John McGuinness is the winningest active TT racer at the Isle of Man, and has been competing at the iconic race for the past 20 years. Once a teammate to Joey Dunlop, McGuinness is creeping up on the legend’s overall TT race wins, with just three more needed to tie Dunlop’s mark.
This makes him a formidable rider in any of the TT’s solo-class races, and it also makes him a walking encyclopedia of the Manx circuit.
At the end of the Isle of Man TT practice week, our man Tony Goldsmith managed to grab some time with 23-time TT winner John McGuinness, who gave us some insight into how he prepares for the challenges of riding the Snaefell Mountain Course, and what the TT is like from his eyes.
We think you’ll enjoy what McGuinness has to say about racing at the Isle of Man, and gain some insight into what it like to compete at this iconic event. Enjoy! -JB
Tony Goldsmith – I imagine the TT is on your mind a lot, but when does the serious preparation start?
John McGuinness – We had a private Honda test in Monteblanco in March so that’s probably when it starts getting serious.
But I never stop thinking about it. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is or what the weather’s like. You never really stop. You go to bike shows. You’re always chatting about things, speaking with Dunlop tires or with Honda.
What’s new, what can we do, how can we make it better? There’s always a chat show to do, which reminds you of it. It never really goes away.
As far as training goes, and all the rituals, I don’t really have any. I should do a little bit of training, but I just go out and ride the enduro bike and mini bike. Just try and keep myself in some sort of shape. I get a lot of stick about it and rightly so probably. I don’t mind a pie and a bit of gravy. Sometimes it’s frowned upon these days. I get it.
They want me a bit sharper. They’re putting all the investment in and all the work. But, I think it’s important you’re happy and working with the right people. I make sure I’m working with Julian my mechanic. I’ve been with him a long time, and we’ve had a lot of success together.
TG – Is the Northwest 200 the first serious test before the TT?
JM – Definitely. It’s an important event. It’s the first chance to test the bike’s reliability and speed. I also get to find out if I can still do it. Is the old body up to it? Do I still have the passion to do it?
We had the test at Monteblanco in Spain, two days at Castle Combe, and we did the World Endurance round at Le Mans. But nothing can prepare you for going round York Corner and up to the Ballysally roundabout at 200 mph.
You’re not feeding yourself into it. It’s just full gas straight away. You also get an idea about the competition, who’s gone where and who’s doing what.
A few guys moving to different manufacturers makes it interesting. I’m probably a little bit boring as I’m Honda through and through really. Most of my success has been with Honda.
The race we had this year, Michael Dunlop made the break, but I didn’t think the rest of them had anything on me, so I felt a bit more confident coming to the TT.
TG – I feel for the organisers of the North West as riders regularly refer to the TT during interviews.
JM – It’s obviously an important event for everybody. There’s a lot of kudos for winning. It’s a big International meeting and people want to win.
When the Superbike race was going on this year nobody was thinking about taking it easy. Everyone wants to win or get on the podium. It was a full-on, flat-out, wheel-to-wheel stuff. I don’t think anybody was too worried about the TT at that time.
TG – Once you get back from the North West, you’ve got a bit of time at home. What would you do at that stage? Is it time to relax or is it full-on?
JM – I didn’t have any time to relax. I had a two day test at Castle Combe on the electric bike, and I had Dunlop round doing a film about road tires.
After that I was preparing for the TT, getting a lot of things ready for the exhibition we’ve got here, it was pretty hectic but it soon goes by.
I like to try and get family time. I’ve got two kids and a family, so I try to do as much as I can with them. That’s why they’re here. That’s important as well.
TG – When you arrive on the island do you take in any laps to see if anythings changed?
JM – No. You can do 20 laps in a car and you don’t get the feeling of the bumps or jumps. You may pick up that a section has been resurfaced, but you don’t know properly until you ride it. Going round in a car at 30 mph is useless.
TG – Do they tell you if an area has been resurfaced?
JM – You get told in the riders’ briefings. This year they painted some new white lines through Sarah’s Cottage. William Dunlop fell off and I nearly fell off on them. There were lots of complaints about them. The organisers had the lines burned off and it’s fine now.
