Racing at the Manx Grand Prix


Team UKRM did the Snetterton 8 hour race on the weekend preceding the start of the Manx Grand Prix. While the bike hadn’t been changed much since the previous 6 hour race at Pembrey, it did have a new petrol tank. Insufficient flushing of the contents caused serious problems with the fuel system (blocked filter, knackered fuel pump).

So, for the two days before departure, Alex Ferrier and I went through the whole bike – replacing all the consumables (oil and filter, brake pads, tyres, etc) and replacing the all the fuel lines, connectors and filter, as well as changing the tank for one with a normal filler cap (instead of the twin filler dry-break system we use for endurance racing).

 Alex and I are lucky enough to be good friends of Manx residents Keith and Jan, and their near neighbours Sally and Michelle – lodging had been arranged for us with “the girls”, and space cleared in Keith’s workshop for my bike and kit.

Friday 20th August

Having loaded the van the evening before, today consisted of little more than driving to Heysham, collecting Alex from Bridgnorth on the way, and getting the ferry to the Isle of Man. We arrived in the early evening, driving over the mountain (the “wrong way”) to Ramsey in the evening sunshine. On days like this, the Isle of Man is definitely one of the most beautiful places on earth. After unloading an enormous amount of kit into Keith’s workshop, we ensconced ourselves in Sally and Michelle’s house, and then got a takeaway curry.

Saturday 21st August – First Practice

A busy, busy day - I had to get to the Grandstand in Douglas and sign on, get my kit inspected, and jump through several other administrative hoops including the newcomers briefing and the newcomers bus tour of the circuit. Meanwhile, Alex took my bike to Slick Bass’s tuning shop and gave it a run on the dyno, to ensure that it was still healthy after all the work we’d done on it. Encouragingly, it still made 130bhp at the rear wheel.

 Scrutineering for practice started in the afternoon, with all the newcomers scheduled to do a lap behind a travelling marshal (mounted on a Fireblade) before being allowed to take to the circuit alone. This new measure was introduced this year after a French rider killed himself at the TT last year, on his first lap of practice, on about the 3rd corner. And this was our undoing. Despite the bike having run that morning on the dyno, and run for the best part of 8 hours the previous weekend, it chose this moment to develop a water leak (where the hose joins the water pump) on the start line, just as we’re due to be shepherded round by the travelling marshals. We quickly pulled it off the grid and fixed the problem in about 10 minutes; however by this time the ducklings had all left with their mother goose, and I wasn’t allowed to start – I would have to wait until Monday. This was not a good start to the fortnight. Later, in more contemplative mood, I reasoned that if one were going to suffer a catastrophic water leak anywhere on the Isle of Man, waiting on the start line is probably the best place.

Sunday 22nd August

A busy day in the garage. I can’t remember what we did now (two weeks later) but it must have been important.

Monday 23rd August – Second Practice

Because of missing Saturday’s session, I and half a dozen other newcomers were to be escorted behind a Travelling Marshal at the start of today’s practice. Consequently, our presence was requested early at Scrutineering – i.e. around 2:30pm, even though the scrutes don’t arrive until 4pm. There’s a lot of waiting around in this game. And, the weather didn’t look good. In fact, it looked pretty bad – it was raining, so we retired to local hero Tommy Clucas’ awning, for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Tom is a mate of Keith’s, and despite being favourite to win the Junior race, and perhaps the Senior too, he is really down to earth, friendly and approachable. I first met him six weeks earlier, when he took time out to sit in the passenger seat of the car and talk me round a lap.

Eventually we got scrut’ed, and then it was another two hours until the roads closed at 6pm, with practice due to start at 6:15. Although the rain had stopped, the weather still looked bad – the problem with the Island circuit is that if the weather comes down, the mountain section is covered in fog/cloud. In the old days, no one cared, but now, if the helicopter can’t fly the whole course, then no one rides.

So, at around 6:30, the practice session was cancelled and we all went home. So, I’d been on the Island for four days now, and still hadn’t ridden the bike. It’s fair to say I was not in a good mood. 

Tuesday 24th August – Third Practice

In the morning, a group of us stood around in the workshop, wondering why there was so much travel in my brake lever. Alex, Keith and Joe decided to fix the problem, and pulled the brakes to bits, discovering several stuck pistons and some rather dished disks. We got all the pistons moving (with compressed air), cleaned them up, fitted some moderately flat disks and Keith bled the brakes in 10 minutes, and now they felt 10 times better than they ever had before. Why didn’t I do that ages ago? Thanks, guys.

