Road Racing: It’s all about respect
In the past it was commonplace to see international stars compete on the roads. Factory contracts were tied into competing at the Isle of Man and other international races. Want to race a Honda in the 500GP World Championship? Lots of riders had to battle it out at the TT to get that deal. Factory contracts in the UK were notoriously linked to competing on the roads.
It was a double edged sword that placed huge risks on a rider’s shoulders for the rewards of being a chosen rider. Thankfully over time these deals were weighted out and riders on the roads were there because they wanted to be there, rather than they were forced to.
There are still plenty of motivations to push a rider to race on the roads, with Peter Hickman openly stating that he made the switch to ensure he had a racing future. The Englishman quickly proved himself to be a cut above the rest and earned the title of the fastest road racer in the world. The switch led to factory contracts with BMW and lots of honours. Does Hickman regret not trying the roads earlier in his career?
“I felt I was mature enough for racing on the roads,” said Hickman. “I was 27 and had been riding big bikes for ten years. I felt that I had more than enough experience to keep myself alive. Learning your craft on short circuits is important because you can go past the limit, crash and understand what happened to learn from it. A mistake on the roads can have massive consequences. You don’t have the safety buffer of short circuits.
“When you’re riding, no matter the circuit, you’re riding at the limit. There’s no 95% on the roads but you approach them differently because the circuit is very different. The straights can be two miles long so they are very important. The corners lead onto really long straights so you lose a little bit going in to gain lots coming out. It can be more relaxed because because you’re braking earlier on the roads than where you know the limit is.”
That style of riding works on the roads but it doesn’t necessarily work for every rider. For James Whitham, the TT was one of the great experiences of his racing career. It was also one that scared the Englishman. He respected the roads but he knew that he couldn’t respect them when he was sitting on the bike. For Whitham, who went on to win a WorldSBK race, the only way to ride was to ride flat out. No matter what.
“I remember going to the TT in ‘78 for Hailwood’s return and it was amazing,” recalled Whitham. “I’ve loved the TT ever since. It’s a special race, a special event. When I raced over there I loved it, but I knew that I had to stop because I knew my style wouldn’t suit riding on the roads. Every time I sat on a bike I had to be on the limit. That was perfect on a circuit but on the roads it was too risky.
“I knew that I couldn’t take a bit off and ride at 90%. It was all or nothing for me. After the ‘89 TT I stopped racing there and focused on short circuits. I missed the buzz but I knew that my style wouldn’t work, and that I could end up having a big crash. I had a TT podium and that’s still something that I’m proud of but I think I made the right choice for my career.”
When Whitham first went to the Isle of Man it was a very different meeting compared to now. The Englishman was taking part in early morning practice and told of “damp patches under trees at certain sections.” The first time he lapped the course was in that practice session. Learning on the fly certainly isn’t possible in 2020.
For Glenn Irwin, preparation has been the key to his successes on the road. The Northwest 200 and Macau Grand Prix winner had expected to make his TT debut this year.
Walking the track, watching videos and taking a zen like approach to the event is key for the Honda rider.
“I prepare by studying old footage,” explains the BSB race winner. “You can learn a lot from the onboard videos and taking notes. For the Northwest I’ll go up for a night in April to drive the course. I’ll get dinner at the Italian beside the golf course. I’ll be sitting at the dinner table that night eating my pasta and imagining the start of the race. I think about the people, the buzz on the grid, screaming down to York Corner. The excitement builds for me just thinking about it.
“I’ve found that the best approach to Road Racing is to make it a holiday. You’re doing something special, there’s a great atmosphere at the race, and you’ve got to enjoy it. In Road Racing my dad always told us it was about respecting the road. But I’ve also found you’ve always got to use all the road. If there’s road to play with you should use it…but only on the exit of the corner. I choose to use the full road because I’m on the throttle, I’m in control of the bike and trying to get the power down.
“In Road Racing I like to think that it’s about being smooth and holding your lines. It’s not slow in and fast out; it’s safe in and really fast out! You’ve got to maximise the corner exit for your speed on the straight. I’ll use all the road on the exit but I don’t want to be using all the road and heading towards a kerb, because if I’m trail braking, leaned over and trying to lose speed it’s dangerous. It’s also slow. I’ve found that the riding style to be fastest in Road Racing is also the safest way to ride.”
Sitting on the Glencrutchery Road waiting for a TT to start is a unique experience. There’s a mixture of pure excitement and the realisation that the danger is omnipresent. You can’t stand on the startline and not think about the risks and the dangers that riders will face. The tension builds to a fever pitch until riders get a tap on their shoulder and are sent off to tackle the near 38 miles of the Mountain Course. Once the rider is released they drift into a state of concentration and their mind is focused on the task at hand.
“For me riding the bike at the TT is the same as anywhere else,” reflects Josh Brookes. “You’re in control and you choose when you brake and when you open the gas. You start to brake when you feel like you don’t want to go any faster and need to slow down. You don’t open the gas until you feel like it’s your moment to accelerate. It’s all your own choices and your own actions, so you don’t feel nervous when you’re riding the bike.
“My riding style isn’t something I think about. You go into a state of natural self-preservation. There are corners on this track where I know I can go quicker. I know there’s corners that I could get on the brakes deeper and carry more speed but as the track’s coming at you your brain stops you from being able to hold the throttle open. It makes you grab hold of the brakes. You know you can go quicker but there’s something that always stops you from doing that. It always pulls you up short of where the danger lies.
“You do get to a point where you know from the previous laps that you’ve done gone through a section perfectly on every lap and you start to then build up some confidence in your mind. That allows you to then go closer and closer to the limit. It’s a different limit to a short circuit though. The way you feel on the bike in your mind is very relaxed here, whereas a lap around a short circuit is so intense.”
That intensity is something that has excited riders and fans for over 110 years, and it won’t change in the future.