IOM Mountain Course
The Isle of Man Mountain Course holds a unique place in the hearts of all motorcyclists; a demanding but thrilling throwback to an era of racing long-since past which provides the sternest of tests for man and machinery. The annual TT and Grand Prix races see a phalanx of professional and amateur racers descend upon the island to test their mettle against the demanding roads, in what are hugely important dates in the island's tourism calendar, drawing in tens of thousands of fans.
Perhaps the enduring popularity of the events run here are their simplicity. While the machinery brought each year has got ever more sophisticated, the rules of the races have stayed essentially the same. The unique time trial format sees riders set off individually in ten-second intervals, which means they are racing against the clock and not necessarily the rider in front. The winner comes from the quickest around the 37-and-three-quarters miles lap distance – on ordinary roads where the only concessions might be the odd hay bales or air fence. Add in races that can take up to six laps with refuelling (lasting a gruelling 1h 45 mins or more in the Superbike class) and it's not hard to see the attraction for fans.
Perennial TT racer Cameron Donald sums the place up best: "For motorcycle racing, this really is the final frontier."
Ironically given its importance to two-wheeled racing, it was cars that first sampled the Manx roads. With punishing laws on the mainland restricting cars to just 20mph, British authorities began looking further afield for venues to host racing at the turn of the last century. In 1904 the Secretary of the Automobile Club of Britain and Ireland approached the authorities in the Isle of Man to seek permission to organise races and received a favourable response. The The Highways (Light Locomotives) Act 1904 was duly passed by the Tynwald (the island's Parliament) granting permission to host that year's Gordon Bennett Trial on a 52.15-mile (83.93km) circuit, known as the Highroads Course.
This covered much of the modern-day circuit, starting at Quarterbridge but extending down to Castletown along the A5, back up to Ballacraine and along the line of the current course to Ballough, where it headed off towards Jurby and St Judes before rejoining the modern course at Ramsey for the run across the mountain to Douglas. In total it was a massive 52.15 miles long, meaning that the fist five lap elimination race in 1904 covered a gruelling 255.5 miles. Clifford Earl won in a Napier taking some 7 hours 26.5 minutes to cover the distance, a feat he repeated the following year at considerably increased speed, finishing in 6 hours and 6 minutes despite the race being an extra lap in length.
The first motorcycle events came the day after the 1905 Gordon Bennett races, when a trial was organised to find a team to represent Great Britain in the International Motor-Cycle Cup Races. However, the sections along the A18 Snaefell Mountain Road were judged to be too difficult for the contemporary machinery, so a shorter circuit was used for the trials, essentially comprising the southern portion of the main course only. This ran from Quarterbridge south to Castletown, then back through Foxdale to Ballacraine, then headed in the the reverse direction to the current TT course back to Quarterbridge. This remained in use for further events in 1906.
The first Tourist Trophy race was also for cars, being organised in 1905 and on the full Highroads Course. John Napier won in an Arrol-Johnston at an average of 33.90mph. From 1906 the TT switched to the 'Short' Highroads Course, which covered 40.38 miles and was designed to be less disruptive to railway services. The start was moved from Quarterbridge to the road junction of the A2 Quarterbridge Road/Alexander Drive adjacent to the property called 'Woodlands' in the town of Douglas, while the 'Sandygate Loop' from Ballaugh to Ramsey was omitted to reduce overall course length. A certain Charles Royce won the race in a car bearing his own name – that's right, a Rolls-Royce...
The car TT would be repeated again in 1907 on the 'Short' Highroads Course, while 1908 saw the debut of the 'Four Inch' Course, named after the regulations adopted by the Royal Automobile Club which restricted engines a cylinder diameter of four-inches (102 mm). The the course was again reduced to 37.5 miles (60.4 km) with the removal of the Peel and Sandygate loops. This course was broadly similar to today's course, save for the start line being located at Hillberry Corner on the A18 Mountain Road and the use of Johnny Watterson's Lane.
