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The Sidecar aces ousting an unfair stigma at the Isle of Man TT

Many incredible achievements were celebrated at the 2023 Isle of Man TT, but none drew quite the same reception as the first ever 120mph lap for a Sidecar set by the Birchall brothers. Now 14-time TT winners, not only are the pair making history, they are also ousting a stigma attached to Sidecar racers at the event

Birchalls, Sidecar

Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press

Sidecar racing has to be the most bonkers form of motorsport on the planet. Essentially aeroplane wings on three wheels, the sight of a driver pushing to their limits while relying implicitly on their passenger – kept attached to the outfit by nothing more than arm strength and bravery – to make all of the right movements to get the thing round a corner.

Take that concept and put it on the 37.75-mile Isle of Man TT course… well, bonkers doesn’t even cut it.

As someone who supports what the TT is all about and defends its existence, even I find watching Sidecar races a very nervous experience. But, like any great television drama, it’s impossible to turn away. Not least when Mansfield-born Ben Birchall, 46, and brother Tom, 37, are on the course.

Over the last few years at the TT, the Birchalls have become the pinnacle of the Sidecar class. In 2023, they added two more victories to their total to take their tally to 14. That's second in the all-time class stakes, behind only TT legend Dave Molyneux’s 17. Exceptionally, the Birchalls made history when they posted the first ever 120mph Sidecar lap at the TT in race one, clocking a 120.357mph, before overhauling their own lap record in the event’s second race at 120.645mph.

“You just come here doing your best, and you build up for a year, TT 24 starts now really,” Ben Birchall tells Autosport as we stand looking over their history making Steadplan/Hager LCR Honda outfight. “So, you build up each other physically, mentally, the machine, the preparation that goes into it to try and get results. But to get what we got this year has been incredible; two wins, the 120 lap, 100 years of Sidecars at the same time. That puts our tally to 14 and 11 in a row. We’ve been unbeaten for 11 races in a row. So, it’s good.”

“It just seems like a completely unachievable thing,” Tom adds when speaking about nearing Molyneux’s win record of 17 for the class. “To be honest, we’re not aiming to get to Dave, because what Dave did was just legendary. We’re just chipping away year on year really. There isn’t actually a ‘yes, this is what we’re aiming for’. But it keeps coming closer. To knock that 120mph lap on the head the other day, that’s an achievement that I thought we could do but when we did it, it was just mind-bending really.”

The Birchalls have been at the game a long time. Ben started racing in 1999 as a passenger before becoming a driver, while Tom started competing as a passenger in 2003. Multiple world champions in the discipline, the Birchalls made their TT debut in 2009 and scored a brace of podiums for the first time in 2012 racing for TT winner Klaus Klaffenbock despite smashing up themselves and their outfit in a practice crash.

Ben and Tom Birchall made history with the first ever 120mph lap for Sidecars in TT history in 2023

Ben and Tom Birchall made history with the first ever 120mph lap for Sidecars in TT history in 2023

Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press

The breakthrough came in 2013 when they won for the first time. A nasty incident in the first race of the 2014 TT left Ben Birchall with a badly damaged right hand. They returned in 2015 and did the double, beginning a dominant run only broken in the second race of 2016 by a mechanical issue. Along the way, the Sidecar lap record fell to them in 2015, 2017, 2018 and this year.

There are several strands to the success of the Birchalls. They design, develop and build their own outfit. They have just “two lads that have been with us for last 10 years” help with the spannering. The Birchalls are also incredibly fit, which goes some way to showing just how seriously they take this. On top of this, the bond of blood they share has instilled an incredible level of mutual trust.

“Trust is everything in this job,” Tom notes. “Where we’re at with it, Ben can get in the bike and go and ride it as if I’m not there. So, he’s just completely free to run his own lines and do what he wants to do. If you haven’t got that trust, you’ve got nothing. We have got that, and being brothers certainly helps. I want to see him succeed, he wants to see me succeed and we want to look after each other at the same time. So, it’s a proper strong bond that we have.”

The final part of what makes the Birchalls so good is the level of professionalism that they hold. That’s something they’ve learned from their time working with Klaffenbock, as well as closely observing Molyneux.