Got to scrut’ing early again, and then had the wait until 6:15 pm for the off. Which, today, actuall happened! Six new boys in orange bibs lined up on the Glencrutchery Road, and off we set behind the Travelling Marshal. It was immediately obvious that this was going to be a sloooooow lap – apparently some of the TMs had been criticised for going too fast on the escorted laps on Saturday. I spent half the time resting my left hand on the tank – I don’t think we went faster than 70 or 80mph down the straights. No matter, my penance was served, and when we got back to the Grandstand I was free to do a solo lap. Which, after a quick look over the bike, I immediately did. This was more like it! I headed off towards St Ninians Crossroads and Bray Hill, aware that I just need to dial myself carefully. But even so, that drop down the hill is quite amazing. Fortunately, having done so many laps of the circuit before on open roads, I had no problem knowing where the course went, and was able to navigate round at a comfortable pace – I got back to the Grandstand to find that I’d done 95mph – I was happy enough with that for my first lap on closed roads. The bike wasn’t handling particularly well either, so I resolved to call Richard at Maxton for some set up advice the next morning.

Wednesday 25th August – Fourth Practice

By now I’m in the swing of things. There are always a few little jobs to do in the morning – checking the bike over, buying fuel, charging the transponder, etc, and then it’s off to the Grandstand in Douglas, and get in the queue for scrut’ing. Now that I’d passed my novice initiation, I was out practicing with the fast boys – practice sessions are divided in two – the first for classic and smaller capacity bikes (125s and 400s), the second for the 600s and 750s (and the odd pukka race 250 two stroke). So now there as an even longer wait until my session started just after 7pm. A fair amount of meaningless wandering around took place to pass this time. I also managed to meet Richard from Maxton in the queue, and he had a bounce on the rear suspension of the bike, and applied a few clicks, and then a few more.

 Bikes go off in pairs at ten second intervals for practice, just like in the race, but your starting position depends on how soon you get through scrut’ing and how much you’re prepared to jostle in the queue. I didn’t want to be too near the front, but nor did I want to be near the back either, so I manage to get out about half way. Bear in mind that there are a lot of bikes on the course for a practise session – easily over a hundred. I set off with another rider (can’t remember who now) and immediately felt good – just comfortable and enjoying the speed of the bike. I wanted to do two laps (including a ‘flying lap’ as the second one to actually get into the rhythm of the place, and make sure the bike was ok, as it would need to do this in the race (which is four laps with a pit stop). Of course, there are still some places where I was slowing down despite the fact that I knew I shouldn’t – the flat out kinks at Glen Vine, Crosby, Gorse Lee and the end of Conk-y-Voddy were far from flat out. But elsewhere the suspension felt far better now Richard had adjusted it.

 My sense of fun was interrupted at the 13th Milestone, however – coming out of the bottom of Barregarrow, there were waved yellow flags – we slowed down, and coming round the corner there was a scene of carnage. Three bikes were down, riders lying in the road, and straw bales littered everywhere. We had to thread our way through the wreckage at no more than 20mph. It suddenly hit home to me that if there’s an accident here, the bike and rider are likely to stay on the road (rather than slide off the track into the gravel as on a short circuit), and collisions were therefore a real danger (I was later told that the 2nd and 3rd riders had crashed hitting the wreckage of the first one). That gave me pause for thought, but I soon got my head down and got going again.

 I was enjoying myself here – there were a few bikes coming past me, but I was catching and passing a few myself, and in some ways was just like being on a ride out with a bunch of fast mates, but with all the road to use, and no concerns about traffic or police. I came flying through and started my second lap. We still had to slow to negotiate the accident at the 13th, but otherwise I felt good, and when I got back to the pits Alex greeted me with a big grin, telling me that my first lap had been 101mph, and the second 103mph. I was over the moon!