The RAC Tourist Trophy for motorcars continued on the island until the outbreak of World War I, resuming again in 1919 and once more in 1922, the latter event won by a 3-litre straight eight Grand Prix Sunbeam driven by Jean Chassagne won the event remembered as 'a nightmare in a sea of mud' against a field of Bentleys and Vauxhalls. It would be the last major automobile race on the Mountain Course.
Four wheels good, two wheels better
The motorcyle TT, meanwhile, owes its origins to some sharp practices in the 1906 International Cup for Motor-Cycles held in Austria, where accusations of cheating were rife. On the journey home, conversation on how to make the racing more satisfactory broke out between the Secretary of the Auto-Cycle Club, Freddie Straight and the brothers from the Matchless motor-cycle company, Charlie Collier and Harry Collier, along with the Marquis de Mouzilly St. Mars. The result was the suggestion of races on the Isle of Man.
The first races ran on the St John's Course – the Mountain Course having been deemed too challenging for contemporary machinery – between 1907 and 1910. However, in 1911, the switch was finally made to the Mountain Course, the major difference to the current route being that riders turned right at Cronk-ny-Mona, down Johnny Watterson's Lane, to Ballanard Road, turned left again along Ballanard Road to St Ninian's, where they turned right down Bray Hill. The start was on Quarterbridge Road, with refuelling depots at Braddan and Ramsey.
Two separate races were introduced; the first event was a four lap Junior TT Race and a separate Senior TT race for 500 cc single-cylinder and 585 cc twin-cylinder motor-cycles. During an early morning practice session, Victor Surridge died after crashing his Rudge motor-cycle at Glen Helen, becoming the first of many to loose their lives at the TT and quite probably the first death on the island of a person in an automotive accident .
World War I intervened and racing was suspended between 1915 and 1919. When it resumed in 1919, modest course alterations awaited the racers. Competitors now turned left at Cronk-ny-Mona and followed the primary A18 Mountain Road to Governor's Bridge with a new start/finish line on Glencrutchery Road which lengthened the course from the pre-World War I length of 37.50 miles (60.35 km) to 37.75 miles (60.75 km).
While the basic layout of the course has largely been unaltered, continual upgrades have taken place over the years as roads were improved and the island itself continued to grow. The course was widened at Sulby Bridge in 1922, along with modification of Signpost Corner including rounding off the bend, with further road widening at Governor's Bridge following the completion of the link road to A2 Glencrutchery Road/Governor's Road.
Meanwhile, the adoption of a section of previously private road brought the Parliament Square to May Hill section into use from 1923 onwards, introducing a number of challenging bends and essentially fixing the modern course of the circuit for the first time. That same year Brandish Corner was given its name, after Walter Brandish crashed there and broke a leg.
By 1926, the course had been improved considerably and the Mountain Section had been asphalted. Birkin's Bend was so-named when Archie Birkin was killed there in 1927 during practice, when the roads were only closed for racing. The following year practising took place on closed roads.
For the 1934 TT Races major alterations were carried out which included the removal of the East Snaefell Mountain sheep-gate, followed by the removal of the hump-backed bridge at Ballig which was completed in time for the Manx Grand Prix in September 1935. Roads were further widened at the Highlander, Laurel Bank, Glen Helen (between the Old Quarry and Brew's Restaurant), and at Brandywell with the removal of the Beinn-y-Phott sheep-gate for the 1935 TT Races, with further upgrades made at the 26th Milestone, Greeba Bridge and on the Sulby Straight in 1938. As a result the lap distance was amended to to 37.733 miles (60.73km).
The outbreak of World War II once again forced an end to racing until 1946, when the Manx Grand Prix (the course's other major event which first ran in 1930, following on from amateur road races which began in 1923) was organised once more.
Prior to the TT resuming in 1947, further major upgrades were made to the Mountain section of the course, with widening at at the 33rd Milestone and the removal of an earth bank. A major coup was the TT's elevation to World Championship status. It would remain at the heart of the FIM calendar until 1976.
