The moral complexities of the Isle of Man TT that can’t be ignored

OPINION: The 2022 Isle of Man TT was marred by the tragic deaths of five competitors, with two others still in a serious condition after accidents. Death is an accepted part of the event, which makes it easy for armchair observers to misunderstand. But questions over the event's future aren't as black and white as they may appear...

The moral complexities of the Isle of Man TT that can’t be ignored

After a two-year absence enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Isle of Man TT returned this month in much-anticipated fashion, as it marked the first year of the event being broadcast fully live to the world.

While there was a lot that could consider TT 2022 a success, it has been overshadowed by the event’s most violent year since 1989 as five competitors were killed across practice week and race week.

Solo rider Mark Purslow was killed in a crash at Ballagarey on the Wednesday of practice week. On Saturday, the first race day, the opening Sidecar contest was red-flagged for a serious accident one mile into the 37.75-mile course at the Ago’s Leap section. Tragically, Sidecar driver Cesar Chanal was killed, while his passenger Olivier Lavorel was airlifted to hospital in Liverpool in a critical condition.

On Monday of race week, veteran rider Davy Morgan was killed in a crash at the 27th Milestone at the end of the first Supersport race, while on Friday father and son Sidecar pairing Roger and Bradley Stockton died in what is thought to have been an almost identical accident to that of Chanal and Lavorel’s at Ago’s Leap.

Without fail, social media was baying for blood as the angry chorus of ‘ban the TT’ comments flowed in at the news of each passing, while the tabloids tried to generate income with aggressive headlines written by media that didn’t even bother to show up to the event and talk to anyone.

The negative spotlight was predominantly shone on the Sidecar incidents, particularly the first one. Initially, it was reported in a statement issued by organisers that Lavorel had been killed. It didn’t emerge until four days later that Chanal had, in fact, been the competitor killed in the incident. This was blamed on a misidentification from the initial coroner report, which was communicated to event organisers, who then communicated it to the media.

Sidecar driver Cesar Chanel was killed in crash during the first sidecar race, one of five participants in this year's TT to lose their lives

Sidecar driver Cesar Chanel was killed in crash during the first sidecar race, one of five participants in this year's TT to lose their lives

Photo by: IOM TT

Autosport has heard of a possible cause of this misidentification, but currently the incident is undergoing a Manx police investigation and adding to further speculation would not be sensible.

To date, 265 riders have been killed on the famous Mountain Course at various events since it was first used in 1911. The 99th proved one of the most significant. Italian rider Gilberto Parlotti died while racing at the TT in 1972. Giacomo Agostini was one of his friends, and from that moment on vowed to never race at the TT again. More riders followed this boycott until in 1977 it was stripped of its world championship status, and the British Grand Prix moved to mainland UK.

It is the loss of its world championship status that has ultimately allowed the TT to continue to this day, because no longer was a rider forced to go there for the sake of their own title hopes – or for contractual obligations. From 1977, everyone racing the TT did it because they wanted to.

As it makes its push to capture the mainstream, the TT cannot shy away from the dark side of the event. Too often road racing fans are quick to tell those with opposing opinions about the TT to keep quiet, while the island itself sometimes seems numb to deaths

“[My] thoughts are with the families and friends of the people who are not making it home,” said Peter Hickman, who took his tally of TT wins up to nine this year. “It's a difficult sport, we’ve had a difficult couple of weeks. Not everyone understands that, and I get that. But we’re all here for our own choice.

“We want to be here and not one of us would want to see it stopped if we don’t make it home, should we not make it home. I get people don’t understand that, but that’s the way we are. If you’re here and you’re racing, you accept the risks before you start.”

Ultimately then, the TT can be seen as the basic human right to be free to choose what you do with your own body. Nobody racing the TT is a jumped-up nutter with a death wish. The risks have always been laid bare. Yet riders keep coming back, and new ones – like Glenn Irwin, who became the fastest newcomer ever in 2022 – still want to test themselves at the event.

“The grid stuff, I nearly f***ing couldn’t talk up there,” he, unprompted, told select media including Autosport after his maiden outing in Saturday’s Superbike TT. “It’s weird.

Factory Honda rider Irwin says here's an inherent conflict that doesn't escape the TT's participants

Factory Honda rider Irwin says here's an inherent conflict that doesn't escape the TT's participants

Photo by: Dave Kneen

“There’s a lot of emotion, you’re about to do something that, let’s face it, people don’t say the reality. But people shake your hand and they f***ing look at you [when they say] good luck, you see your brothers and – I don’t care what anyone says, I’m not going to bottle that up – they look at you like they don’t know if that’s the last time [they will see you].

“People don’t say that. But I’m a real person and when you get that before you ride your motorbike, obviously part of your brain is going to go ‘what are you doing, why the f*** are you doing this?’ And the other part is going ‘f***ing shut up, I want to do it’. So, there was a lot of emotion on the grid.”

