DOUGLAS TO DAKAR: SWAPPING SNAEFELL FOR THE SAND
“I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t say a word, it blew me away” James Hillier is describing the first time he rode the TT Course back in 2008: “I thought, ‘Holy sh*t, this is what I need to do’”.
And so began James’ career at the TT. Fifteen years later, he’s become a regular face at the TT and proven himself to be one of the best competitors, with 14 podiums and a Lightweight Race win to his name.
He’s noted as having an honest and open attitude to the TT and its dangers, which has earned him a special place in the hearts of TT fans. But his willingness to show his emotions is matched equally by the grit and determination needed to succeed at the top of motorsport – and that’s why I’ve come to see him.
We chat over a cup of tea at James’ workplace, the Crescent Yamaha dealership in Dorset, not far from where he lives with his young family. He’s friendly, inquisitive, and despite appearing very busy, he’s very chilled. So much so that at certain points in the interview I wonder if he’s misheard me and is talking about something much more normal and mundane – like his shopping list – rather than the fast-paced world of road racing.
Since his first TT, where he came away with the Newcomers’ Trophy, he’s tenaciously chipped away at lap times each year, growing quietly confident: “It took four or five years to get going. I was quite conservative for a young rider, I never put too much pressure on myself.”
Unlike many riders, James came into racing totally fresh. He didn’t grow up in the paddock surrounded by bikes; it wasn’t in his blood as it is for the likes of Hickman, Harrison and, of course, Dunlop: “My dad had motorbikes but never raced. It’s weird really where it came from because you’ve got to have the right bits about you, to want to do it. I don’t quite know where that came from.”
It’s a credit to James’ devotion and determination; leaping into the world of road racing and competing at the highest level as an outsider is a mammoth effort and a steep learning curve: “We’re not a motorcycle racing family at all, and to then be lining up at the TT is like climbing Everest.”
One of the TT's frontmen for over a decade, consistency has been key to James' success
He has now proved himself to be without doubt one of the most consistent riders on the grid. When I mention his reliability, he points out that from 64 race starts he’s had 60 race finishes. Another impressive stat is that since 2012 he’s finished in the top ten in every race he’s completed – bar one. What’s his secret?
“As a rider you have to look after the bike, you can’t abuse it, especially in a six-lap race. You have to listen to it and feel it. A lot of it is down to being super-aware of anything that could be a problem or break. It is so brutal on the bikes, it really hammers them.”
Perseverance and determination have also played a key role in James’ career. He recalls a technical issue that for many would have meant throwing in the towel: “My gear peg fell off once, off the gear shifter. The bolt was still in and it was really bad, but it was enough for me to finish the race. It was working enough to lap at the right times and we still finished fourth or fifth, but I know some riders who would have pulled in on that and wouldn’t have finished.”
It’s a universal attitude he has towards his racing, whether battling for a podium in a Senior TT – the most coveted race in road racing – or competing in relatively low-profile race such as the 2022 Manx Grand Prix, where he pushed an ailing classic Yamaha for the final half mile to cross the finish line.
James grew up in a rural village in Hampshire. A few of the locals remember some of the octane-induced antics he would regularly get up to in his late teens. After I mention some of the stories I’ve heard, he recounts those days in a diplomatic manner:
“I think I had a bit of a reputation… At 17 I had a Yamaha R6 at home, through my racing, which was unheard of back then. I was really into the Starboyz [a group of street stunt riders from the USA], they were an inspiration to me. One of the roads [in my village] was just covered in black rubber lines, from my doughnuts and rolling burnouts! I would never do that now, but back then I just didn’t give a sh*t!”
James’ escapades are hilarious to listen to but it’s also hard to imagine him as a hellraiser - it’s at odds with the calm, softly spoken man sitting before me.
A new challenge awaits, with some of James' preparations taking place at his local MX venue
A big influence on him at the time was local friend and riding buddy Guy Farbrother, who also had a promising future in racing. Guy sadly died while riding to meet up with James: “He was supposed to be coming to my house; he never turned up. He was a big inspiration. It was both of our dreams to race motorcycles. We bounced off each other; the dream grew as we grew up. We were both 18 when he died.”