You could drive around in the car and you wouldn’t have a clue. They do little tweaks here and there, but sometimes the tweaks don’t necessarily make it any better.
The Sulby Straight is really bumpy now. I used to get a rest down there, but now it just pummels the shite out of you all the way down.
TG – Do you have a routine that you normally follow in terms of practice, or do you just see how the bikes are when you get out there?
JM – You can’t make predications or a plan, really. This year’s been probably the only year that it’s been like this in the 20 years I’ve been racing at the TT. There’s normally interruptions. I haven’t seen a cloud yet. It’s just unbelievable. Normally mist comes in and holds things up.
Having great weather is actually a bit of double-edged sword because you’ve got to go faster each night and push, push, push. Do you really want to do that? Do you want to keep risking it in practice or save it for the race? Four to six laps every night is a lot of work.
People don’t see that. I’m not tired, but I can feel it. It’s pulling away on my body. If you knew you were guaranteed this weather you could have Tuesday and Thursday off. But then again it’s not fair on the newcomers. They need all the track time they can get, but I’m ready to go.
TG – Has the continuity with Honda and the Fireblade been important to you?
JM – Yes. You need a balance of stability, reliability, and confidence in your bike.
The other manufactures have caught up now. There’s been two or three evolutions with the other manufactures. I still have the same bike from 2008. Sometimes it’s frustrating.
Bruce Anstey won the Superbike race last year. I won the Senior last year. So I can’t say I have an argument. It’s still a good package. Look at the results
TG – Obviously you’re a normal family man. When you get here you’re treated like a rockstar. How do you deal with that?
JM – It’s alright for a few days, then you just want a little bit of downtime, and you can’t get it. It’s difficult at times. I like the fans. I like the people. I like everything about it, but sometimes it just gets on top of you a little.
It’s like you’re a hero for two weeks and then go back home and back to normal. It is overwhelming at times. You’re like, Jesus, just calm down.
Yesterday it got on top of me a bit. Sometimes you say the wrong thing. You may have signed 300 autographs, but you’ve only got to say no to one person and you’re an asshole.
It’s difficult to try and balance, but I try my best. Like today I’ve got this interview, then I’ve got a bus tour with Honda, and I’ve got to scrub my tires in for the race. My day’s written off.
TG – Is it like that almost every day or do you get some time off?
TG – Most days, yes. I get a bit more time off in race week. Sometimes it knocks the enjoyment out of it. It’s a beautiful island and you want to just go and sneak off for two or three hours. Go and have an ice cream, and not see a motor bike for an hour or two.
The paddock’s so intense, and it’s so much bigger and busier than when I started 20 years ago. Nobody really stayed and worked in the paddock. Most of the people were in private garages out of the paddock. You’d bring your bike up in a van and off you’d go. But it’s still a great atmosphere.
I’ll enjoy it more when I retire and I can walk around myself and get a sticker. Get my radio on and go on and watch the racing. I’m still a fan. Sometimes I go out to watch if I can, and I’m just waiting for the bikes to come.
Somebody’s in my ear talking I’m like, watch the bikes. Why are you talking to me? I’ve been out to watch sidecar races after our races. It still blows me away. You’re still watching the race. That’s the main bit.
TG – Speaking of sidecars, do you think Michael Dunlop will ever have a go at sidecar racing?
JM – I don’t know. He’s on fire on the solos at the moment, so he’d be mad to think about tinkering with them. I know he’s had a bit of a go and he’ll race at Scarborough. I wouldn’t be thinking about it if I were him.
I would be concentrating on two wheels – but the kid’s got talent. It’s running through him. He’s got balls of steel as well as a big heart. I like him, but I couldn’t do what he does; he’s on spanners as well. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know how to do all that.
But he’s an all around package. He’s a lot better short-circuit rider than anybody gives him any credit for as well. Joey was a good rider on short circuits, but he was never known for that.
TG – This is your 20th anniversary of racing at the TT. Has the event changed a lot from when you started?
JM – I think so, yeah. The media coverage tends to focus on the spectacle and positives, as well as the great champions it’s produced. I don’t think they look as much at the danger side of it anymore.
