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This is the unhinged world of road racing

No sport unites death and glory like road racing. We dig into its gladiators' mindset with the help of a BMW M4

Published: 11 May 2019

“I think you’re stupid for not doing this sport. That’s my attitude. I couldn’t go through life now without doing this. That’s how horribly addicted I am to it. It’s just brilliant. People call it selfish, but we’re all selfish creatures in nature anyway, aren’t we?”

Dom ‘The Bomb’ Herbertson is at the 2018 Ulster GP, in the midst of what, from the outside, appears to be road racing’s annus horribilis. Just weeks ago, William Dunlop, one of the sport’s smoothest riders and nicest nice guys, was killed in the smaller Skerries 100 race in County Dublin, bringing another gut-punching twist to the Dunlop dynasty's tale.

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Words: Stephen Dobie // Photography: Stephen Davison

Days later, Dom lost a dear friend in James Cowton, who died while racing on the Isle of Man, a month after two riders didn’t make it through TT fortnight. You could even call these last few weeks road racing’s mensis horribilis.

Yet the show vehemently goes on. “Sadly, the longer you’re in the paddock, the more people you get to know and the more friends you lose,” Dom continues in his Geordie lilt. “I don’t think I’m going to pack in. If I went, I wouldn’t want people stopping for me.”

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Ulster has proved a bit of a turning point for Dom, a privateer who fells trees to fund his hobby, but who’s stepped up into a factory team to put in some scintillating performances around a course that was – until 2018’s freakishly hot Isle of Man TT – the world’s quickest road race.

Unlike the TT, this isn’t an individually ridden time trial but a wild, wheel-to-wheel race. It’s the one that makes every racer’s eyes ping, the one that make them talk so quickly they’re tripping over their breath, and a circuit where no two riders’ favourite corner seems the same. Which is why I’ve caught the ferry to Northern Ireland: partly to drive the course and see what all the fuss is about, but mostly to try and dig into what makes racing on roads (as opposed to nice cuddly tracks) so perilously addictive.

BMW has a big history in road racing. And, rather conveniently, Peter Hickman has recently taken the ‘fastest man at the TT’ mantle with a 135.452mph lap on his S 1000 RR, before being crowned rider of the week at Ulster with two victories in a programme cut short by sheeting rain. Having, incidentally, been in hospital with a kidney infection just days earlier.

“Ulster is one of the best circuits in the world,” he confirms. “It’s really untouched compared to other circuits, it’s exactly as it was designed to be. Fast, flowing… it’s just mint.”

It’s convenient because I’m here in BMW’s four-wheeled road racer, the 454bhp M4 CS. The application of M-striped fabric door pulls when there’s still back seats and a stereo may seem cynical, but there’s no doubting this M car’s credibility once the thing’s actually moving. Track-biased tyres tramline like hell if you’re not concentrating, while the power delivery lurches if you even marginally hesitate with the throttle. Best to ratchet up the paddleshift to its most aggressive setting and get a move on, then.

A clue to what sets road racing apart from current four-wheeled motorsport (and two-wheeled series such as Moto GP) is in the name. While races like the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio made famous the act of driving flat-out on public tarmac, the danger and calamity that ensued mean that wheel-to-wheel car racing rarely takes place on closed roads now. The Dundrod circuit that hosts the Ulster GP once also hosted motor racing, but the fatality-ridden 1955 RAC Tourist Trophy was the last time cars careered around these roads competitively.

Which, today, seems a crying shame. Because the beauty of races held on roads is that you can easily follow the path of your heroes, get a glimpse of what they do, without paying through the nose for a trackday. You do so with speed limits and a mind for oncoming traffic, of course, but once the Ulster GP’s riders have filtered off to post-race parties and the spectators have all gone home to dry off, I seize the chance to see what makes this place so magic.

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Now, if you’re going to stop a car anywhere on an empty public road and take a moment to yourself, it probably ought to be nudging the start line of Dundrod in front of the Joey Dunlop Grandstand. If ever a name succinctly united the triumph and tragedy of road racing, it’s Dunlop.

Alone in the M4, low-slung in my seat and struggling to ponder how tense it must be teetering on top of a 200mph superbike, its angry, guttural straight-six does its best impression of a grid of delicately poised bikes waiting for the lights to go out.

“In the TT it’s just a single rider setting off every ten seconds, but here it’s a whole grid setting off at once,” says Lee Johnston, a three-time winner here in 2015. “You hear the drone of them coming, it’s like a f**ing load of wasps.”

The CS launches itself with a squirm of its rear axle and I fling myself down The Flying Kilo – the opening kilometre – and through Rock Bends, which are breathtaking enough at 60-ish on one side of the road. Imagining what it’s like on two wheels, using every inch of road (and occasionally a touch more), frazzles my little brain.

I flap down the gears for the junction at Leathemstown before wringing back through them towards Deer’s Leap, a place where the world just disappears for a moment as you clear the crest. Gravity aids the run to Cochranstown, where the bikes turn right onto a minor piece of tarmac that, this evening, offers a chance to really open up the M4 and do my impression of a biker propelling themselves through the dank tunnel of trees towards Quarterlands. Which I’m sure is a mightily fast corner when you don’t have to stop at its T-junction and check for traffic like I do.

