Compared to the Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man, the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring is a leisurely coffee ride. Motorcyclists risk their lives every year in the chase around the picturesque island. We set off in a Bentley EX2. The car that won the team classification of the legendary race in 1922.
Why the hell do people do this to themselves? Motorsport fans ask themselves this question every year when motorcycle artists meet on the Isle of Man to compete in the “Tourist Trophy”. Tourist Trophy! That sounds like a relaxed get-together on a Sunday afternoon in June with coffee and cake. That’s not what the death-defying hunt on the 37,730-mile (60.718-kilometer) Snaefell Mountain Course is. At speeds in excess of 300 km/h, motorcyclists race on public roads, through towns, villages and around tight hairpin bends and need around 17 minutes for one lap. This corresponds to an average speed of around 132 miles per hour (around 213 km/h). To ask?
Anyone who deviates even just ten centimeters from the ideal line hits it,” is one motto. Motorcyclist yarn? Not at all. There were a number of serious accidents again this year, and not all of them went smoothly. But anyone who ventures onto the notorious tarmac of the island between England and Ireland on their motorbike knows what they are getting into. Nothing works without meticulous preparation. Little things decide about triumph or sick bed. If things go smoothly. Where do the trees cast shadows and therefore the asphalt colder? Where is it damp and where is there grip? “If the multiple motorcycle world champion Valentino Rossi competes here without training, he will be last,” says Richard “Milky” Quayle. The wiry man is a legend on the island. He’s one of three locals who won the murderous hunt. The last triumphal drive took place in 2002, a year later on May 31st he broke almost all his bones in a horror crash in the Ballaspur section of the track.
The pixelated video still makes you shudder today. The impact at well over 200 km/h and the flying doll (= Milkey) are indelibly burned into your brain. No one who values their life would voluntarily face this hell ride. With insane speed over manhole covers and only centimeters past high curbs, where every detour almost always ends in a capital take-off. The streets do not have smooth racing asphalt. Who does that? But the pilots on their insane fire chairs are of a different breed. For them, danger is the thrill.
The circuit’s 260 curves separate the wheat from the chaff. We rise to the challenge. Not on two wheels, but on four. We’re in the Bentley EXP2, one of the winning team’s cars from 1922. The individual classification was won by Frenchman Jean Chassagne in a Sunbeam – the first non-British driver to achieve this feat. At that time, the daring men in their rolling boxes also ventured onto the island. The legendary racing car is in great shape. The pedal arrangement is different than usual: the cone clutch pedal is on the left, the brake on the right and the accelerator in the middle. Downshifting is a procedure in itself: engage the clutch, gear to neutral, clutch, double-declutch and engage one of the four gears. Often accompanied by an audible salute from the gearbox. Synchronizing with the gas foot needs to be learned. The passenger is allowed to do physical work, because he has to keep the fuel pressure at two psi (pounds per square inch) with the hand pump.
Keith Downey takes over the wheel, after a good three miles Ballagarey lurks in a brutally fast corner that demands everything from the motorcycle artists. Our Bentley takes the curve at 90 km/h. The Bentley manages a maximum of around 120 km/h. Quite a lot for a hundred-year veteran. We rarely exceed 100 km/h or 60 mp/h. Keith cranks, we pump until the doctor comes as soon as the needle starts shaking. The three-liter four-cylinder engine thanks us with a sonorous combustion noise. Quite the British gentleman.
We pass the town of Kirk Michael, the sign “Please drive carefully” sounds like a friendly offer given the red and white cubes that the drivers are supposed to catch in the event of a departure. As are the speed limits of 30 mp/h and 40 mp/h. In the duel of motorcycle gladiators, nobody cares. The Bentley rolls calmly through the streets of the town. Don’t forget pumps. Continue around the island via the Ballaugh Bridge. We still have Milky’s words in our ears. “If you take the wrong line here, you’ll end up in the pub!” We wonder how many motorcyclists stopped by involuntarily. Because here the two-wheelers actually take off due to the insane speed.
It continues on the most dangerous racetrack in the world, against which the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring looks like a highway for coffee trips. One tricky spot follows the next. Statistics report fatal accidents almost everywhere. The Ramsey Hairpin in the far north is one of those nasty hairpin bends that you’ll want to involuntarily descend from. The second half of the circuit is uphill, the wind is blowing so hard that the ubiquitous Celtic flags flap almost horizontally with their three legs rattling. We reach the start/finish straight in Douglas and are glad we weren’t on a motorbike.