MOST motorcyclists have the Isle of Man TT on their bucket list. A combination of massive speed, huge talent and unquestionable danger (two more riders died this year to bring the IOM all-time death count to 252) make the event a must-see for anyone with bikes in their blood. The Bike Shed Times‘ globe-trotting Norton-riding flag-waving contributor DAN TALBOT made it to the isle again this year, hoping to see some Norton glory. Norton’s performance didn’t quite go to plan, but lap records fell like C-graders, a new fastest-ever average speed was set (135.452mph, on a BMW) and two young Australian riders covered themselves in glory. Dan filed this report before boarding a plane to fly back to Australia, presumably to give his Commando a big hug.
THE Isle of Man TT is becoming an annual pilgrimage for my wife and me. This year was to be a particularly exciting one for us, due to the emergence of Norton as a real contender for a podium finish. As a British bike fanatic since my teens, it took 40 years for a Norton to move from my fantasy garage into my real one. My Commando is a far cry from the current factory racing machine, but Norton’s 100 year connection to the Isle of Man TT has made them a firm favourite with fans of both classic and modern racing machines.
The 2018 TT was run in beautiful English summer weather. The dry track with plenty of sunlight shining through the trees that line much of the circuit may be responsible for multiple records being broken because race after race saw old record sheets crumpled up and tossed in the bin. Former TT winner, Norton factory racer and now ITV4 commentator Cam Donald suggested the lack of rain had left plenty of rubber on the circuit, primarily laid down by sidecars, aiding the grip of the Superbikes which led to a swathe of records being broken across all classes.
As always, the machinery improves in a steady march towards the perfect motorcycle but the heart and soul of TT racing is maintained by a stream of talented, focused and extremely brave young men (and, this year, one woman), who are prepared to lay their life on the line that we might be entertained. And entertained we were.
This was going to be a story about Norton’s increasingly successful return to TT racing, but for any Australian spectator it was the performance by Adelaide’s David Johnson that stole the show. Johnson was in fantastic form all through practice (qualifying) week and in the Superbike race where finished a creditable 4thplace. There was a lot of pressure on the talented young Australian rider and he proved he has the mettle to withstand it.
Johnson is now on a BMW but in 2016 and 2017, along with fellow Australian, Josh Brookes, he took the Norton V4 to two top-10 finishes earning Norton the coveted Technical Excellence award in the process by having top 10 finishes in both the Superstock (formerly production bike) and superbike classes, firmly announcing Norton was back.
Norton is now the fastest British bike ever to lap the Isle of Man. That this machine has come from such a small outfit makes it all the more remarkable. Only a few thousand Nortons have been sold since the Stuart Garner wrested the Norton marque back from the Americans but racing, and winning at racing, is central to the new company’s program. “Racing is integral to Norton’s history,” Garner told Cycle World in 2016, and the company have wasted no time in designing and preparing a dedicated race bike.
In February 2018, Norton proudly signed 23-time TT winner John McGuinness to race the factory V4 and renewed its contract with Josh Brookes. The press releases showed an injured McGuinness hobbling along on crutches, the legacy of a crash at Northern Island’s North West 200 event in May, 2017, where the 46-year-old suffered multiple fractures. It was always in doubt that McGuinness would be in the 2018 TT line-up and, indeed, he wasn’t, leaving Brookes the sole Norton factory rider. One wonders how the team might have gone had they retained David Johnson.
TT 2018 has been Johnson’s year to shine. He has had an extremely successful campaign with Gulf BMW which has seen him in blistering form and the fastest Aussie ever to lap the Isle of Man. Having been campaigning in the UK since 2002, the affable Australian has become a firm favourite with the Brits with a fiercely staunch Australian supporter base on the Island. From trackside Johnson exhibits a wild style, most likely due to the powerful 1000cc BMW beneath him. We keep our fingers crossed and teeth gritted when this gifted rider passes us at upwards of 180 mph. It quite literally takes your breath away, followed by slight relief to know he’s safely rounded the next bend.
By contrast, Josh Brookes’ smooth technique indicates Norton is having a win in getting the power to the ground. The bike looks sure-footed and firm but it is the sound of the Norton that makes the most impact when the glittering, silver machine flashes by. The commentators would even silence themselves just so listeners could hear the machine go past their microphone points!
The small company has progressed a long way since I was last on the Island in 2015 when Cam Donald rode the Norton, with an engine that was powerful beyond the limits of the chassis, to a creditable 18thplace and set a new lap record for a British built machine.
The final event of the TT fortnight is the Senior TT. It is a tough race. Six laps of the 37-mile circuit demands extreme concentration for almost two hours. In the first Superbike race the average speed was pushed out 134.432 mph by the talented Dean Harrison on his Kawasaki ZX10. Most motorcyclists would never have ridden that fast but on the Island this is the average speed, with top speeds around 200mph. Harrison elevated himself as a favourite for the Senior TT, the premier event of the TT calendar.
The Senior TT proved to be a cracker of a race, despite some of the biggest names having mechanical failures. With Michael Dunlop clearly not able to get his BMW up to race speed, the last lap was fought out by Dean Harrison and Peter Hickman. The race had Harrison’s name on it right from the start yet Hickman was able to muster something from deep within himself and his machine.
The 265-corner street circuit, ordinarily open to normal traffic, is rough and lumpy, it is lined with dry-stone fences, buildings and trees. The conditions are gruelling on tyres, engines and components with a high rate of attrition. Unfortunately one of those that succumbed to mechanical failure was Davo Johnson’s BMW (yes folks, the BMW broke down) rendering Davo to spectator status after just one lap.
It was frightening to watch Hickman on the mountain, particularly when he went off the course throwing up dust and grass from the back wheel of a motorcycle travelling at 190 mph. In that, the last lap, Hickman pushed his Smith’s Racing BMW to a new lap record with an average speed of 135.452 to take the Senior TT crown by two seconds. That’s two seconds over a 226 miles (364 km), 1 hr 43 minutes race.
Josh Brookes maintained his smooth steady, form bringing the Norton into 5thplace and a new personal best for Norton and Brookes of 131.7 mph, behind Michael Dunlop, Connor Cummins, Dean Harrison and the Senior TT winner for 2018 Peter Hickman.
Australians thinking about travelling to the Isle of Man TT in 2019 should start getting their travel plans together because I predict it will be an even bigger year for two very talented Australian riders.
Vale: Dan Kneen (1987 – 2018); Adam Lyon (1994 – 2018).