Michael Rutter reclaimed his benchmark status in the Isle of Man’s TT Zero category at this year’s event, taking his fourth win and a fifth in succession for all-conquering Japanese manufacturer Mugen.
This was the ninth running of the emission-free TT Zero category, which has now firmly established itself among the much noisier offerings found on the island during race season.
But, despite Rutter producing another record-breaking lap of the Snaefell Mountain Course, there was a sense that 2018 could have been better yet.
Mugen were the overwhelming favourites to once again conquer the event with their Shinden Nana. The demise of Victory Motorcycles in early 2017 removed Mugen’s only genuine competition and, as was the case last year, the Japanese firm were competing against privateers and university teams.
These small and passionate outfits do a fantastic job, but they cannot hope to match a company as experienced and steeped in racing as Mugen.
Nevertheless, there was potential for this to be a classic scrap between some hugely gifted riders, with a three-man team of John McGuinness, Bruce Anstey and Lee Johnston set to contest TT Zero this year. McGuinness won the event in 2014 and 2015, while Anstey had triumphed in 2016 and 2017, setting up a battle to join Rutter as a three-time TT Zero winner.
But it did not come to be, with McGuinness forced to withdraw due to ongoing injury problems and Kiwi rider Anstey facing a battle against cancer. TT Zero had been robbed of a potential barnstormer between two of road racing’s all-time greats, though this remains secondary to both men’s health challenges.
Veteran racer Rutter – winner of TT Zero in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – was therefore drafted in to join 29-year-old Johnson, with the Mugen riders facing no serious competition for victory so long as they kept it on the tarmac.
Rutter was quickest in qualifying and, when Johnson suffered problems with his chain drive during the race, a fourth win for the Midlands rider was effectively secured.
Though competition was scarce, it should not be forgotten that Mugen are pushing the boundaries when it comes to TT Zero technology and speeds. Rutter’s triumph saw him become the first rider to complete the Snaefell Mountain Course in excess of 120mph, with his race average clocking in at 121.824mph.
The progress that the electric category is making can be demonstrated by looking at Rutter’s previous bests. When he last won the race in 2013, he lapped at 109.675mph and clocked in at 20 minutes 38.461 seconds; in 2018 he was more than two full minutes faster, completing the course in 18m34.956s, while also adding more than 12mph to his average speed.
Johnson’s mechnical problems – he was forced to stop and fix the chain himself – allowed Daley Mathison to snatch second spot and secure a third successive TT Zero podium for the University of Nottingham team, and their highest finish to date.
Mathison’s average speed of 119.294mph was quicker than anything achieved previously, and is second only to Rutter’s new record time, further highlighting the progress being made in TT Zero. Johnson came home third to complete the podium for Mugen.
While TT Zero has seen rapid improvements in technology and ever-increasing speeds over its nine-year history, it is fair to say that a little extra competition would help to drive standards even further forward.
What Mugen are doing is impressive and the Japanese firm deserve respect for putting so much effort into the category. Deservedly, they are reaping the rewards with their fifth successive win.
That said, there is a clear need for another manufacturer to challenge them for victory on the Mountain and accelerate the development of zero-emissions road racing. Regardless of the power source, competition is always key to improving technology.
What’s more, continuing with one manufacturer is risky. Should Mugen withdraw, the field would lose its two fastest bikes, not to mention the extremely high standard of riders that Mugen can afford to bring to the class.
There are potential candidates out there and TT Zero is an attractive proposition. Hopefully, the coming years will feature more major motorcycle manufacturers competing for victory – with past champions Anstey and McGuinness back competing in full health, too