Most motor sport enthusiasts think you need to be a bit, erm, unusual to ride in the Isle of Man TT. This isn’t strictly true, but Michael Dunlop is certainly one of the unusual ones. Interviewing the TT’s reigning king is a disconcerting experience of groping through one obscure answer after another, vainly trying to land a punch.
Not that I’d like to fight Dunlop. He’s a tough, stocky youngster with piercing, fearless eyes that say ‘beware’. On the race track his maverick character is given free rein.
He wrestles with his motorcycle like it’s a living thing, charging around the Manx roads, missing walls and trees by a sliver.
No one at the TT is more exciting to watch. Dunlop is the Marc Márquez of the roads, pushing closer to the edge than anyone else and reaping the rewards, although he doesn’t see it like that.
“It’s just the way I ride the motorbike; it’s natural,” says the 26-year-old from Northern Ireland. “You get moments when you think, ‘Aye, that was a bit close’, but you never dwell on them too much. You get used to it, so you just keep going, keep your head down and keep at it.”
A lap of the TT course is 37.75 miles of twisty, bumpy B-roads that includes about 250 corners. Most TT riders have parts of the course they long for and other parts they dread, usually because even they get scared. Not Dunlop.
“I don’t look at it like that,” he adds. “I just get on with the job. In road racing the course is lined by trees and hedges, that’s what you’ve got, so you have to know where you’re at. It’s not like short circuits where you can run off the track. It’s one of those things: you’ve got a small margin for error. That’s just the way it is. I sit and ride the motorbike, I don’t think much about it.”
Dunlop won his first TT in 2009 and has dominated the event over the past two years, winning four TTs in 2013 and another four last June. And all this despite switching machinery every year. Dunlop likes to do things his own way, and why shouldn’t he? He likes to work on his own bikes and doesn’t like the feel of a corporate straitjacket. This might partly explain why he’s switched manufacturers three times in as many years, from Honda in 2013 to BMW last year and Yamaha in 2015.
TT race week comprises five big races: the Superbike and Senior, both contested on 1000cc machines in full-race specification, two Supersport races for 600s and the Superstock race for 1000cc superbikes in near-showroom spec. Over the past two years Dunlop has triumphed in all but two of these 10 races, winning across all three classes.
“It doesn’t matter what I’m on, I just like riding my motorbike. I like riding the big bikes, I like riding the 600s, I enjoy them all. A bike’s a bike,” he deadpans. “I used to enjoy riding the 250s and 125s too, but they’re just another motorbike, really. I enjoy racing, so that’s what I tend to do.”
Of course, it’s impossible to write about Dunlop without considering his family history. His father Robert and uncle Joey were road racing royalty. Joey is the TT’s most successful protagonist, with 26 TT wins, the last achieved at 47 years of age, just months before he lost his life in a minor street race in Estonia. Robert won five TTs, the last of them after suffering horrific injuries in an accident in the Manx village of Ballaugh. He returned to the TT several years after the crash, with the front brake lever switched to the left handlebar due to his injuries. He was killed during practice for Northern Ireland’s North West 200 in 2008. The very next day Michael disobeyed orders from the organisers, raced and won the 250 event.
Dunlop is not a fan of last year’s brilliant documentary Road, which tells the story of the Dunlop dynasty, because he thinks its message is clear – that he will end up the same way as his father and uncle. Never mind what happened to his forebears, Dunlop is destined to continue spurning the greater safety of short circuits in favour of the real thing.
“The roads are what I’m used to, it’s what we do. I’m not against short circuits, I just don’t do it. Why do I like doing the TT? I don’t know what it is, there’s something nice about the place. It’s got everything in it and I’ve got a buzz for it. When you’re on the bike you realise what point you’re at and where you want to push to – it’s all in the mind when you’re racing. You just keep your head down and try to do what you can.”
Dunlop will be keeping his head down and doing what he can throughout TT race week, which runs from May 30-June 5. As usual, ITV4 provides coverage.
While smaller Formula 1 teams continue to beg for a bigger slice of the sport’s financial cake, MotoGP has announced a huge increase in funding for its smaller teams.
From 2017, rights holder Dorna will increase its investment in the grid by about 30 per cent, underwriting the machinery costs of all non-factory teams. In effect Dorna has admitted that most teams cannot find the necessary budget to contest a hi-tech championship. This has been the case since tobacco sponsorship disappeared almost a decade ago. Dorna will negotiate a lease price for factory-spec machinery from the manufacturers, who must make several bikes available to satellite and private teams. These costs will be covered almost entirely by Dorna.
“This way the teams will save economically and the competitiveness of the championship will be ensured,” says the CEO of Dorna, Carmelo Ezpeleta.