With the 2021 Isle of Man TT joining last year’s race in being cancelled thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it would have been easy for the event organisers to take a year off and just bide their time ahead of next year’s hopeful return to the iconic race in the Irish Sea.
But to its credit, the team behind the race has done the exact opposite, refusing to rest and instead using the time to kick off a substantial review of the race – a review that is arguably very much needed thanks to some of the chronic problems of the past few years.
Because simply put, the future of the TT is in real jeopardy and dramatic steps are needed more than ever if the 114-year-old race is to survive much longer.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room before we go any further, though, because some people will no doubt assume that then we talk about the future of the TT being in danger, it’s because of safety concerns.
No one, even a diehard TT fan like me, is going to come out and call the race a safe one. It is dangerous, and it costs riders their lives. But it has become exponentially safer in recent years, not just as the course and the machinery is worked on but as the level of preparation and education undertaken by riders has improved.
The reality is, the race is no more dangerous than many other branches of motorsport. The Dakar Rally or the Pikes Peak Hill Climb for instance, and there are national level circuits around the world that aren’t any safer than the TT course. But none of them seem to draw the same level of criticism as the Manx event, and in fact, some of them (Dakar in particular) seem to be going from strength to strength.
So no, the TT’s problems are nothing to do with the inherent danger of the race. Rather, its issues are because for far too long, one of the most spectacular events in motorsport has been rather insular, closing itself off to new fans when other sports have been kicking the doors open and letting in the world.
There is of course a place for tradition – but you can’t let sentimentality hold back progress if you want to strive forward. As one of the TT’s chiefs rather honestly admitted to journalists this week, the demographic of your typical fan isn’t a Gen X kid, it’s a middle-aged man from Northern England.
And that’s the whole reason for the new digital-first strategy unveiled this week. Throwing its lot into the ring and jumping feet first into the 21st century, the TT in 2022 will be a radically revamped event. With full live streaming of the race, and a new website hosting podcasts, social media content and new features, it’ll make a shift in presentation that has been long needed.
It won’t replace ITV’s excellent highlights package, of course, but rather complements it perfectly. The beautifully produced and scenic current race coverage is more akin to what you see from cycling’s grand tours than anything from the world of motorsport – and that’s exactly the point. They want to draw you in, to lure in fans and to entice the casual spectator.
But until now, there’s been something of a limit on how much of a fan you can be once you’ve been enticed in by the TV show. Sure, you can listen to racing on the radio – but it’s old-fashioned, out of date and frankly doesn’t do the spectacle justice.
And getting to the Isle of Man to see the race in person isn’t much better, thanks to confused travel schedules, prohibitively expensive ferries, sold-out flights and hotels that are sometimes more Fawlty Towers than five-star.
That’s the reason the new strategy is doubly important. Firstly, a new programme of behind the scenes movies, documentary series, podcasts and generally enhanced media coverage should supercharge those attempts to lure in new fans. I don’t need to mention Drive to Survive again, do I?
Secondly, the new live streaming service means that for the first time, dedicated converts have somewhere to go. There is a product to feed their addiction, to convert them from casual viewers into diehard fans and hopefully create a new generation of long-lasting TT fans.
And then, thirdly, a complete strategy that includes improvements to the Island’s travel plans, including the addition of a new ferry to supplement the Isle of Man Steam Packet’s current fleet, boosting numbers of visitors.
That’s also why the schedule is set for a reworking, not just to ensure that it’s more centred around the weekends for those streaming viewers, but to spread out the arrival of fans across the full week of racing, hopefully reducing costs in the process.
And all of those things are only good because every single motorsport fan should get the chance to experience the TT at least once in their life. Over my career, I’ve covered everything from MotoGP at Mugello to Supercross in Anaheim to the iconic Suzuka 8 Hours race… but there is quite simply nothing that compares.
The tension on the grid before the race, the buzz you receive sitting on a wall 30cm away from bikes blasting past at 150mph, the opportunity to be the only person in sight on the Snaefell mountain watching a race, and the party atmosphere that turns the whole island into a bikers’ paradise is unlike anything else on earth.
Hopefully, the much-needed changes don’t just slow the rot that has captured the TT but reverse it, protecting that incredible heritage and opening it up to a whole new generation of fans.