It’s an unseasonably sunny April afternoon, I’m sat in the bar of the Sefton hotel on the promenade in Douglas on the Isle of Man. The best little island on the planet. John McGuinness is stealing chips from his son’s plate, Tim Reeves is talking shop with Gary Johnson. Steve Mercer is getting a round in at the bar while Keith Flint waits patiently. Today is a good day. It’s the press launch for the 2014 TT races and we’ve just been unceremoniously kicked off the go-kart track in Jurby on the north of the island. The plan was for some mildly competitive karting, interspersed with a chance for press to speak to the riders in attendance. The reality was carnage. When I wedged myself into a kart with Michael Dunlop behind me and Keith Amor in front of me, I took a second to wonder who offered to pay the damages on the poor karts. Less than a minute later, skimming across the grass, flat out and backwards with a Keith Amor shaped dent in my kart, I realised I was worrying about something that really didn’t matter.
I’ve been to a fair few TT press launches, I’m a huge TT fan. Not just because I buy into the whole ‘real road racing’ thing, or because I just love being on the island but because the racers are a breed apart from short circuit guys. More chilled out, less fussed about what sponsors think and happy to share secrets about going fast, it feels like man vs. road, rather than man vs. man and the conversation and general mood reflects exactly that.
On the coach back to Douglas after our karting misdemeanor, I chat to Michael Rutter about everything and nothing while Josh Brookes pours his TT heart out into the waiting Dictaphone of a journalist sat opposite. Everybody is willing to talk, but I spy one racer that’s had his hands in his pockets and his mouth shut all day. He has the look of somebody taking something in for the first time. He’s trying to get the measure of everything and to be honest, he looks a little bit lost. Danny Webb, eating chicken curry off a paper plate with a plastic fork like the rest of the boys, is about as far as you can possibly get from the first class fluff that he is accustomed to in the MotoGP paddock.
I’ve met Danny a few times before, we share the kind of relationship that journos often get with racers. We chat, tweet and text each other sporadically, but it’s highly unlikely that I’m on his Xmas card list. When Danny announced that he would be making his TT debut this year, riding a Superstock ZX-10R, my hand went to my head and scratched. Here’s a young guy with absolutely zero experience on the roads, who has zero seat time on a litre bike, lining up on the start line of a circuit with less runoff than his old motorhome had legroom. I had one question, why?
Danny Webb is 23 but looks like he’s about 15. A top five finisher in 125GP races, a pole setter and top ten finisher overall in the 2010 125GP World Championships, he appeared to be one of those British racers that we’d likely never see in a British paddock, and why should we? He’s clearly a very talented rider, I for one would much rather see British riders grab the opportunity to flourish on the world stage rather than not and Danny appeared to have his career mapped out in MotoGP. Following a couple of wrong turns, on an uncompetitive bike, Danny and Dorna parted company in 2013, he jumped from a Suter Honda Moto3 bike onto a PTR Honda in World Supersport mid-season but didn’t click, scoring just five points in four races.
We’ve all seen racers make a wrong turn career wise, but the TT seems less willing to kiss and make up when racers get things wrong than anywhere else. Stupidly, I judged that Danny eyed the chance to make some money on the roads and jumped in without giving the decision the attention it deserved. Spying my opportunity to have a chat in the Sefton, I buy him a Bombay Sapphire and plonk it in front of him, quickly followed by, “What exactly are you doing here, Danny?” I hope that he can feel the weight of what I’m getting at. Over a couple of drinks, Danny explains the run of bad luck that he had in Moto3, the mismanagement, over riding an uncompetitive bike, poor results and bad feeling. When he talks about MotoGP his face is drawn, it’s like he’s talking about a friend that he’s fallen out with, but each time talk turns to the TT, a smile lights up his face, he really does want to be here. “I have no intention to do anything other than ride round and enjoy myself this year, I understand how important it is not to push here until I’m happy with the bikes and where I’m going. The TT organisers know that me racing here is a long term plan, so this year my aim is nothing more than to enjoy my ride and get a feel for the place”. Danny goes on to explain that he’s always been a TT fan and the opportunity was one that when offered, seemed to offer him everything he wanted as a bike racer. Once my penny had dropped, I ask him how feels about the pressure to perform, in my opinion the pressure for newcomers to be quick straight out of the gate seems higher than that of a podium for the old hands. Just last year Josh Brookes scorched a 127.7mph average lap on his first visit, scoring a top ten finish and lapping quicker than Hutchy did when he won the Superbike race in 2010. Danny is unflustered by the pressure, he doesn’t appear to feel it and sticks to his story about taking it steady. For as much as they say they’ll take it easy first time out, these guys are racers and they’re going to push, remember, they’re not like you and me. Knowing when to push at the TT is what separates the circuit and its competitors from any other race in the world.
Early the next morning I get a full lap of the course with rider liaison officer Milky Quayle. It’s Milky’s job to climb into the heads of TT newcomers, show them the course and get them comfortable with going fast. He can see in Danny all the attributes of a future TT star, “Sure, Danny’s racing background is different to what we normally get, but he’s going about it the right way, he listens when he should, asks all the right questions and is surrounded by a team of very experienced riders. It’s hard to say how well somebody will go until they actually go, but he’s on the right track for sure”. When we pull into the pits after a lap in the car, I get a tap on my window and it’s Danny’s smiling face pushed up against the glass. He too had grabbed the chance to squeeze another few laps in before flying home. Humble, confident and without a hint of cocky know it all, Danny Webb could well be a star of the TT’s future. I kick myself for misjudging so wildly and can only hope he doesn’t make the same mistake in a month’s time. We part with a handshake and I wish him well for TT 2014, as well we all should.
Words: @Johnatsuperbike Images: 2snap and IOM press office