I have great pleasure in welcoming back the esteemed Tom Richards to PetrolBlog who, last week, was fortunate enough to be working at the Isle of Man TT. I’m sure Tom won’t mind me saying that he told me that it was undoubtedly the high point of his career to date. Judging by the tone of his article, he hasn’t quite come back down to earth yet. So, without further waffle from me, I’ll hand you over to Tom.
To the petrolhead, there are perhaps a handful of places that represent ‘Mecca’, places so steeped in history and mythology that they are seen as something of a pilgrimage to those of us with unleaded on our minds and engine oil in our veins.
The Nürburgring immediately springs to mind, though I think the same status could be applied just as easily to Le Mans, Modena and even the Stelvio Pass. As you’ll have invariably gathered from the title, however, these particular scribblings relate to the Isle of Man TT.
You’ll notice from the pictures that there appear to be plenty of Subarus dotted around the place, and I shall say at this point – just to make it abundantly clear – that I work for Subaru UK’s PR agency and this was a work trip. Therefore, if you have come here to read yet more superlatives on the BRZ, or to hear an opinion on the WRX STi 320R in which I spent most of my weekend, then you are in the wrong place, as whatever I say would either be perceived as disgraceful bias or get me a stern ticking off.
What I will say is that there were moments when I was thankful for the All-Wheel Drive system fitted to the 320R, and that I found the BRZ every bit as entertaining as 99 per cent of the car reviews suggest.
To business, then: my pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT.
There has been a Tourist Trophy competition on the Isle since around 1905, and since then the 37-mile route that wends its way around the island has claimed more than 230 lives. On the day I arrived, the circuit was closed for an ominously lengthy two hours following a ‘racing incident’ involving a sidecar. While I wouldn’t call the Isle of Man an inherently ‘dangerous’ place, the course commands an enormous level of respect.
However, as is the way of things these days, when I asked Subaru’s contingent of American journalists whether this kind of race – with this kind of safety record – would ever be allowed in the USA, they couldn’t say ‘no’ fast enough. It was with this thought in mind that I spent my first day on the Isle as a passenger in the aforementioned WRX, blasting around a closed TT course.
The full route is utterly immense, there are no other words for it. There is simply far too much to take in over just two short runs. There are some 200 corners around the circuit, but I wasn’t counting – I was too busy holding on a door handle with one hand and my camera phone with the other, grinning a big Cheshire Cat grin.
In places, particularly the innumerable towns and villages, spectators line the course – in the tighter sections, you can be doing over 100mph all of a metre from watchers’ heads. Elsewhere, you won’t see a soul for miles – the route opens up in the second half, taking you over the mountain roads, through all the dramatic scenery you’d ever need, before plunging back down into the capital city, Douglas.
If you can imagine your favourite drive, whether through residential areas or down a winding lane, with no speed limits and never with any traffic coming the other way – and nothing stuck on your boot either – you wouldn’t be far off. It was incredible. Throw in the fact that it was a balmy 21C all day long, with clear blue skies and a gentle breeze, and it’s not incredible at all. It was Heaven, plain and simple.
The TT course is only one part of the Manx mystique, however. The petrolhead attitude seems to be endemic. While the government never actively encourages what we’ll call ‘racing line behaviour’ on a normal day – and the local radio station is peppered with safety announcements every few minutes – I got the impression that it appreciates its hard-earned status as a focal point for car and bike culture.
The second day on the island saw us way up in the mountains, driving on some of the worst surfaces that I’ve ever experienced, as we scrabbled our way up to a road that had been closed specially for us by the Isle of Man Department of Infrastructure. I can think of no other government that would give you that level of exclusivity over any public road, but apparently the Manx transport bods can be persuaded.
The sole aim of this particular stop was a passenger ride at the hands of Manx rally legend, Mark Higgins, who, you’ll recall, broke the longstanding TT car lap record last year. He’s the nicest guy you could care to meet (at lunch later that day, he was showing us YouTube videos on his iPhone over a plate of fish and chips), but show him a closed road no wider than a Range Rover, and a lightened BRZ tuned to his own standards, and my God, the man can drive.
Just as well, because the glorious weather from the day before had vanished, replaced instead by mist and cloud cover that cut visibility to within 100 yards all around, and enough drizzle to dampen even the woolliest of the livestock that line (and sometimes encroach upon) many of the mountain roads.
It’s a crazy place, the Isle of Man. Like nowhere else on Earth during TT week. The passion that people have for motorbikes and cars is simply unparalleled, and even the country’s government doesn’t ever really shy away from its petrolhead traditions.
I went for a jog along the Douglas promenade on the Monday evening, and passed a handful of individuals – bikers all – going for a gentle stroll along the sea front. They were still wearing their leathers – probably had been all day – and had sunburnt faces like you wouldn’t believe.
But with the sun bearing down on the horizon somewhere over the other side of the Isle, they all looked absolutely chuffed to be there, like they’d wondered for days across the desert and suddenly stumbled upon a cool bottle of beer and a parasol. Later that night, the sea front would be closed for a red-blooded bike stunt display in front of the thousands of spectators that pour into the island for the TT.
To anyone with even a dribble of 98 RON in their blood stream, it’s a far cry from the seemingly anti-car atmosphere generated by our politicians and all-too-vocal pressure groups.
It is, in a word, paradise.
You can follow Tom Richards on twitter @teorichards.