MANX FOR THE MEMORIES
Driving the daunting Isle of Man TT course in an Evora, it soon became apparent that the racing is little more than a suicide mission.
Words: Johnny Tipler
Photos: Laura Drysdale, Johnny Tipler
Last throw of the dice: in late September 2021, I took an Evora 410GT to the Isle of Man. When I picked it up from Lotus’s Hethel plant, PR Alastair Florance said that the final Evoras were just then going down the line. So, where to take my old friend HL66LCL? I’d never been to the Isle of Man before, and having viewed Guy Martin’s video Closer to the Edge, I was inspired to sample it for myself.
A lap of the TT course when the event isn’t on is a hit-and-miss affair. On public roads, the course is subject to normal traffic conditions, ranging from tractors, lorries grinding slowly up hills, traffic lights at junctions such as St Ninian’s corner and later on entering Ramsey, plus several delays at road works – getting shots at hump-back Ballaugh Bridge was impossible on account of road works and lane closures. And 20mph limits during schools coming out, such as in Kirk Michael. On one lap, the Mountain road was closed because of a traffic accident at The Bungalow – an establishment itself shut due to road improvements. But enough of these qualifiers to enjoying a good experience on the course; there are ample opportunities for appreciating the bends – and the straights – when you’ve got 37 miles to play with. That said, so long as speed limits are adhered to in villages, there is no national speed limit on the open road. 100mph? How about 130? I can only stand in awe of TT racers who hit 200mph in places. They do 160mph through Crosby; we can only dawdle as it’s still an urban area and a 30mph limit. Given the terrain and the omnipresent perils, these speeds seem nothing short of suicidal on two wheels; I’d be hard pressed to dare do them on four, even with the roads closed to public access. For the record, the current lap record is 16 minutes 42.77 seconds - an average speed of 137.45mph - set by Peter Hickman in 2018. Under the circumstances, timing our laps in the Evora would have been futile.
The obvious differences between being on a car and on a bike are the extreme vulnerability to hazards. Starting with the surface, it’s decent blacktop for much of it, but some godawful in others. Plus, manhole covers, drains and the hotchpotch of bad repairs in urban areas like Douglas, Ramsey and Kirk Michael. If a car with the superlative compliance of the Evora feels the undulations, imagine what goes through the frame of a race bike and the rider’s body. Simple things that we take for granted loom large at high speed, and demand total vigilance: whilst you can remember the main landmark corners like The Gooseneck, there are plenty of lesser bends that are unmemorable and they can catch you out, as can as camber changes. There’s the pitter-patter of all the undulations you're experiencing the whole time through the steering wheel, but on a bike, that’d be through your wrists, your arms and your torso as you're lying on the petrol tank. And when the weather changes abruptly, like it did on one lap where we got a few drops of rain, or bright sunlight, which can dazzle depending on time of day, creating pronounced shadows as you rush through avenues of trees, banks and buildings. Much of the course is delineated by kerbing, some quite high and some fairly innocuous, but the majority of the kerbstones are alternating black and white lending a chequered flavour to the course. There are miles of implacable stone walls, mostly very well maintained, which constitute yet another hazard. I hate to think what would happen if a wild animal strayed onto the course – which must happen occasionally. And sure, the TT does have a reputation for fatalities and, sadly, over 250 riders have died since the first event in 1907. But let’s not dwell on that. It’s about the challenge of pitting machine against the landscape going as fast as possible on a miniscule strip of ever-changing tarmac.
