There was a time when all motorcycle road racers had to compete on closed public roads as well as on purpose-built short circuits but that’s a thing of the past. As higher safety standards were demanded by racers in the 1970’s, pure road races like the Isle of Man TT were dropped from the world championship calendar.
A thriving TT
Many road races, including the TT, continued to thrive but they were contested by a more specialist breed of racer – epitomised by the late Joey Dunlop – who much preferred to do their racing between stone walls, hedges, and houses.
Rossi and Lorenzo special guests
No modern MotoGP star would even consider racing on pure roads circuits, a fact made clear by the likes of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo who have both visited the TT as special guests. While both men expressed huge admiration for the TT competitors, they also made it perfectly clear that they would never contest such a race themselves.
Up for the challenge?
There’s no rush of World Superbike stars lining up to race between the hedges either, although a few British Superbike regulars have taken on the challenge in recent years – most notably Josh Brookes and Peter Hickman – with some degree of success.
But the very best pure road racers of recent years have tended to be specialists and, while they may have enjoyed some short circuit success, it’s on closed public roads that they really excel. David Jefferies and John McGuinness are good examples.
Success on short circuits
Both had some measure of success on short circuits (McGuinness is a former 250cc British champion and Jefferies was a double British Superstock champion) but never at the very highest level. Neither of them ever won a British or World Superbike title and, while both had limited outings in 500cc Grands Prix, it was always on inferior bikes that stood no chance of winning.
Put McGuinness on a Superstock 1000 or Superpsort 600 at a British championship round and he often struggles to trouble the top 15, yet sit him on a Superbike at the TT and the chances are the fastest road racers in the world won’t see which way he went.
The last rider to really successfully cross between road racing and top flight circuit racing was Carl Fogarty, A double TT winner in 1990, he set a new outright lap record during his last TT in 1992 before going on to lift four World Superbike titles.
The pace of Josh Brookes and Peter Hickman at the TT in recent years seems to prove that BSB riders operate at a higher level than specialist road racers. Both men are race winners in BSB and Brookes in particular is a genuine championship contender.
Fastest TT newcomers
So when they decided to try their hands at road racing, Brookes and Hickman broke all previous records to become the fastest TT newcomers in history. In his very first year at the TT in 2014, Hickman circulated at an incredible 129.10mph – only 3mph slower than the outright lap record at the time, set by Bruce Anstey who has 18 years of TT experience to draw on.
So if BSB racers can do that, imagine what a top flight MotoGP rider could do if he ever decided to have a serious crack at the TT.
Would Marquez be faster than McGuinness around the most demanding 37.73-mile stretch of Tarmac in the world? Or would McGuinnesss’ vast experience over-ride the undoubted pace of the Spaniard?
Dangers of road racing
It’s no great surprise that it’s the dangers of pure road racing that discourage most short circuit stars from having a go. They’re accustomed to having huge run-off areas and miles of air-fencing so they can afford to crash in the knowledge that they’ll walk away relatively unhurt, nine times out of ten.
No-one can afford to crash on a pure road circuit lined with stone walls and everybody knows it, so the primary objective is to stay on the bike. And if you can’t risk crashing, then you surely can’t be riding a motorcycle right on the ragged edge which is what MotoGP riders do, lap after lap, every time they go out on a bike.
Ultra-late breaking and high-lean angles
Marc Marquez might get away with skating his Honda RC213V into the first few corners of a roads course but he wouldn’t be able to do it for long before the inevitable happened. Besides, the bumpy and uneven nature of pure roads courses prevent the kind of ultra-late braking and high-lean angle style that’s required in MotoGP.
So who’s the better rider? Does it take more skill to keep a 220bhp Superbike under control and shiny-side up around the TT course or to carry 64 degrees of lean angle on a billiard-table smooth short circuit whilst clashing fairings with hordes of other riders?
Misleading average speeds?
Average speeds at the TT and in MotoGP are somewhat misleading. The outright lap record at the TT currently belongs to John McGuinness and stands at 132.70mph while the fastest average speed even at a super-quick MotoGP track like Philip Island is just over 110mph.
But that doesn’t mean that McGuinness is a faster rider than Valentino Rossi – his average speed is higher simply because there are such long straights on the TT Course that riders can hold their bikes flat-out for minutes at a time, while the longest straight in MotoGP is just over one kilometre.
Top speed differences
Despite this, the top speed recorded in MotoGP is 217.79mph (Marc Marquez, Qatar, 2015) while the fastest official speed ever recorded at the TT was ‘just’ 193.40mph, as set by John McGuinness during the 2014 Senior TT. (Faster speeds – up to 206mph – have been claimed by onboard telemetry readouts from the TT but the official top speeds are recorded by transponders passing two timing points at the end of Sulby Straight).
MotoGP tracks are only around three miles long and have many first and second gear corners which also keeps average lap times down, whereas on the 37-73 TT Course, there are really only a handful of very slow, first-gear corners (like Ramsey Hairpin and Governors Bridge).
Clearly, the bikes in MotoGP are far superior to anything that ever gets raced on road circuits. They are priceless, pure prototype thoroughbreds, designed purely for racing and not available to buy, whereas road race bikes are modified street bikes that any good team can build for around £50,000.
MotoGP bikes also feature hugely sophisticated electronics packages and endless adjustment options which means the rider needs to have an extremely analytical mind in order to get the best from his bike. Road race bikes need setting up too – especially Superbikes – but, being road-based machines, the options for adjustment are far less and there’s practically no electronics involved either, certainly when they’re running in BSB-spec.
There’s no question that road racing is far more dangerous than short circuit racing, though fatalities do still happen in MotoGP as the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli in 2011 proved.
Fortunately that is now a rare occurrence in world championship racing but the same cannot be said for road racing. In 2014 we lost Simon Andrews and Karl Harris, at the North West 200 and TT respectively, and you only have to look back through a list of road racing greats that are no longer with us to appreciate the dangers; Joey Dunlop, David Jefferies, Robert Dunlop, Martin Finnegan, Richard Britton – the list goes on.
So does it take more guts to set off down the fearsome Bray Hill than it does to barrel into Copse Corner at Silverstone, even though MotoGP riders are far more likely to crash?
Circuit racing and pure road racing are now recognised as being two separate branches of the same sport, requiring different skills and different riding techniques, different bikes and a different breed of riders.
There’s no question that MotoGP riders – those at the very pinnacle of short circuit racing – are the finest in the world when it comes to getting on the throttle earlier and staying on the brakes later, carrying insane lean angles, and lapping so consistently and so precisely that their lap times are rarely more than a few tenths apart.
As to whether this would make them better pure road racers, well, we’re never going to know the definitive answer to that one until one of the very top men decides to give it a go – and that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
TT or MotoGP – the choice is yours.
It’s certainly a contentious subject that we’ve all got our own opinions on, so where did you stand in our polls?
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Stuart Barker is a freelance motorcycle journalist and author. A former MCN reporter and features writer, he is now editor of the Official Isle of Man TT and Classic TT programmes and has contributed to most major UK motorcycling titles including MCN, Bike, Ride, Superbike, Two Wheels Only, Fast Bikes, Classic Bike and Classic Racer. His books include biographies of Barry Sheene, Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, David Jefferies and Evel Knievel as well as a centennial history of the TT races.