Thursday 26th August – Fifth Practice

Thursday afternoon practise is a little different – it’s in the afternoon, rather than the evening, and slightly longer, meaning most people can get in three laps if they want. Consequently, the whole timetable of the day is moved forward. Fortunately, we had nothing to do to the bike, and so were up, breakfasted and over to Douglas with no rushing around. The bike passed scrut’ing again without trouble (once we’d noticed the missing bolt on the handlebar clamp in the queue! This place really does shake bikes to pieces). Often Thursday produces the fastest times, just because it’s a more congenial time to be riding bikes (with no low sun as in the evening sessions) but the weather was grey with a threat of rain. Still, no problems, and we were all off on time. By now I was feeling pretty comfortable, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to find any additional pace. Again, there were a couple of accidents on the course, one at Rhencullen and then, after speeding up again for the Bishopscourt section I came round a corner to find an accident that the marshals hadn’t even got to yet – the rider was on one side of the road, the bike on the other, on fire, with smoke drifting across and obscuring the road. I had no time to do anything apart from scream, and went flying through the smoke to find myself still on two wheels and pointing in approximately the right direction. Now that was scary.

Friday 27th August – Sixth Practice

Back to an evening practise today. Scrut’ing was normal, except the scrute pointed out that the throttle return wasn’t quite as snappy as it should be. We agreed to look at it later. Clever, inscrutable chaps, these scrutineers…

I decided to see if I could up the pace a little, so tried to ensure I got out near the front of the practice group, and found myself lining up with Irish newcomer Andrew Neill, riding TT winner Ryan Farquar’s ZX6RR. As expected, Andrew immediately drew ahead of me on the run down Bray Hill, but I girded my loins and tucked in behind him, and kept him in sight all the way to Cronk-y-voddy (10 miles later), where my bike started to play up, holding back in top gear. This felt exactly like the fuel starvation problems we’d had previously at Snetterton. Through the twisty bits it was ok, and only when flat in top did it show up. I soldiered on, but the bike wouldn’t pull more than 10k in top all the way from Union Mills to the Highlander, or along Sulby stratight, so I knew there was a ‘real’ problem. I must have been yanking on the throttle particularly hard, because on the run down to the Creg-ny-bar the throttle cable snapped. If only we’d listened to the scrutineer. So, I parked by the pub, and a marshal gave me some money to get a drink, and I waited for the roads to open and Alex to come and pick me up in the van. Still, I’d managed a 104mph lap, even with a bike that was a bit slow in top gear. Andrew Neill was 27 seconds faster (106mph) so tagging on to him had been a good plan.

Saturday 28th August – Seventh (and final) Practise

Alex went through the fuel system this morning, checking the tank, fuel filter and hoses. Meanwhile, I dashed from Ramsey to the paddock in Douglas, got some new throttle cables made up, and dashed back to Ramsey to fit them. The new inner cables were slightly too long for the new outers, so we had to get them shortened in the paddock again anyway. I also got a new chain fitted, as recommended by all the old Isle of Man regulars – the course is so bumpy it plays hell with chains. We then went through the by now regular routine.

 This was the last practice session, and several people advised me to just take it steady, and to just bed in the new chain. Which is what I did, posting an easy 102mph. Unfortunately, the fuelling problem was still there. Oh dear.

Sunday 29th August – Day before Newcomers Race.

So now we had a problem – the bike had a fuelling problem, and there was no more practise time. The problem could only be down to two things – either the fuel pump couldn’t supply the peak fuel demand, or the one-way valve on the tank breather (which lets air into the tank, but not fuel out) was causing a restriction. So, I borrowed a fuel pump from local rider Derren Slous, and we threw away the one-way valve and replaced it an old fashioned length of hose, curled up several times. We took the bike to Slick Bass’s dyno and ran it before and after the changes. While the dyno couldn’t re-create the problem (it’s not able to put the engine under load for long enough) we could at least check that it still ran as well as it did before. And it was still making healthy horsepower.

 But, before all this, there was more admin to do. Keith and I had to go to the race office at the Grandstand to sign on, and I had to go to the Newcomer’s race briefing, which was really just about how to do a pit stop. Having done three seasons of endurance racing, pit stops held no fears for me, but they’re something new for riders who’ve only done short circuit races.

 It was while having a cup of tea in the paddock with Keith that we heard that fellow newcomer Gavin Feighery had died overnight from the injuries he sustained when he crashed at the Mountain Box in the last practice session. It was the first fatality of the week.