“It’s just so great to see people enjoying TT and so good that we can be a part of it. It’s good for the class, definitely, that people are enjoying watching us go round there at ridiculous speeds. It’s cool" Ben Birchall

It is also vitally important to them. The Sidecar class has come in for a lot of stick over the years, while the tragedies of the 2022 TT – when four competitors from two outfits were killed in separate incidents – only served to further fuel this. There is also a perception that Sidecar racers are “greasy and oily” individuals who rock up to the TT with a van and some beer and have a bit of a holiday. Dispelling this myth and banishing this stereotype is something the Birchalls put front and centre.

“Dave Molyneux, he always brought a real level or professionalism to the TT and he’s been one of them guys to look up to,” Tom says when asked about how important their achievements in 2023 are in altering how the Sidecar class at the TT is viewed. “Then we got took on by Klaus Klaffenbock in 2012, and he was a former winner and grand prix winner and world champion.

“He just brought a level of professionalism with him and we’ve just aspired to that, worked with him and got to that sort of level. And we’ve carried it on and raised the bar a little bit as we’ve gone. Presentation is so important to us, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money to wear a smart shirt and speak properly. So, we sort of got rid of that stigma of the Sidecars that everybody is greasy and oily [people].”

Ben adds: “It is important that persona comes across, but at the end of the day it is a low budget class and anybody who gets that bike and two riders on the startline deserves a heap of respect however they do it. You can’t take that away from the lads. They work hard and they play hard, and they get round here at whatever speed it is, whether it’s 120mph or less. To finish and take part in the greatest road race in the world, it takes some doing.”

Altering the perception of Sidecar racers at the TT has been important to the Birchalls

Altering the perception of Sidecar racers at the TT has been important to the Birchalls

Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press

What the Birchalls are doing is altering this stigma. The level they have reached is forcing rival competitors to dig deeper and work harder. In the second Sidecar race, second-placed Peter Founds and Jevan Walmsley posted a 120.097mph lap to complete a brace of runner-up spots in 2023 on their outfit backed by FHO (the team behind Peter Hickman’s TT assault).

Insight: How Hickman bounced back to win the Isle of Man TT's big prize

This will only be good for the class going forward. In 2023, there were only 24 starters (25 were entered, but injury forced Maria Costello to pull out). In 2019, there were 38 outfits entered.

The reality of the situation is, as Ben Birchall notes, that any looming economic destabilisation will more than likely impact Sidecars first. But, just as Molyneux in recent years has been working to help futureproof the class, the Birchalls are now in the same position.

“It has a great place here at the TT, it’s part of TT,” Ben Birchall said when asked about the future of Sidecars at the TT. “We are assured that it’s safe. It’s a little bit down on numbers this year, but that’s just the way it goes, I think. We’ll be investing into getting more bikes here or making it easier. There’s probably some talk of perhaps some changes to regulations. But it’s alright, it will be fine. Next year is another year and we’ll just look forward to it.”

The day after the Birchalls had secured their second victory, you’d have forgiven them for laying low. But they stood for a long time signing pictures for fans and taking photos. While the solo riders take the majority of the headlines, what the Birchalls did at TT 2023 clearly resonated with fans.

“The thing that’s really overwhelmed us is the reaction we’ve had from the public,” Ben Birchall says. “It’s just so great to see people enjoying TT and so good that we can be a part of it. It’s good for the class, definitely, that people are enjoying watching us go round there at ridiculous speeds. It’s cool.”

What’s next for the Birchalls will act as a fascinating storyline for the 2024 TT. They can’t match the all-time Sidecar win record, but they can go one away. Inevitably, the question of what’s possible after 120mph laps has also arisen. The pair remain grounded in their outlook – “hopefully we can go quick enough to win again” – but the emerging threat from Founds/Walmsley and Ryan and Callum Crowe (who completed the podium in each race despite the latter suffering a hip injury in practice) mean the Birchalls will have to dig even deeper than in 2023.

Whatever happens in 2024, though, it will be viewed with great interest and passion from the fans thanks to the Birchalls.

The threats are mounting, but the Birchalls remain the pair to beat on three wheels at the TT

The threats are mounting, but the Birchalls remain the pair to beat on three wheels at the TT

Photo by: Isle of Man TT

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