In 1953, further changes came with widening at Bedstead Corner corner and Gorse Lea, plus elevation works at Signpost Corner and Cronk-ny-Mona. After Les Graham's tragic death on Bray Hill during the second lap of the 1953 Senior TT, a brick and timber shelter was built on the Mountain section of the course between the Verandah and the Bungalow. It became the Graham Memorial and is used as a marshalling and medical point during the races.
Further modifications were made prior to the Grand Prix in 1953, when the cottage at Appledene Corner was demolished. Meanwhile, plans were being advanced to re-introduce the Ultra-Lightweight TT and Sidecar TT Race for the 1954 Isle of Man TT Races. Rather than use the main Mountain Course, these would use a new, shorter variant known as the Clypse Course. In a reversal of normal TT practice, these would also feature gridded starts and were true races rather than time trials.
To facilitate racing on the Clypse Course, during the winter of 1953/54 further road widening was carried out on the Mountain Course at Creg-na-Baa, Signpost Corner and the approach to Governor's Bridge. The Lightweight TT Race was run on the Clypse Course for the first time in 1955 but after 1959 it was decided to end the short-lived experiment and all racing reverted to the Mountain Course.
Gradual road improvements continued around the course during the 1960s, with a roundabout added in 1963 to the road junction at Quarterbridge being one of the more visible. Further changes came at the same spot in 1986 with a new road traffic system introduced including two new mini-roundabouts, alongside the removal of traffic islands and surrounding trees. Road re-profiling and widening occurred at Quarry Bends during the winter of 1987, resulting in a slightly straightened set of corners.
There were no significant alterations during the 1990s, but in 2004 the western-side embankment was removed from Guthrie's Memorial, while in early 2005, in time for the TT, Windy Corner was eased, and later that year Brandish Corner was realigned, again easing the corner. Then in 2008 a new link road was built between The Nook and Governor's Bridge, although the racers continued to use the original road which remains alongside it and is closed off for general traffic the rest of the year.
A crash by Cameron Donald and a further more serious incident involving travelling marshall John McBride at Keppel Gate during the 2009 TT prompted the removal of a section of grass bank from the southern side of Keppel Gate in time for the Manx Grand Prix. Further changes were made in April 2015 when the bank was removed on the north-eastern side as well.
Twice a year the Mountain Course reverberates to the sounds of sights of motorcycle racers testing themselves to the max during the famous TT races in May/June and the Manx Grand Prix, the latter of which is now part of the Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling in August/September. Pre and post TT events also take place on the Billown Course in Castletown, home of the separate Southern 100 races.
The packed schedules for both the TT and the Festival of Motorcycling both require a fortnight of running to allow for full practice and qualifying in all classes ahead of the races themselves. The popularity of the racing is undimmed – in fact the numbers of spectators are limited only by the island's physical inability to transport more across.
In a world of increased litigation and risk assessments, the races on the Mountain Circuit are something of an anachronism; it's certainly not safe, with 246 recorded deaths (as of the 2015 TT) during its history. However, under TT race director Paul Phillips, the talk is of managing risks and mitigating where possible, accepting that the racing is not safe and never will be. Better riders and training for newcomers, enhanced training for marshals, improved communication systems, excellent medical cover and greater spectator control are all now factors helping to safeguard the future of racing on the island.
The advent of inexpensive onboard cameras has helped to fuel enthusiasm further, bringing the Mountain Course's previously unfilmable full majesty to wide audiences, as well as augmenting excellent television coverage for international audiences.
The great appeal of the racing here is the sheer length of the course. Spectators can easily see the racing from a wide-variety of vantage points, from the Grandstand at the start/finish (one of the few areas you have to pay to get in) to roadside vantages around the whole course. The fact that you can watch the bikes go by while enjoying a pint at one of the many pubs along the route does no harm to its popularity either...
While the risks remain, its clear that the ever-evolving TT and Festival of Motorcycling have assured futures; put simply they are too important to the island's economy to be allowed to whither and die.