Isle of Man 2014
With so many new components to test on the Norton SG3 during practice week, the wet weather played havoc with our plans.
For example, the Wednesday evening was supposed to be the longest superbike practice session, with 90 minutes scheduled. This should have allowed ample time to make changes in between laps. We planned to go for at least three full laps. Part way around the first lap, I was already seeing rain drops on my screen, with very dark clouds above. Because of this, I was not pushing too hard; no point slipping off during practice. As I made my way back to the start-finish straight, the session was stopped.
On returning to the pits we were told there had been an incident. I thought it might also be raining elsewhere on the circuit.
So we took the opportunity to swap rear suspension units to try a shock absorber with different valving. Before the organisers had cleared the road for a re-start, the threatened rain finally came and it was another day done. With such a new machine as the SG3, it was imperative that we complete as many laps as possible and losing that track time was a real blow. With the first Superbike and Sidecar races scheduled for Saturday, May 31, we weren’t the only ones desperate for more practice. The sidecars didn’t even get one lap.
My refuelling man and good mate, Tim, had just flown in from Australia so we left the track after debriefing and headed out for a meal. The TT has a strange schedule, as you wait all day to practice in the evening and, by the time you stop to eat, it can be near midnight.
After being late to bed it was another early start on the Friday for some pit stop practice. With two stops to complete during the Superbike TT, we needed to make sure they were well rehearsed.
There are three men allowed to work on the bike during pit stops. This year I had James as my visor man (he’s done this for a few years now) and Tim had taken another “holiday” from Australia to do the refuel job. New to my pit crew was Johnny from Norton who was the rear-wheel man. I’m not sure who had the most-stressful job as they are all vital, but Johnny’s job requires the most effort. To change a rear wheel within 30 seconds isn’t easy when the clock is ticking. The pit stop practice went just as planned, giving me confidence for Saturday’s race.
We again spent time as a team sharing ideas and making a ‘plan’ to improve the bike as we waited for practice four. So far we were yet to lap at the pace we needed to but each day was another step closer!
Thursday night’s practice was delayed due to poor weather as rain fell on the mountain section. Then it was announced that only 600cc Supersport and 650cc Superlight classes would run.
These classes run a treated tyre so they could manage the wet and dry conditions, unlike a Superbike on slicks.
With a new rear shock absorber flown in from England that afternoon, we had been desperate to test the bike. After some fast talking we were allowed to run behind the other classes, but only until Ramsay. This would still give me half a lap to assess the new parts. A couple of my crew waited at Ramsay in the van and picked me up for the run back to the paddock.
Come Friday and our final evening of practice before Saturday’s Superbike race was vitally important. I ran a single lap to try some new settings before returning to try my first two-lap run for the week. Lap one was okay and I set our fastest lap of 18:23.440 with a 123.095mph (197.94km/h) average speed before a glitch surfaced on lap two. It turned out to be a fuel pump problem that caused the bike to stall on corner entry.
It was now just hours until our first TT race with the Norton SG3 and, due to lack of practice, we were struggling to find the required pace. Big improvements often require big changes so the team worked all night fitting a new engine and some other chassis parts.
Come Saturday morning I arrived at the circuit feeling fresh and ready to race. My crew had now been at the circuit and on the tools for 36 hours!
On lap one I “eased into it” as I had a very different set up to earlier in the week, with an 18:25.387 at 122.878mph (197.75km/h). By the end of the lap I was gaining confidence and, although the bike wasn’t running at its best, I was starting to build pace. Soon after this a similar problem to the one on Friday night surfaced and I had to retire at the end of Sulby straight.
After pulling off the circuit I got the bike running again and headed back to the paddock via the coast road. Riding the Norton with a straight-through exhaust on 20km of open, public road certainly turned some heads. With the sun shining off the ocean, I reminded myself that things could be worse. Again we had learned some valuable lessons and would keep working to return stronger for the Senior TT.
We had a few days to work on the SG3 and, if weather permitted, another two laps of practice for the Senior TT on the Wednesday evening.
I LIKE TO WATCH…
With the break, I had the chance to watch the first Supersport race on the Monday. This was always going to be a close one – on paper there were at least six riders capable of winning. Before the race started it was announced that the circuit still had damp patches – I didn’t feel so disappointed at not being on the grid!
Heading out on the fastest circuit in the world without a sighting lap is frightening enough.
It’s very difficult to judge how hard to push through uncertain conditions on that first lap.
Err on the side of caution and you will most likely be well off the leaders.
To be on the road as the bikes lined up but to not be racing was a strange experience – I wouldn’t usually notice the nervous tension of the riders and crew when riding.
Once the race was up and running it soon became a battle between Gary Johnson and Kiwi Bruce Anstey. Gary managed to open a small gap over Bruce to take the win by 1.5 seconds and give Triumph its first TT win in more than 10 years. Ironically, the last time Triumph won at the TT was in the 2003 Supersport event with Bruce as their rider. Michael Dunlop took third to complete the podium.
With weather closing in, the scheduled 1000cc Superstock race was postponed until the next day. For this event I went out to the Hillberry section to watch from the hedge. Aussie Superbike champ Josh Waters was over for a TT visit and joined the girls and I trackside. This is a super-fast section to view the racing. Baby Lola didn’t seem fussed and slept through the entire race with her new baby ear muffs.
