Racing on the public roads is always a challenge and for newcomers even more so. At places like the Isle of Man TT, the general rule is that it takes three years to learn the 37.73-mile circuit and only then will you be able to challenge for the race wins.
However, that isn’t always true and some riders have gone on to make sensational debuts, not just there but elsewhere on the roads too. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Grand Prix races were held on the roads and it was part and parcel of the day job but by the 1970s, it wasn’t so we take a look at some of the best road racing debuts from that period onwards.
Takazumi Katayama – 1976 Isle of Man TT
Japanese rider Takazumi Katayama first came to Europe in 1974, finishing fourth in that year’s 350cc World Championship, and with the British Grand Prix still being held at the Isle of Man TT, he made his debut on the Mountain Course in 1976, keen to try and grab some world championship points in the 250cc, 350cc and 500cc races.
His debut proved to be sensational with three top ten finishes but the undoubted highlight was a brilliant, and unbelievable, second place finish in the 250cc race only 25 seconds adrift of race winner Tom Herron who was seen very much as a roads specialist. Katayama went on to further prove his aptitude on the most famous road race circuit in the world with fourth in the Senior 500cc race, missing out on a second podium finish by just five seconds, and ninth in the 350cc race.
Katayama would go on to win the 1977 350cc World Championship and despite the TT losing its World Championship status, he returned to the event in 1978.
Jock Taylor – 1978 Isle of Man TT
The 1978 Isle of Man TT was a bitter-sweet meeting for all concerned with the fairytale return of Mike Hailwood offset by the horrendous accidents in the opening Sidecar race which claimed the lives of Mac Hobson, Kenny Birch and Ernst Traschel and a crash in the Senior race which ended the career of American Pat Hennen.
However, it also saw the emergence of a sidecar driver who would scale incredible heights and, arguably, become the greatest exponent on three wheels around the Mountain Course – Jock Taylor. The reigning Scottish champion tackled the TT for the first time in 1978 with the experienced Kenny Arthur in the chair and, following in the footsteps of Rolf Steinhausen and Rolf Biland, who excelled on their debuts, finished second and third in the two races.
His talent and skill was seen in subsequent years when, with Swede Benga Johansson in the chair, he took four wins between 1980 and 1982 and continually raised the lap record. Indeed, his lap of 108.29mph in 1982 was, at the time, only 7mph slower than the outright solo lap record, and stood for seven years. World champion in 1980, Taylor would surely have set the first 110mph lap on three wheels but he was tragically killed during the 1982 Finnish Grand Prix at Imatra.
Graeme Crosby/Graham Crosby – 1979 Isle of Man TT/Ulster Grand Prix
Australian and New Zealand riders have traditionally been successful on the public roads of the UK but in the 1970s, they were still finding their feet so the results achieved by Graeme McGregor (Australia) and Graeme Crosby (New Zealand) in 1979 were truly standout performances. Jeff Sayle had shone on his debut in 1978 and McGregor and Crosby quickly followed in his footsteps securing strong early-season results on the short circuits in the 250cc Vladivar Vodka and British Formula One Championships respectively.
It didn’t take them long to adjust to the rigours of the 37.73-mile Mountain Course either with both riders excelling. They were soon running at front-running pace and McGregor took a superb second place in the Junior 250cc race, only beaten by multiple winner Charlie Williams, a result that hasn’t been bettered since by a newcomer. He was also only a whisker outside the class lap record and, later in the week, finished fifth in the Classic race, posting a lap on his 350cc Yamaha that was only 3mph short of the outside lap record!
Crosby, meanwhile, finished fourth in the World Championship Formula One race and then went on to take third in the same race on his debut at the Ulster Grand Prix. Both riders would go on to win races at both events.
Keith Huewen – 1980 North West 200
Due to the slightly more straightforward layout, newcomers have traditionally gone well at the North West 200 with John Newbold, Graham Wood, Andy Watts and Niall Mackenzie just a few riders from the 1970s and 1980s to grace the podium at their first attempt. But one standout performance by a debutante came in 1980 when a then 23-year old Keith Huewen not only ended the day having won the feature Superbike race but also with a new lap record to his name.
The Northamptonshire rider had risen through the club ranks to quickly make a name for himself in the National scene in 1979. The following year saw him cross the Irish Sea in May to make his debut at the North West 200 and Huewen had a titanic, race-long battle with good friend Newbold. Indeed, he set a new lap record of 125.01mph on his way to winning by the width of a tyre but, surprisingly, it would prove to be his only appearance at the meeting.
John Newbold – 1981 Isle of Man TT
In the early 1970’s, John Newbold established himself as one of the UK’s most promising youngsters and it led to two years, 1975 and 1976, with the factory Heron Suzuki team. It proved to be a major challenge for the then 22-year old but it did see him claim victory in the 1976 500cc Czechoslovakian Grand Prix. Reverting back to privateer status in 1977 he quickly rebuilt his career and impressed both on the short circuits and at the North West 200 where he won the 500cc race in 1978.
For various reasons, he opted out of the Isle of Man TT but after rejoining the Heron Suzuki team in 1981, he finally made his bow around the 37.73-mile course – and what a debut it was. He opened his account for the week with fourth place in the World Championship Formula One race, a result he matched in the closing Classic race, and he finished in a superb third place in the 500cc Senior race mid-week.