Monday 30th August – Newcomers Race

Scrut’ing is done slightly differently for the race – batches of bikes have a time slot, and ours was 7:00 to 7:30. This meant the van had to leave Ramsey at 6:30am! We’d loaded the van the evening before, and Alex and Michelle had volunteered to take it over, giving me an extra hour in bed. Thanks guys! I arrived with Keith at 8:30 and had to get my riding gear scrut’d again. And then it was just a question of waiting for the off, and the weather, which again didn’t look good. While the cloud was quite high (so no mist over the mountain) several showers had blown over the course, and much of it was reckoned to be wet. I collared two guys from Manx Radio, and they told me the entire Glen Helen section was soaked. So, that decided it – we swapped the wheels to run intermediate tyres, as did about 90% of the field.

 The roads closed at 10am, but a 30 minute delay was announced immediately, putting the start back to 10:45. At 10:30 we started moving the bikes up to the Glencrutchery road, but just as it looked like we were going to get away, another 30 minute delay was announced. So, we all milled around on the grid, chatting to each other and offering clichés and platitudes. And then the time went, and the start procedure was underway.

 Racing on the Mountain Course is essentially a time trial – riders set off in pairs at ten second intervals, and race the clock. I was number 29, meaning I would start some 2 minutes and 10 seconds behind the starting pair. Alongside me was a chap called Dave Saxby, who coincidentally was from Gloucestershire too, and was riding a GSX-R 600 from Fraser’s Motorcycles. We got a clean start, and the extra few ponies in my 750 got me ahead of Dave on the run to St Ninian’s crossroads, and that was the last I saw of him. When I spoke to him later he told me his intermediate tyres we sliding all over the place.

 The run down Bray Hill, for the first time in a race, for the first time in the wet, was scary. And, on the approach to Quarter Bridge, I, like the most of the rest of the field, had the warnings ringing in our head not to overcook it on cold tyres, with a full fuel load. And the same advice applied through Braden Bridge, which was also wet. In fact, the road was wet all the way to Glen Vine, but my tyres felt great, and I was already catching people – coming round the bottom of Union Mills and seeing someone ahead of you on the straight run to Glen Vine is a great feeling. I passed a couple of bikes on the way to Crosby, and caught a couple more through Greeba Castle, passing them on the run down to Gorse Lee and Ballacraine.

 And then we were into the Glen Helen section. Normally I love this part of the course, tho I’m not sure I’m particularly quick, but with very wet roads it needed some care. Still, I seemed to be going OK, and the tyres weren’t moving around at all, so I burst out of the climb up Creg Willys Hill onto the Cronk y Voddy straight, and onto completely dry roads for the first time, enjoying myself. And, the bike pulled top gear along the straight with no problems, meaning the fuelling problem was sorted.

 At the time of writing (10 days after the race), my memory has already faded too much to give a corner by corner write up. In fact, I found earlier in the week that even after two practise laps, I had pretty poor recall of when things happened – the brain is just too busy to file stuff away. The rest of the first lap went well, and (tho I didn’t know it at the time) I’d moved into 15th place. The mountain was mostly dry (apart from Bungalow Bridge, which stayed wet for the whole race), and my bike definitely pulled well over the top. The second lap was much drier, tho still wet through Glen Helen and the 13th Milestone, and a few other places under the trees. It was on this lap that I caught number 28, Vince Prevett, who’d started 10 seconds ahead of me. It took me a little while to get past him, eventually doing it at Bishopscourt. I thought that was the last I’d see of him, but blow me if he didn’t outbrake me into Parliament Square, some 6 miles later. I followed him up the mountain, getting past on the Mountain Mile, but he came alongside me in the stop box on the way into the pits.

 The pit stop was smooth, but slightly slow – our petrol tank had explo-safe expanded foam in it, and it slowed down the petrol going in (we pulled this out for the Senior race). Two or three bikes I’d passed got out of the pits before me (including Vince) but I soon caught and passed them again, although Vince took a while. The next two laps were a bit of a blur – each lap was drier, though it remained wet in parts of Glen Helen, the 13th Milestone, Quarry Bends and Bungalow Bridge. Vince and I had a right old ding dong, passing each other two or three times a lap, but I got the result in the end – as I’d started 10 seconds behind him, I knew that I only had to keep him in sight, but I managed to finish 1 second in front of him on the road too.