Michael Dunlop took the lead from the start and held it comfortably until the flag, giving BMW its second win for the TT. Bruce again took runner up with Dean Harrison third for his first TT podium. Aussie David Johnson secured a hard-fought fourth, his best TT finish by far and a brilliant effort.
Unfortunately though, there were some incidents during this event that delivered bad news.
Gary Johnson fell on the exit of Ramsey and ended his TT with a broken collarbone. Soon after that, we found out Karl Harris had fallen on the mountain and lost his life.
ROLLING AT LAST
June 4 had two races scheduled. First up was Supersport Race Two, with Sidecar Race Two and Senior TT practice to follow. The Supersport race was another win for Michael Dunlop, his 10th TT victory and third for this year. Anstey took yet another second while William Dunlop rounded out the top three. With Michael and William being brothers, it was strange to see that they said nothing to each other on the podium. After some close racing between them at this year’s Northwest 200, Michael had told William to keep his distance or he’d end up in the hedge! Not much brotherly love there, which was a shame, really, as both were riding well and should have been congratulating each other.
Sidecar Race Two and the Senior TT practice session were delayed. Eventually the sky cleared and the sidecars ran their second race before the Senior bikes got a single practice lap.
With a list of changes to the SG3 Norton, I eased myself in [with a 19:03.600 at 118.772mph, 191.14km/h] to get a feel of the bike. Handling had improved and I was starting to build some speed when the fuel-surge issue resurfaced. It seemed to happen when the bike was running with less than half a tank. With just a day until the Senior TT, we found ourselves in a far from ideal position. After a debrief the team was confident of solving the fuel problem but some handling issues were still holding us back.
As I left the Norton pit, the team was busy working on the SG3. They had some big plans for improving the bike and, by the sound of it, they wouldn’t be getting much rest.
Heading down Bray Hill to begin a six-lap TT on a new set up is far from what any of us wanted but that’s where we found ourselves. Many would have left the bike as it was and hoped for the best, but not the Norton team. They see what can be improved and get to work. This ‘never-give-up’ attitude is brilliant and gives me great confidence.
So, for the Senior TT, I had no expectations. Like always, I would roll up to the line ready to give it 100 per cent for more than 350km of public roads at an average of over 200km/h.
THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Now the dust has settled on another TT, I’m happy to be home safe and well but bitterly disappointed not to have scored a finish. Entering this year’s TT with a new motorcycle was always going to be tough but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how tough!
Lining up for the Senior TT, we modified the swingarm with extra bracing in an attempt to reduce side flex at high speed. This was the issue causing me the most trouble when trying to ride the SG3 fast. It all looked good in theory and I was confident in the job my Norton team had done. Waking to sunny skies on Senior TT morning the nerves started to kick in – we were going racing!
I knew I had to take it a little easy initially to get a feel for the changes made to the bike but without costing too much time.
Then it would be a case of “head down” for six laps to see where we stood. Lap one and I soon found the bike handing the best it had all week.
Once again, the changes had been a step forward.
From a standing start I recorded a 124mph (199.56km/h) lap, far from where we needed to be but the best so far. Moving onto lap two the bike was feeling better and I was going a lot quicker.
I had made up 10 seconds in the first seven-mile sector alone. This was surely a lap in the 126mph (202.77km/h) region when I felt something wrong.
As I climbed up to the mountain section, I could feel a vibration from the rear tyre. It wasn’t nice.
During practice week I’d actually taken a few chunks out of a rear tyre and only realised after returning to the pits as it was still working well.
Now I had severe vibration and my mind was wondering how bad must this tyre be?
I persevered with it for a few miles as my mind wrestled with the question of what to do. Do I play it safe and pull over to check and effectively ruin the chance of a result or push on until the pit stop and check there? I only had around 10 miles until I had to pit for a new rear tyre and fuel anyway, but…
As I was starting my way down the mountain at speeds of 300km/h, I knew there was something seriously wrong and pulled over to check.
On a quick inspection my Dunlop tyre looked good: no chunks or even excessive wear. After touring back to the pits, I parked the bike and informed the lads our race was run. In the back of my mind, although I had been sure it was a tyre problem, there was also the thought that something had gone wrong with the new swingarm.
Back at the team truck we inspected the bike and it all looked good so we checked the balance of the rear wheel.
Then the problem was found: the rear tyre had spun nearly 180 degrees on the wheel!
This had effectively unbalanced the wheel to the tune of 75g and this is something you can’t miss when travelling at such high speeds.
In hindsight, I wish I had pushed on and made my pit stop as we had run as high as sixteenth before the issue. There’s no doubt without further problems we would have ended up just outside the top 10. But, at the TT, after the two weeks we had already endured, I played on the side of safety and thought it best to wait until another day.
So Michael Dunlop went on to win his first senior TT with Connor Cummins and Guy Martin rounding out the top three.
I sat down for a lengthy debrief with my Norton team. Another DNF was a bitter pill to swallow. There was a lot to be positive about as we had worked so hard and remained positive and professional the entire time. We now have a huge amount of data and lessons learnt to take away. We’ll come back stronger and the Norton TT effort is far from over.