Saunders back, intoxicated by an island where you can almost feel the breath of spectators
SIDECAR racer David Saunders will head back to the Isle of Man for this summer's TT races, intoxicated by the excitement of road racing in its purest form.
It is a place, he says, where you can almost feel the breath of the spectators and, even above the howl of the engine, hear the roar of the crowd.
Having competed on the fearsome 37-mile mountain course last year for the first time, the Wirksworth driver is keen for another fix of adrenalin.
He and passenger Anne Garnish will load up their Willow Racing outfit and take it to the island for a week of practice in late May before the two races on June 1 and 5.
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With luck, he will be able to improve on the 2012 form that earned him a 29th-place finish, having started 51st on the grid in the island's capital, Douglas.
On that occasion, he was partnered by Grace Bradbury, female passengers being something of a tradition among the three-wheeler fraternity.
"It was my first race at the TT races last year and it was the fulfilment of an ambition. I had got to the stage when I thought I would never achieve that goal," said the 59-year-old, a cabinet-maker by trade but currently working as a builder.
"I started racing in 2007 in the F350 class and the following year, finished third in the championship after some major problems.
"For 2009, I moved to F2 because I wanted to race at the TT and that is the class of machine used in the Isle of Man but that fell through after my passenger was badly injured.
"It took until last year to find somebody who wanted to do the TT, in Grace.
"My new passenger, Anne, has been in the sport for about three years and is a very accomplished competitor."
The TT course is recognised as the most dangerous in the world but its hazards are accepted by racers eager to take on what is not unreasonably regarded as the greatest of all tests of man and machine.
The speeds are astonishing – last year's sidecar winners averaged over 110mph – and Saunders has his eyes focused on the "magic ton" for a lap of the course.
He said: "You have to prepare for the TT because it is a very special kind of race. On short circuits, you might be at top speed for a fraction of a second. But on the island you might be doing 140mph for more than a minute and, coming off the mountain, you could be going as fast as 150mph.
"You have a week of practice before the event and the circuit takes a bit of getting used to. Unlike short circuits, there are very few places where the passenger can hang off the side of the sidecar because of the walls and the lamp-posts and suchlike at the side of the course.
"So a lot of the passenger's work is done inside the chair.
"The road circuits provide an added bit of excitement. When you are racing, the crowds are so close. At places like the TT and Oliver's Mount in Scarborough, they are only a few feet away and you can almost feel their breath. You can certainly hear them, even above the noise of the engine."
Saunders is unfazed by the fact that he is approaching his 60th year – an age when most racers would have long since hung up their leathers.
"It's not so unusual to be as old as me to be a sidecar racer and I find it more rewarding in a three-wheeler," he said.
"I had a play about racing solos but very unsuccessfully. I have always loved sidecars and I eventually did it in 2007 and won the newcomers' award, which had previously been won by people like the Birchall brothers, Ben and Tom, from Mansfield."
Sidecar racing has been in the doldrums, having been dropped from the MotoGP and World Superbike calendars a number of years ago.
But Saunders sees some shoots of recovery in a branch of the sport that had seemingly found itself in limbo, having been shunned by the four-wheel as well as the two-wheel fraternity.
Saunders said: "This country has a strong tradition of sidecar racing with drivers like Steve Abbott, from Riddings, who was a star for many years and won the world championship.
"There is an association which tries to get more people into the sport. The biggest problem is that to get behind the handlebars of a sidecar and try driving one, you either have to buy one, which is very expensive, or find someone kind enough to allow you to have a go.
"Gradually, we are starting to see more sidecars racing again after the sport really fell away and there are supposed to be links being established between World Superbikes and British Superbikes.
"Over the last few years, we have started to get British F2 sidecars more aligned with BSB."
In addition to the TT, Saunders and Garnish will make the pilgrimage to Scarborough and take part in selected other meetings throughout the year – finances permitting.
"We will do at least two races in the British championship but we're not sure yet which ones and probably a couple of club events at places like Darley Moor and Mallory Park.
"We don't have any major sponsors. We get some backing for NGK Spark Plugs and friends help us out. But for £20 you can have your name on the side of the fairing. People love that because it makes them feel part of it all and quite a lot of people came forward when we raced at Oliver's Mount last year.
"It's a case of many small amounts of cash adding up and helping us on our way.
"That sums up the sport. One of the great things is that sidecar racing is one big family."
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