HUNTER OR HUNTED: WHO’D BE NUMBER ONE?
TT starting numbers are a big deal, because the position from which you start each race from the top of Glencrutchery Road plays a major part in your strategy and can make the difference between winning and losing.
A long, long time ago, Isle of Man TT Races were started with mass starts from a grid on Glencrutchery Road. That was obviously a risky way to start a race on such a challenging course, so eventually the format was revised so that riders started in pairs at ten-second intervals, with results decided on race time rather than track position. More recently the format changed again, with riders starting individually, every ten seconds.
Staggered starts add another challenge to the TT, because they introduce a further tactical element to the racing. Do you want a clear road in front of you? Or do you want someone to chase?
All the top riders have their own opinions on this subject and sometimes change their minds as they learn more about the TT.
TT rookies start further down the order and are moved towards the front over the years as they gain experience and raise the pace. The top 20 starting positions are now seeded, according the wishes of the organisers and the riders themselves.
Current lap record holder Peter Hickman made his TT debut in 2014, running number 60 (his preferred short-circuit number) and starting from a long way down. At that time, he had no doubts that he wanted to work his way to the very front of the starting order:
“When I started at the TT I was obviously starting a way back and I always wanted to get to the front and go first,” says the 9-times winner. “Then during practice for my third year I managed to get out first at the start of one of the evening sessions, so I was first on the road and I absolutely hated it! I hated the feeling of knowing that I was the first bike. It just didn’t feel right.”
Despite being the fastest man in TT history, Peter Hickman does not like to lead from the front!
“When you’re out first there’s been nothing going around the course for a while, so it’s all dead quiet and all the birds and rabbits come out and all of a sudden the first bike comes through and scares everything off.”
“Ever since that night I’ve never set off first in practice or anything and I never want to start number 1 in a race. It’s not really about being the hunter or the hunted; for me it’s more about having a few bikes ahead of me and scaring everything away before I get there!”
Quite a few riders don’t like being the so-called ‘road sweeper’, but the TT’s most successful current exponent doesn’t mind much at all. John McGuinness has been first away down Bray Hill more than anyone in recent decades and he sees positives and negatives whatever his starting position, even though his first go at starting first was a disaster:
“I went number one in the 1999 Formula One Race, riding the Vimto Honda NSR500V,” recalls the 50-year-old, who rode his 100th TT last year. “I was inexperienced and couldn’t deal with it all. I remember looking over my shoulder before the start and there was Joey Dunlop, number 3, David Jefferies, Jim Moodie, Iain Duffus, so I just fell apart.”
McGuinness and the number 1 plate has become a familiar sight over nearly a 25-year period!
Since then, McGuinness has been first away around 30 times, including all of his five races last year.
“I like going number 1 for a few reasons. First, you’re always going to get on the telly, which is good for your sponsors! And if you’re fast enough, you’ll be gone. And I like it because if you go, say, number 4 or 5, and someone breaks down in front of you, you’ll get yellow flags, so you’ll lose some time.”
“I also like it because the track’s clean and you can take your own lines. Sometimes when I’ve started a few places back I get fixated on the black lines that the guys in front have laid down. Plus being number 1 is cool – it’s an honour! Some people say you’re the bird scarer, but you can knobble a couple of birds wherever you start.”
“There’s positives and negatives to everything, so it’s just how you deal with it. This year we’ve changed things around a bit, so I’m going number 3. We’ll see if I can catch 1 and 2 and if I don’t, and I get passed by 4 and 5, maybe they’ll drag me along a bit.”
Local hero Conor Cummins has been the TT’s other big number 1 of recent years:
“You’re the first man off, so the build-up is really big, so you feel the pressure more,” he says. “But I love going off number 1 – it’s a totally different challenge and mentality, because you set your own pace and you’re on your own with the whole track to go at.”
Conor Cummins is one of a few that enjoys leading from the front.
Three-times winner Dean Harrison isn’t that bothered about where he starts – anywhere in the top five will do – but he does like chasing down riders who have started in front of him.
Last year he started number 2, so he had McGuinness to chase:
“In one of the big races the first time I saw John was coming out of Union Mills on the first lap. There’s a little right kink at the top of the hill after Union Mills and I saw him just disappearing through that kink. When you do that you know you’ve gained a second or so and you just chip away from there. You really notice it at Greeba Castle [almost six miles into the lap] – I saw him there tipping left into Greeba Bridge and I caught him a few miles later, going through Glen Helen.”
“Obviously you try and get past as cleanly as you can and try not to waste too much time. In 2016 I bumped into Michael Rutter at Parliament Square – I got alongside him and he let the brakes off and we had a bit of a touch. Nowt major, because it’s only walking pace there, but I did apologise to him after!”
“If you start lower down, say 15, and you’re going at a good pace, you’re going to get quite a bit of traffic, and because everyone in the top twenty is fast you can catch someone and it may take a little bit to get past, so you waste time.”
Sometimes a few seconds lost trying to find a safe place to overtake can make the difference between winning and losing a race, so it’s a big deal.
Jamie Coward finished second in the 2019 Lightweight, 1.29 seconds behind winner Michael Dunlop. But it could have been very different if he hadn’t got stuck behind another rider: Hickman, of all people!
“I was leading the race by a few seconds at the previous checkpoint, then I caught Peter,” says the 33-year-old Yorkshireman. “He had started at 10 and I’d started at 15, but he was riding the Norton, which obviously wasn’t the fastest bike out there, and he was riding well, so I just couldn’t get past safely. I got stuck behind him for a few miles after Rhencullen and that lost me quite a lot of time to Michael, so it can cost you a race. But that’s the nature of the TT – sometimes you catch people at the wrong place and sometimes you catch them at the right place.”
Jamie Coward was caught out by ‘traffic’ in the 2019 Supertwin Race, so opted for number 1 in 2022.
Inevitably, Hickman, who has started number 10 at the last five TTs, has also caught rivals in the wrong place.
“Last year in the shortened two-lap Supersport Race I caught four people in one spot, so I lost a bit of time waiting to pass them and finally got them all in one go, but that definitely lost me time and I only lost the race by three seconds.”
“I think in the longer races that’s not such a problem, but there’s always debate in our team about where’s best to start and whether we should move from number 10. The thing is that all the riders in the top ten are fast, which makes them harder to pass than the backmarkers – and when you do pass you’ve got to be super-clean and super-neat.”
So, who will start where for TT 2023? The Top 20 for the RST Superbike, RL360 Superstock, and Milwaukee Senior TT Races will be unveiled on Wednesday 29th March.