SENIOR TT: A RACE FOR THE AGES
As we edge closer to what’s known as the pinnacle event of the Isle of Man TT Races, we take a look back at the rich history of the Senior TT and the legends that have gone on to lift the iconic trophy over the last 112 years, to understand what it is that makes the Senior TT Race just so special.
It was 1907 when the first Isle of Man TT Races took place, however it wasn’t until 1911 that the Snaefell Mountain Course was used and, significantly, this was also the first time the famous Senior TT race was held – and when it did, it instantly became the Blue Riband event.
The Senior TT was the race for the largest capacity machines with 1911 seeing it open to 500cc single cylinder and 585cc twin cylinder machines. Held over five laps of the Mountain Course, it was Oliver Godfrey that first won on a 500cc Indian at an average speed of 47.63mph and a year later capacity was limited to 500cc machines which was how it remained until 1985.
Oliver Godfrey won the first ever Senior TT Race in 1911 with a speed of 47.63mph
Traditionally held on the final day of the event, race week would build up to the closing Senior TT Race with all the major manufacturers queuing up to not only contest it but, more importantly, win it. From Norton to AJS and from Rudge to Velocette, the race became a battle between the manufacturers to come out on top and when they did, they had the bragging rights for the following 12 months.
Less heralded 500cc manufacturers such as Moto Guzzi, Husqvarna, and BMW wanted to compete in the Senior TT Race as they quickly recognised the prestige and importance that came with it. This was in addition to the impact it had on sales. If you won the Senior TT and conquered the Mountain Course, your brand was seen to be the best.
It also became the race everyone remembered – as the closing event of race week, if you won the Senior TT, it stayed at the forefront of spectators minds for a full year – and the leading riders of the day were quickly adding their names to the most famous trophy in motorcycle racing, the Marquis de Mouzilly St. Mars Trophy.
Stanley Woods became an icon with 4 Senior TT Race wins
Alec Bennett, Wal Handley, Stanley Woods (a 4-time Senior race winner), Jimmy Guthrie, Freddie Frith and Harold Daniell were all victorious in the 1920s and 1930’s as was local rider Tom Sheard.
Sheard had become the first Manxman to win a solo TT race when he won the 1922 Junior and he repeated the feat a year later in the Senior, mastering the wet conditions on his Douglas to take victory by almost two minutes. Sheard would remain the only Manxman to win a solo TT until 1967 when Neil Kelly took the Production 500cc race and is still the only local winner of the Senior race.
Tom Sheard was the first manxman to win a Senior TT
Another significant Senior race, for vastly different reasons, took place in 1939 when German Georg Meier won on a BMW, the last one to take place before World War II broke out. Like all sporting events at the time, BMW saw the TT as the perfect environment to demonstrate their German prowess and, accompanied by members of the Nazi party, Meier, a Sergeant-Instructor with the Military Police, became the first foreign winner of the prestigious Senior TT.
A period of inactivity followed before racing resumed in 1946 with Harold Daniell quickly becoming a three-time winner of the race and its prestige soared even further in 1949 when both the race and event became part of the inaugural FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championships. Indeed, the Isle of Man TT held the first ever Grand Prix.
The Senior TT, continuing at 500cc capacity, remained part of the World Championship until 1976 before being transferred to Silverstone in the UK and it continued to see fierce competition amongst manufacturers, Norton initially being on top.
However, like racing worldwide, the TT saw a shift from the British single cylinder machines to the multi-cylinder machines from mainland Europe, Gilera and then MV Agusta being the dominant manufacturers at the time.
Unwieldy at the beginning, the machines soon became dominant and Geoff Duke, Senior TT winner for Norton in 1950 and 1951, was the first high-profile rider to switch to Gilera and he won the 1955 race when he narrowly missed out on the first ever 100mph lap of the Mountain Course with a speed of 99.97mph.
Bob McIntyre was the first to achiever over 100mph during the Senior TT in 1957
We didn’t have to wait long until the landmark was achieved though as Bob McIntyre accomplished the feat in 1957, the Golden Jubilee year for the TT, with a fastest lap of 101.12mph. To celebrate the anniversary, the Senior TT Race distance was increased to eight laps (302 miles), which remains not only the longest ever Senior TT Race but also the longest ever motorcycle Grand Prix. McIntyre won the race in 3hours 2minutes and 57seconds.
In the hands of John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini, the race became the domain of manufaturer MV Agusta though as they won 13 of the 17 races held between 1956 and 1972, the latter seeing Agostini chalk up his fifth Senior TT Race win and 10th TT victory in total. Only McIntyre’s 1957 success and Hailwood’s victories for Norton (1961) and Honda (1966 and 67) prevented a clean sweep for the Italian ‘fire engines’.
MOVING TO MID-WEEK
1973 then saw a shift as the Senior race moved to a midweek slot rather than its traditional Friday position, the F750 and the then Classic race closing the event instead. However, 1973 saw further history as Jack Findlay won for Suzuki, not only the first 500cc class victory for the Japanese manufacturer but also the first time the Senior TT Race had been won by a two-stroke machine.
Between 1973 and 1984, the Senior was held mid-week, usually on the Monday of race week and legendary names such as Phil Read (1977) and Hailwood added their name to the trophy, the latter chalking up his seventh Senior TT win and 14th and final TT victory in 1979.
Mick Grant was another to lift the prestigious trophy with 1983, strangely, seeing neither the Senior TT nor Classic TT Races held as stand-alone events. Instead, one single race was held under the Senior Classic title.
GREATEST RACE OF ALL-TIME
They reverted to single races the following year and the 1984 Senior TT was a race that lived in the memory for years as legends Joey Dunlop and Rob McElnea went head-to-head and repeatedly broke the outright lap record, Englishman McElnea taking the win after Dunlop, who’d lapped at 118.48mph, retired on the penultimate lap.
1985 and 1986 saw engine capacity increased to 1000cc and then 1300cc between 1987 and 1989 before being brought back down to 750cc from 1990-1998. It then went back up to 1000cc in 1999 where it has remained ever since.
John McGuinness drew level with Hailwood in 2015 with a record number of Senior TT wins
The list of race winners continued to read like a Who’s Who of the sport with Dunlop, Carl Fogarty, Steve Hislop, Phillip McCallen and Ian Simpson all victorious in the 1990’s. David Jefferies, John McGuinness MBE, Michael Dunlop and Peter Hickman all joined the roll of honour in the 2000s, McGuinness’s seventh win in 2015 seeing him draw alongside Hailwood as the record winner of the race.
The 1992 battle between Hislop and Fogarty was voted the greatest TT race of all-time with Hislop giving Norton their first TT win since 1961 whilst the 2018 race saw an equally titanic scrap, if not more so, between Hickman and Harrison. Hickman got the verdict by just 2.061 seconds as he set the current outright lap record of 135.452mph on his final lap.
Now, with just days to go until the 2023 Senior TT Race, we’re expecting another history making battle on Saturday 10th June between reigning champion Peter Hickman and the dominant force of this year’s TT Michael Dunlop. Hickman is fighting to keep his crown whilst Dunlop is focussed on making history, as he looks to become the most successful TT Rider ever.