Here’s how the landmarks unfold. The races start off on the outskirts of Douglas on the long straight of Glencrutchery Road, beneath race control tower, the principal grandstand and the pits, where you'll see refuelling taking place and riders mounting up. It’s an urban scenario till Union Bells, where there's the Railway Inn, standing on the outside of the course, which overlooks the right-hand curve as it falls downwards toward the left-hander in the village. Then there's Governor's Bridge, which is a slow right-hand hairpin, followed by a left-hand curve through the Governor's Dip, and then an uphill exit to the right. To the cognoscenti they're iconic names, like Signpost Corner, Bedstead Corner, and Crosby Straight, which is a flat-out, 180mph stretch through the village, or Highlander, where bikes can be nudging 200mph on the straight downhill section, passing the Highlander restaurant. The Hawthorne Pub is a good spectating place, as is Glen Helen Pub, and Barregarrow, which is reckoned to be quite scary. In fact, a great deal of the course is exactly that: simply, scary. Innocuous Kirk Michael, where they bolt through the village at around 180mph - in what’s normally a 30mph limit. Ballaugh Bridge, where momentarily the bikes get airborne off the humpback bridge, where there's quick flick left and immediately right. Sulby Glen, where once again the fastest bikes are going 190mph. The speed is incessant. Heading down to Sulby Bridge, where they brake really hard to zap round the right-hander, barely noticing the actual bridge, and then the Ginger Hall pub is on the right-hand side, where we've got a bookmark photo: right now there’s just a delivery van parked outside, but during race week you’d hardly see the place for spectators. At seaside Ramsey the pace is slowed by sharp corners and a very uneven surface. And then it’s a long, steep ascent to the Mountain section, a moorland pasture setting with astounding views glimpsing most of the Island. The first corner is Ramsey Hairpin, literally a tight uphill left-hander, probably the slowest point - on our lap, at any rate. Soon after comes the Gooseneck, a sharp right-hander, with great braking and cornering action. And then the long haul, going higher and higher to The Bungalow, straight-lining sweeping bends, with a tramline crossing, and long views in all directions. Then comes Brandywell, a 100mph left-hander, just beyond Hailwood's Heights, the highest point on the course. We’re getting close to the end of the Mountain section now, with Keppel Gate and Kate's Cottage, where the road descends quite steeply down to the Creg-ny-Baa pub-restaurant - where we had a pit stop of our own, a really nice lunch.
As for the Evora, it turns in impeccably, going round corners that have no apparent apex or exit, and even when I’d overcommitted due to unfamiliarity with the circuit, easing the wheel further to achieve the required turn-in. To a great extent, it’s a sensory thing: I simply ‘think’ the car through the bends, the brain on autopilot, analysing and implementing direction control, the work of an instant. Some corners are spellbinding, and you think, ah, if I could repeat that, how satisfying would it be. Like a motorcyclist, all the time I’m looking as far ahead as possible. The Evora is as responsive as one could wish, perfect turn-in, requiring gentle throttle pressure, powering into and out of turns; a section like Quarry Bends is sublime, flowing through the half-dozen successive serpentine curves at 80 or so (I wasn’t looking, but it felt like it). And the turn of speed along the straights – with blind crests and hidden dips – is phenomenal. Whilst I’m in top gear for the fast sections, optimum gears are third and fourth, with second necessary for the Ramsey Hairpin. Only an Exige Cup430 could do it faster, with similar sensitivity.
Time for some R&R. A visit to the Manx museum in Douglas revealed that TTs were run for cars in the 1920s and ’30s, so actually we were not masquerading usurpers doing laps in our Evora rather than on a bike. Which would have been possible, as bikes and kit like leathers and lids can be hired. Contemporary four-wheel motorsport also features the Manx National Rally and the Rally Isle of Man, dating from 1963 and a round of the British, Irish and European Rally Championships, with a winners’ roster including greats like Roger Clark, Tony Pond, Ari Vatanen, Patrick Snijers, Russell Brookes, Jimmy and Colin McRae, Mark Higgins, and all their illustrious navigators. Rally buffs will say, “why not major on the rallies, then?” Because the Isle of Man is, for me at least, all about the TT. A local rally was set to take place during our visit, and as we pootled along in the Lotus, a steward’s car pulled alongside and inquired if we were doing a recce for it. We had to disabuse them, explaining that we were in truth searching for a Neolithic monument…
There are a couple of other circuits on the Island: Billown, near Castletown, which dates from the mid-’50s, and there’s St Johns, a 15-mile loop incorporating roads in the north-west, and Clypse, which incorporates 10 miles of the Mountain course. However, no visit to the Island is complete without a scan of the TT and Motor Museum at Jurby on the north-west. This totally eclectic collection has been accumulated by Denis Cunningham over the past 30 years, and includes unusual coteries of vehicles such as the “Flower Cars”, huge American cars converted into pick-up trucks and allegedly employed at Mafiosi funerals. Or how about a dozen rotary-engined cars and bikes? There’s a large number of restored Humbers, and Fiat 124 coupes styled by Vignale, in many cases with a restored car juxtaposed with an unrestored example. When I asked Denis whether the decomposing E-type coupé would be restored to match its pristine neighbour, he replied that, if it was, it would simply be a restored Jaguar rather than an original unmolested car. The astonishing coincidence for me was discovering a friend and sometime colleague Mark Hales – racer and writer - in the building, in the process of delivering a Citroën Maserati to owner and curator Denis Cunningham. We agreed that the last time we’d seen each other was, if not at the Goodwood Revival, then at the Spa Six Hours perhaps three or four years previously. Among the exhibits that interested us most were the rotory (Wankel) engined motorcycles. Which brings us back to two wheels: next time, I’ll head over on a bike and catch the TT as it happens.