It clearly had a big impact on James, so much so that, apart from his Honda Cub 90, he no longer rides on the road. Given the danger involved in road racing and the odds that stack up with each race, I wonder if he has an exit plan for the TT and road racing in general.
“I’m not going to race the TT for ever. This part of my life seems to have gone real quick, from wanting to do stuff and then all of a sudden I’ve done a lot and realising that I’m getting old quite quick and I need to tick these things off. I’d love to go in to rally and then be able to make a living out of that. I like doing things when the odds are against you, if someone says you can’t do it, I like to give it a try.”
Our conversation is taking place a few months before James heads out to Saudi Arabia to take on the 2023 Dakar Rally. He’s been training hard for it, competing in rallies and Hard Enduro – one of the toughest two-wheeled disciplines. As everyone knows the Dakar is a brutal rally, it takes a gargantuan effort of logistics and money just to get there, let alone complete it, which many don’t.
James, far right, leaving his mark on the sands of Saudi
Though completely different disciplines, there are plenty of similarities between the TT and the Dakar; time trial racing over a two-week period, set across a stunning landscape and over great distance, the ultimate test of both man and machine. Though admittedly, the distances involved aren’t quite on the same scale. The TT is unquestionably an endurance race. A Superbike Race at 6 laps, 226-miles and an average speed in excess of 130mph is physical and mental torture, but over the 14 days of the Dakar, James will cover north of 5,500-miles. That’s 150 laps of the TT Mountain Course, whereas he would typically do around 50 laps across a TT fortnight.
However, the risk, the danger, and the determination required to reach the finish line is similar. Perhaps they both offer James that kick of adrenaline he chased as a teenager.
“They’re hard work [rallies and enduro], it’s a bit like self-punishment, like hitting a punch bag. It’s a release. I like that there’s a part of my brain saying ‘don’t do that’ and another part saying ‘just f*cking do it’. As I’m getting older I can feel the ‘don’t do it’ part becoming more prominent, I don’t like to overthink things, I just want to get on and do it.”
Though in the world of motorcycle racing, it’s often not as simple as ‘getting on and doing’. As it is with the TT, preparation for a first foray into the Dakar is years in the making, so when his team withdrew support part-way through 2022 season, it was a bitter blow.
But James wasn’t going to miss the chance to get to the start line on the coast of the Red Sea. He bought his own 450 GasGas machine on finance, and with additional backing from new and existing sponsors, set off on an Arabian adventure.
A limited budget meant he wouldn’t have the luxury of a support team, motorhome or mechanics. Instead he would contest the Original by Motul class – Malle Moto as it is known. No outside assistance, up to 18 hours of gruelling riding in the daytime followed by an evening of bike maintenance and a night in a one-man tent.
From the start James made it clear that he wasn’t there to win, something that went against every part of his racing brain. Two weeks of extreme riding meant that reaching the finish line in one piece was a big enough target.
It started at 5:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day with a 228-mile Special Stage – 6 laps of the TT Course over desert terrain and something to ease him in, given some days would involve almost 600-miles of riding.
James’ Dakar was progressing as well as could be hoped until an innocuous fall, 60-miles from the end of the fifth stage, saw him land awkwardly and dislocate his collarbone. He made it to the end of the stage where the event doctors said the injury was stable enough to continue, if he was able to tolerate the pain for a further 9 days.
Of 24 starters in the Malle Moto class, 15 made it to the finish line in Dammam on the Persian Gulf. James finished 13th, and were it not for a 6-hour penalty relating to his accident he would have taken a top-10 finish on his very first attempt.
"I think it's still sinking in. That was a hard, hard two weeks of riding - not just the riding, everything. A hard two weeks. Not a lot of sleep, lots of work. I did what I came to do, and it's just going to take a while to sink in, I think. So, now I'm going to go home to sleep.”
Just like landing at Ballaugh Bridge. Only sandier... and on the other side of the world...