People are loving the TV coverage. It’s in everybody’s front room, and you can watch it the same evening. It’s all over social media. If you’re not here you can be with us anyway.
In the past people would listen to the radio commentary and wait for MCN to come out, and that’s probably the only time you’d see it.
TG – The weather this week has been amazing. The track conditions must be very good.
JM – It’s the best I’ve ever seen it. You can see the rubber down on the road and the racing lines. If you’re caught behind somebody you’re not getting peppered with stones. It’s hot but the tar’s not melting. It’s in good shape.
The low sun during practice is tricky. The way it comes through the trees is difficult, it’s like strobe lighting in a nightclub.
TG – Does it improve once you get out to Ballacraine as you no longer heading west?
JM – It does. Once you turn right at Ballacraine it’s a lot better. Practice week is challenging as the temperatures are up and down. Up on the mountain it gets cold.
The shadow comes across the mountain from around the Bungalow, then you come back into the sun again. So it’s tricky. It’s different during the race as the sun’s a lot higher. But that’s the TT, isn’t it?
TG – You’ve obviously got the section of course named after you and people ask you a lot about your favourite bits. Are there any bits that you don’t like?
JM – Last year one of my sponsors, EMC hooked me up to heart rate monitors to gather data on me when I’m on the bike. The data showed my heart rate goes up a lot at Parliament Square of all places. Parliament Square, May Hill, Whitegates, Stella Maris, and Ramsey Hairpin.
I’m pretty weak through them. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the bumps, or maybe it’s because my chain snapped there a few years ago. I don’t know.
I’ve been working a lot on that this year, to try and chill out a bit on those bits of the circuit and just ride them. They’re not hard bits of track, it’s just stop, start, stop, start.
As soon I get round the Gooseneck, I seem to settle down again. But you can’t afford to be like that anywhere. There’s a few bits like the Nook and Governor’s dip, they’re not much fun. I quite like the real rough sections to Ramsey from Ginger Hall.
It’s the roughest bit of road in the history of motor bike racing, period. You have to let the bike dance around underneath you and do what it needs to do. But we don’t moan about it. A bump arrives somewhere else on the track and we’re all screaming, but it’s just part of the track.
TG – Did you get good value out of the EMC data from last year?
JM – It was interesting to see how my heart rate was affected and the difference with Chad (Adam Child from MCN). He’s working a lot harder than me. I’m a lot more relaxed on the bike. He was definitely overworking it.
But I suppose we’re all different, aren’t we? I’ve trained myself to be more relaxed. That’s probably why I’m old and fat, but I still can do it because I’m using just enough energy.
I eat the food I like when I like. People monitor their food intake and eat at certain times – I just do whatever I want. So the EMC data was interesting, but there’s no secrets.
Hutchy trains like mad. He’s super human fit. If you feel the need to do that, then that’s what you need to do. If I walk into a gym, I’m immediately pissed off. I don’t like the gym regime at all. It’s just not my thing.
I’ll ride my enduro bike till I drop. I do a little bit of walking and enjoy being outside. The gym regime doesn’t work for me. A happy rider’s a fast rider after all.
TG – Do you have a routine from the end of practice to when the flag drops on the first race?
JM – No. You can’t. By the time we get finished tonight, I’ll be the last one out on the electric bike. By the time you get out of there you’ll be buzzing your head off. Then there’ll be a chat and a debrief. You’re knackered.
Tense, nervous energy all day. Then it’s all hands on deck on the bikes. It will be chaos in the morning. As soon as you get up there’ll be a signing session which will just be absolutely nuts. Last year there were hundreds of people fighting and scrapping to get an autograph. It was just outrageous.
TG – How do you find the grid before the start of a race? It’s always looked to me that there are too many people on there.
JM – It’s chaos, isn’t it. All the sponsors and VIPs. I don’t mind all that, though. I’ll just leave them to it and try and get through to my bike.
Some riders will listen to music. To me, that would just drive me mad. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than something in my ear rattling away in my head before I get on the bike.
I just want peace and quiet. Give Beckie (John’s wife) a cuddle, chuck my penny down my leathers, or whatever we found through the week, and get going.