The following season started well with some strong rides in the annual Transatlantic Trophy Match races but, sadly, he lost his life at the 1982 North West 200 when he crashed at Juniper Hill after touching the rear wheel of team-mate Mick Grant.
David Jefferies – 1999 Ulster Grand Prix
By mid-1999, David Jefferies was already established as one of Britain’s best road racers having taken hat-tricks that year at both the Isle of Man TT and North West 200 whilst he’d also won the Scarborough Gold Cup on numerous occasions. However, it wasn’t until August that year that he tackled the Ulster Grand Prix for the first time and whilst he was expected to shine given his superb CV, many thought he’d have to give second best to experienced Dundrod exponents such as Joey Dunlop, Jason Griffiths and Iain Duffus.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn’t take him long to get up to speed around the 7.4-mile circuit on his V&M Yamaha and he sensationally won the opening Superbike race after a close battle with team-mate Duffus and Dunlop, just 0.64s covering the trio at the chequered flag. Second place then followed in the Supersport race, Duffus getting the verdict by 0.06s and although he looked on course to take a second win in the second Superbike race, the master himself, Dunlop, wasn’t to be outdone on this occasion and Jefferies had to settle for the runner-up spot. It would be 13 years before his best newcomer’s lap was beaten.
Bruce Anstey – 2002 NW200
Bruce Anstey was a New Zealand champion when he first arrived on the UK shores in 1996 for the Isle of Man TT where he soon impressed, finishing seventh in 1999 and then taking an excellent second place in 2000. All of these results were achieved on 250cc two-strokes but he moved onto the four-strokes in 2002 with devastating effect.
The Kiwi joined the privateer CR Racing team in 2002 and made his debut at the North West 200. It was a stunning first time appearance for Anstey when, despite the inclement conditions, he dominated the Production 1000cc race to win by almost 12 seconds from David Jefferies.
Since then, Anstey has become one of the greatest road racers of all time winning 12 races at the Isle of Man TT, 10 at the North West 200 and 13 at the Ulster Grand Prix.
Tim Reeves – 2008 Isle of Man TT
When Tim Reeves arrived at the 2008 Isle of Man TT Races, he was already a World and British Champion so his debut at the TT was certainly much anticipated. Dave Molyneux and Nick Crowe were expected to contest the wins but, with Patrick Farrance in the chair, the Kent driver got quicker and quicker during practice week and in the opening three-lap race, he became the first sidecar newcomer to ever have lapped at more than 110mph.
Reeves claimed a simply superb third place in the race – the first sidecar newcomer to finish on the podium since Jock Taylor in 1978, exactly 30 years before Reeves achieved the same feat – and backed it up with sixth in the second. It’s perhaps surprising that Reeves has only gone on to win one race at the TT but he’s still competing and has every chance of adding to that tally in 2018. Without doubt, one of the best sidecar drivers the UK has ever produced.
Peter Hickman – 2014 NW200/TT/UGP
With Guy Martin having set the first 120mph lap by a TT newcomer in 2004, the bar was subsequently raised by Steve Plater (125.808mph) in 2007 and Australian Josh Brookes (127.726mph) in 2013 with many expecting the latter’s lap to stand for some time. However, just a year later Peter Hickman arrived on the scene and he promptly became the fastest newcomer ever to lap the Mountain Course, a feat he also achieved at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix!
With ten years of short circuit experience under his belt, the majority of which were in the British Superbike Championship, much was expected of the Burton upon Trent rider when he announced he was to tackle the roads for the first time in 2014 – and he didn’t disappoint. Concentrating solely on a Superstock BMW, his results at the NW200 were hampered by the rain but at the Ulster GP, he unbelievably lapped in excess of 131mph on his way to a brace of fifth places. And at the TT, he finished all three of his races inside the top 15, taking a best finish of 8th, whilst also lapping at a scintillating 129.104mph.
He’s since won races at the Ulster GP and Macau GP whilst TT2017 saw him finish on the podium in all five of his races. A win at the latter is surely not too far away.
Glenn Irwin – 2015 NW200/2016 Macau GP
Alan Irwin was one of Northern Ireland’s most successful riders in the 1980s and 1990s winning numerous championships and races, both on the short circuits and public roads so it was only natural that his three sons – Graeme, Andrew and Glenn – would have their own two-wheel careers, the former in motocross and the other two in road racing. Glenn’s main focus initially was on the short circuits and he soon established himself as one of the front runners in the British Supersport Championship. In 2015 though, he made his debut at the North West 200 and he was immediately on the pace.
After a strong qualifying performance, he pushed multiple race winner Alastair Seeley all the way in the opening Supersport race before being forced to retire in the closing stages but he more than made amends in the second as he took second place, only a lack of circuit knowledge preventing him taking the win. He then took fourth in the Supertwins race at the Ulster Grand Prix and in 2016 made a stunning debut at the Macau Grand Prix where he looked on course for a podium position at least until he had to retire with just two laps to go. The fastest newcomer in the history of the event, he won the race in 2017 having won the feature Superbike race at the North West 200 earlier in the year.
Irwin maintains his focus on his career in the British Superbike Championship but he clearly has all the capabilities to carve out a successful career on the roads too.