That conflict exists inside all competitors who take part. But Irwin’s face after his first outing, as he recounted his maiden TT race – which he branded as “mind-blowing” – was filled with unadulterated passion. His experience as a full factory Honda rider was the exact same as the privateer on a shoestring budget at the back of the field who wasn’t here to win. Until you come to the TT and experience it for yourself, it is almost impossible to understand it.

The risks they take are, in many ways, calculated – by themselves, and those around them. But when they are let loose down Bray Hill, they are not being sentenced to their deaths. Safety is always improving on the island, with no wet riding allowed for two decades now, newcomers going through extensive education and starting numbers reduced for 2022 to get rid of backmarkers. On top of that, new Formula 1-style LED marshalling panels were installed for 2022 to act as a better warning system in the event of incidents. That quest to improve safety will continue.

However, as it makes its push to capture the mainstream, the TT also cannot shy away from the dark side of the event. Too often road racing fans are quick to tell those with opposing opinions about the TT to keep quiet, while the island itself sometimes seems numb to deaths. This was evidenced by the fact a prizegiving ceremony took place in the fan park not 20 minutes after the news of the Stockton deaths became public.

ACU Events, the organiser behind the TT, has confirmed that a "comprehensive investigative process is being followed for each of the serious incidents", and clerk of the course Gary Thompson also stated "after every incident we work tirelessly to understand the circumstances, establish key learning and implement changes as soon as possible. Any fatality during an event is a tragedy. As an organisation we promise to take any actions that can help improve safety and undertake this at the earliest opportunity."

While we may not like it, we cannot cast aside the fact that the TT is a government-run event that does kill people. This also further complicates the moral side of the TT, because banning the TT outright wouldn’t just take something much-loved by riders away – it would be detrimental to the Isle of Man as a whole.

The TT fortnight is vital to the economy of the tiny island in the middle of the Irish Sea. In 2019, the last time the TT ran before 2022, the event generated somewhere in the region of £37million to the Manx economy as thousands flocked to the island to watch the racing. The COVID pandemic, according to a BBC report in 2021, cost the Isle of Man treasury £246m.

Motorcycle racing fans flock to the island for the TT, which generates revenue vital for the local population and makes the question of banning it a complex one

Motorcycle racing fans flock to the island for the TT, which generates revenue vital for the local population and makes the question of banning it a complex one

Photo by: Dave Kneen

To plug demographic gaps on the island, the government is pushing a scheme on foreign travellers to consider making the Isle of Man a permanent home. Losing the TT would be a major blow to this.

Banning the TT, therefore, isn’t a simple decision with minimal ramifications. And that fits into a wider narrative that the calls to ban it come from those who simply do not understand what the TT is. They see a motorcycle racing event taking place on public roads that is only brought to their attention by mainstream media when death happens.

And if you ban the TT, where do you stop? More than 300 people have been recorded as having died climbing Everest. Yet that still happens, and in many ways the TT and Everest are similar challenges. People do it because they want to see if they can. Pushing the limits of what we believe is possible is a trait humanity as carried from its genesis.

While riders have made money out of racing the TT, nobody goes there to get rich. Winning the blue riband Senior TT race, if you manage to lead all laps, will net you around £18,000. When you consider Marc Marquez’s current Honda MotoGP contract is thought to be worth around €25m per year, a Senior TT win isn’t worth much more than what this writer was paid to work in a card shop on the high street fresh out of college for a year.

Not understanding something should not be a prerequisite to have your opinion validated. Nor should those on the other side of the fence turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of road racing

The tragedies at the TT in 2022 were awful to take. But in this instance, these competitors did die doing what they loved. It’s a small comfort to their loved ones, but they would be the last ones to want it banned. These racers were consenting adults taking on a challenge they knew could have dire consequences, but still loved racing at the TT regardless.

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Genuine safety questions over the validity of the Sidecar class at the TT have arisen and must be addressed looking ahead to 2023, likewise the nature of the Ago’s Leap section of track. Given the dangers already posed by racing at the TT, one has to question the value of a second Supertwin and Superstock race being added to the 2023 schedule also in light of recent tragedies.

But TT organisers have continued to evaluate and address concerns over the years, and now will be no different. That won’t be enough to stop the cries from those who think the TT should be banned. However, not understanding something should not be a prerequisite to have your opinion validated. Nor should those on the other side of the fence turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of road racing.

The TT will never be 100% safe, no matter how hard organisers try. But as long as conditions remain that those taking part are doing so of their own free will, there is no reason why the TT – as mad and as baffling as it is – should be banned.

All TT participants do so of their own will

All TT participants do so of their own will

Photo by: Stephen Davison

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