid rules and laws, and people in suits who try and stop you doing fun things, you know? It’s historic, international, amazing. It’s just iconic.”
The Isle of Man TT is also the most dangerous race in the world. Since its inception in 1907 there have been a total of 255 fatalities on the Snaefell Mountain race course, including 146 during official practice or racing in the TT. James Hillier grew up with the event, and has competed in the road race every year since 2008.
"It's actually incredible that it's still going in this current world"
“It’s just a really amazing event,” he tells us. “It goes back such a long, long way and to me, it’s less about [the danger] and more about the heritage.”
Indeed, the TT is the oldest race in the history of motorcycling. It will be celebrating its 110th birthday in 2018.
And as James points out, it is nothing short of astounding that the race has been allowed to continue in its current form in the modern age given the quite frankly frightening fatality rate.
That consistency and history has not come without its fair share of controversy, of course.
The event itself started in a time when the maximum permitted speed on roads was just 20mph, and racing was prohibited. A group of motorcycling enthusiasts who wanted to push the speed limits took to the Isle of Man in 1907 and the TT (Tourist Trophy) was born.
What makes the TT so dangerous is the nature of the course. Some riders describe riding a road race rather than a purpose-built track as comparable to solo or free climbing as oppose to climbing with a rope. Riders hit speeds of up to 200mph and in the TT, there’s an opportunity for it to all end in disaster at any one of the 200 corners. There is an average of over six deaths per mile on the course - and the best in the world recognise the danger too.
The Isle of Man TT was once part of the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championships (now the mainstream MotoGP) from 1949 but lost its status in 1976 after multi-time motorcycle world champion Giacomo Agostini announced that he would never race at the Isle of Man again due to the dangers of the course. Agostini’s outburst cued a boycott from the riders, and by 1976 the race had been replaced on the circuit by the British Grand Prix.
Others have called for the event to be banned in its entirety since, but the consistency and popularity of the TT remains firmly intact, and largely boils down to two main parties - the competitors, like Hillier, who without a huge pay packet on offer largely ride for the history, legacy and glory, and the locals on the Isle of Man.
The competitors, in any interview you listen to, will tell you that they know the risks, and that nobody is forcing them to do this.
“You have to respect the course,” says Hillier, “and some people who go there are crazy, but the people at the top are sharp guys who know exactly what they’re doing.
“You have to be. Some people have this vision that the riders are just crazy or stupid but you have to be switched on to ride that fast.”
The latter party, the roughly 85,000 citizens of the Isle of Man, may be frustrated by the road closures and so forth from time to time, but they largely see the race as part of the heritage of their island - and as a crucial boost to their economy as well.
"At those speeds your brain is working one step ahead the whole time"
A full 45,054 people travelled to the island for the 2017 event. That means that the population of the island more than doubled over the space of the race - but reports indicate that the 2017 festival also brought in around £24.6 million to the Manx economy as well.
James has competed in the TT 10 times already, having grown up around the event due to his father’s love of the sport.
“When I was six we got an old trials bike and started competing on that at a low level but eventually I grew out of the bike and we never replaced it,” he says.
“I stuck to my pedal bike for a while and then when I was around 12 we went on a holiday. My parents separated and my holiday with my dad was to the TT races with my sister and that sort of planted a seed.
“I was in awe of the races and everything about it. I knew that somehow I wanted to be there one day racing. That’s it really. It wasn’t an easy process but I worked hard and took my time and showed promise and then the support came and we got to where we are now. It was one step at a time, but I’m sort of living the dream now, I suppose. In some ways at least!”
Still, Hillier didn’t rush to tell his parents when he first signed up to ride the TT in ‘08.
James' Kit Bag
“I use a lot of Dainese products. They have top of the line boots and gloves, and I use the custom D-Air Suit, the back protector and chest protector as well, and the undersuit, the D-Core Aero. It’s a technical underlayer to wear under the leathers. And the AGV Pista GP R helmet as well, which is Dainese’s sister company!” - James Hillier
“I did all the background work and then showed them a press release in a magazine,” he laughs. “I don’t think they particularly were behind it but they knew why I wanted to do it and they weren't going to stop me. Even if they tried, I don’t think they’d have talked me out of it.
The Isle of Man TT is an event that is made up of various disciplines and classes, with the biggest being the Senior TT. James won his first TT trophy five years after making his debut in the TT2013 Bikesocial.co.uk Lightweight, but he marks his second place in the senior event in 2015 as his proudest moment yet.
“That meant a lot to me,” he says. “To be standing on the podium with John McGuinness and Ian Hutchinson. It was a big moment for me.”
He could have had an even bigger moment last year. The now 33-year-old was the fastest man on the road in the Senior, but a fuelling issue in the pits meant he finished fourth place.
“To be let down by a fuelling issue, at that level,” he says. “There shouldn’t have been any faults but worse things have happened to people.”
It’s something that you hear a lot when you listen to interviews with Isle of Man TT riders who haven’t quite got the win they wanted; that “worse things have happened”.
Indeed, worse almost did happen to James last year, after he only narrowly avoided a brutal crash in the race by producing what has been described as a “miracle save” going round the Ballagarey - known by the locals as the “Balla-scary” - corner on the track.
In Layman's terms, James’ bike leapt like a fish going round the infamous corner. Somehow he stayed on the bike.
"James is a heck of a rider,” said the commentators “but that is no one's business."
We ask James what he remembers about the incident.
“To be honest I didn’t do anything dissimilar to how I would normally ride that corner,” he says.
“There was an issue with the rear suspension that resulted in the bike reacting differently to normal and then erupting into that. I just wobbled and I guess someone was looking after me. The bike actually left the ground which gave it a chance to recover… and I got on with it.
“At those speeds your brain is working one step ahead the whole time. It wasn’t really until afterwards that I realised how close it was. It didn’t make me slower. I’ll be going the same speed if not faster around that corner this year.”
Do these kinds of incidents make riders even more aware of the fatality rate of the event and the dangers of the TT?
“Not really. Obviously you’re aware of it. You’re aware of the danger but that’s what draws you into it. In a way it’s an attraction to the risk, I guess. If it was perfectly safe then different people would be doing it. I think to me that’s part of the challenge. It’s all very real when you’re there. It’s not something that you ignore because if you did you wouldn’t last long.
“It’s hard to actually explain I think. It’s like a drug almost. If you sit down and think about it long enough it doesn’t make much sense but when you’re doing it, there’s just nowhere in the world I would rather be. If all is going well and you’re having a good ride then it’s just bliss. You certainly feel alive when you’re riding around there.”
"It's hard to actually explain. It's like a drug"
This year Hillier will be riding in three different classes over five races, culminating in the senior superbike event, which is once again his big target for the year.
As always, thousands will descend on the Isle of Man to watch the legendary spectacle. Some competitors will leave drenched in glory. Some, unfortunately, may not leave at all.
Whatever happens, the TT will remain one of the most iconic, enthralling and intriguing races in the world - and one which, for better or worse, will never fail to attract attention.
Stay tuned to our Dainese Luminaries hub for more from the world of ambition and adventure.
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