I’m halfway around, and speeds only seem to rise from here, not least over Loughers – where, earlier in the day, Lee had flown by inches from my head, front wheel proudly in the air.

“That’s fifth gear on a superbike so what’s that, 160mph maybe?” he tells me. “It’s a good corner, that is. You were sat there with your box of sandwiches watching everyone go past, and you were having an unbelievable time, so imagine sitting on the bike and getting to do that?”

I can’t. As I flick-flack through Tornagrough, round the Lindsay Hairpin and propel myself back to the finish line, I’m muttering all manner of profanities, both at how thrilling the run’s been in a car and how utterly exasperating it must be with half the wheel count, yet three times the speed.

“You look at circuit racing and go ‘I could do that, I could come and do a trackday’,” says Johnston. “But you can’t come here and ride around like that, can you? I think that’s why it’s harder for road racers to stop. Despite the danger. You race a short circuit and it’s a good feeling when you win, but there’s no massive buzz. When you’re hauling arse round here it’s a mega, mega feeling, and when you’re winning it’s even better.”

Riders from every background just can’t enough of the place. Patricia Fernandez has flown across here for several years to enjoy an experience different to the mollycoddled world of American circuits.

“Does it ever stop being scary? Never, really,” she says. “I think if you’re not scared, then there’s something wrong. It’s almost like we purposely scare ourselves to go faster. The first few laps of being here, you’re like ‘oh f**k, tree’, ‘oh s**t, people’. Then you do it more and more and now I’m not necessarily looking at the tree, or the people. They’re still there, but I’m using them more like markers.

“There was a decade or so when Formula 1 was the most dangerous sport on the planet. Any kind of extreme sport just ignites the most amazing highs and the most terrible lows, but the highs are just so amazing and incredible. Not just for us, but for the fans.”

Especially Irish fans. While Ulster shares similar worldwide recognition to the Isle of Man as a road racing venue, ‘circuits’ crop up everywhere around here, many of them resembling simple triangles as three seemingly innocuous public roads are tied together into something that can be coned off and called a racetrack in mere minutes. Fields serve as paddocks and riders’ braking references and turn-in points reduce to lamp posts, road signs and drains.

We visit one such example at Armoy – where the M4 bucks and weaves over single-track roads that, with even the lightest application of sense, would surely never house a motor race – which leads us neatly to the town of Ballymoney. Dunlop country.

Every second spent here, be it visiting the memorials to Joey and his brother Robert (whose statue is scattered with tributes to William, his recently fallen son), popping into Joey’s Bar for half a coke and a prod around some old bikes, or a brief blat around the barren backroads where so many TT and Ulster-winning bikes were given highly illicit shakedowns, I have goosebumps.

Stephen, our snapper, is very much woven into the road racing fabric, and every time we bump into someone who knows him, William is the first, the only topic of conversation. In a sport that’s almost numb to tragedy, this one’s genuinely shocked everyone. Stephen is sure William’s brother, Michael, will continue – “he knows nothing else” – but the fact there’s even a shred of doubt about the fiercely competitive, 18-time TT winner’s future says it all.

We continue north to Portstewart, our final destination and home of the North West 200, which kicks off the international road racing season in May 2019. With its beautiful coastal view, stacks of static caravans and a throng of arcade token-clutching visitors, the sport’s death and glory feels a universe away.

“McGuiness went off through there and ended up on the golf course,” says Stephen as we potter around the course, looking for photo opportunities. “A lady ended up with a broken leg when a bike went into her front garden there,” he continues. You can’t travel a mile without a list of calamities accompanying it, and the painting of exposed bricks beneath the railway bridge – to ensure the riders know where to tuck their elbow in – sends a shiver down my spine.

Danger courses through the very veins of this sport, but if you want an example of just how little it creeps into rider’s psyches, you need to rewind to 2008. It’s the North West 200 and Robert Dunlop, father of William and Michael, has been killed in practice. His sons are deemed unfit to race two days later but, flouting the stewards’ orders, they both scramble their bikes to the grid and Michael takes a victory even the most audacious scriptwriter would deem too Hollywood. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Fast forward to 2019 and this will be where Michael returns to the limelight, this time without his brother in support, but surely aiming to do another family member justice. And moisten the faces of everyone watching once again. Indeed, across the whole grid another season will begin with renewed hope and excitement, and, while there’ll be fond memories of fallen heroes, they won’t wistfully stifle the speed and commitment of those they inhabit.

“You go to the funeral,” says Lee, “but that’s part of life, you just get on with it. Maybe that sounds cold, but you couldn’t properly get upset about it, because then you can’t go and do your job properly. For normal people to grasp that it’s part of the sport… it’s not normal, is it?”

For Dom, 2019 will be particularly poignant as he rides for Cowton Racing, representing the honour of his lost friend alongside the family left behind. “It’s a sad thing when it happens and you never wish it upon anyone, but sadly, without the risk, we wouldn’t be doing it,” he tells me. “If I wanted to be like that I would go short circuit racing or car racing… or I wouldn’t be in racing at all.

“My best mates in the world are in this paddock. When you get home, you get down from this cloud nine and you’re just bloody miserable. This is my world. This is what I live for. It’s the world’s greatest sport, I don’t care what people say. I will fight my corner until the day I die.”

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