 I was greeted by Alex and Keith in the paddock, with big grins on their faces. I experienced an odd combination of emotions – relief, euphoria, achievement, all overlaid with a severe overdose of adrenaline. The results were available on a computer in the rider’s centre, and it turned out I was 11th, and had earned a replica (by finishing within 110% of the winner’s time). While there, I learnt another quaint part of the Manx GP tradition – riders get a free sandwich, piece of cake and a cup of tea!

 After talking to anyone and everyone, Alex finally persuaded me to get in the van and drive back to Ramsey. After a quick shower, we headed to the pub, and watched the end of the afternoon Senior Classic Race. Pints kept coming, and I’m afraid I don’t remember the rest of the day too well…

Tuesday 31st August – no racing

We took the day off, and did nothing.

Wednesday 1st September (Junior and 350 Classic)

I wanted to watch the Junior race, so borrowed a car and drove down to Quarry Bends. Unlike the TT, it is possible to get a decent view even at the popular viewing places at the Manx Grand Prix, and I sat on the bales and watched as the front runners came flying through. Tommy Clucas got off to a storming start, setting a new MGP record of 120mph on his first lap. He continued to open the gap over the next two laps, but on the last lap he didn’t come through Quarry Bends. At the commentary point at Ramsey, he was reported as missing, but no other word came, which I knew meant he’d had a serious crash (breakdowns and minor accidents are usually reported quite quickly on the commentary).

 I went back to Ramsey and had a beer with Keith in the Central Hotel as the 350 Classics came through. Apparently Tommy had crashed on the run down to Ballaugh Bridge.

 Alex, Sally, Michelle and I went to the Villa Marina in Douglas for the presentation of the awards for Monday’s and today’s races. The sense of pride I felt hearing my name read out by Geoff Cannell (the voice of the TT, for me), and going on stage to collect my replica was enormous, as can been seen in this picture.

Thursday 2nd September – no racing

I went round to see Keith and show off my replica, to find him very quiet – Tommy had died overnight. The second death of the meeting. Keith knew Tommy very well, and was talking about not even riding in the senior the next day. And, the weather forecast was awful.

Friday 3rd September – Senior Race

Just to contradict the weather forecast, the day dawned bright and sunny. The senior race was in the afternoon, after the Lightweight/Ultra-Lightweight race. Despite dire predictions, it stayed dry, and the cloud stayed high, and the first race got off on time. And then it was our turn. This time I was starting number 92, over seven minutes behind the guys at the front of the grid. Which was a good thing, because those guys were going to be going a lot faster than me (fastest lap in practice had been 118mph). Number 91 was a non-starter, so I set off by myself. Strangely, I got passed by a few people on the first lap, even though I didn’t feel I was going slowly (turns out I was – first lap was only just over 100mph). The second lap I got my head down a bit and did 103. Although the roads were dry, it was incredibly windy over the mountain, and the bike felt pretty flat in place, and was hard to steer in others. Still, it was the same conditions for everyone. At the pit stop, Alex employed his trusted motivational technique – “Why are you going so slow?” he asked. “Come on, get your finger out!” It must have worked, because I picked up the pace and gained some places. Also, about here, I started racing with Simon Briggs, on his old steel framed 600 Honda. He was riding as if on a short circuit, out-braking me into the slow corners, but I mostly stuck to my line and usually out accelerated him down the straights. Of course, it helped having more horsepower! Simon had a lower starting number than me, so I knew I was ahead of him on time, but it was good fun racing on the roads. In the final run down the mountain Simon got in front of me and I thought he was going to win the race on the road, but he outbraked himself into Govenors Bridge and I rode through the huge door he left open for me and beat him over the line. We grinned at each other as we rode back up to the paddock.

 I got the results shortly afterwards – 60th, from some 100+ starters. And a best lap of 105mph, which had been my target speed from the beginning. Not too bad, tho I must admit that I felt slightly disappointed – if I’d gone faster on the first lap I’d have been a few positions up, and my mate Keith had posted a new personal best of 107, and I’d not been able to go with him. Still, not bad for a newcomer.


Alex and I got the ferry that evening, and drove home through the night. I got to bed at 4am. The next day I was up, changed the oil, filter, brake pads and tyres on the bike, fitted the endurance petrol tank and drove the van to Donington. The next day, Team UKRM did the final six hour race of the season.


Many, many thanks to the following people

Neal Champion

September 2004.

[An article based on this appeared in the Cheltenham Echo on 14th September.  Thanks to Mike Yiend]