Mat Oxley: Road racing’s maverick, Michael Dunlop, closes on Isle of Man TT record

“In June, Michael Dunlop could take the Isle of Man TT victory record from his uncle”

Michael Dunlop North West 200 2023

Dunlop is going for the TT record – looking to claim it from his uncle Joey


Michael Dunlop stands on the brink of history this year. During June’s Isle of Man TT the Northern Irishman, age 35, could become the most successful TT rider of all time, taking the record from his uncle, Joey.

The Dunlop story – a tale of great glories and terrible tragedies on unforgiving road circuits – is not an easy one to tell.

Joey Dunlop won 26 TTs between 1977 and 2000. He lost his life a few weeks after that last TT victory, when he crashed out of a race on country roads outside Tallinn, Estonia.

Eight years later Michael’s father Robert was killed at the North West 200, a street-racing event a few miles from the family’s hometown of Ballymoney. Robert had been seriously injured at the TT in 1994 but refused to quit. His right hand had been so badly mangled in the crash that he switched the front brake lever from its traditional position on the right handlebar to the left handlebar, alongside the clutch lever. Remarkably he started winning races again.

However, when his engine seized during practice for the 2008 North West he grabbed the brake lever instead of the clutch. He died in the ensuing crash. Two days later the organisers told his sons Michael and William they wouldn’t be allowed to race because they were considered emotionally unfit.

The sons ignored the order and rode their motorcycles onto the grid, to huge cheers from the crowd. Michael took victory after a hectic battle with several rivals. Grown men wept.

Michael won his first TT the following year, while William learned the Mountain course well enough to score several podiums. In July 2018 William was killed during the Skerries 100, a street race north of Dublin.

In spite of tragedy upon tragedy, Michael continues to race on the roads and continues to get faster. He’s a one-off, a maverick, an enigma. How could it be any other way?

“Racing is a lot different for someone like me than it is for somebody else,” he says. “That’s life. That’s just the way it goes, isn’t it? It’s the name of the game.”

Last year, Dunlop won four more TTs, taking him to 25 victories, one short of his late uncle, and also rode his fastest lap of the meandering 37.73-mile Mountain course, lined by walls, hedges and street furniture, at 135.259mph. He’s so much his own man that he took three of those successes aboard bikes he built himself, from the crankshaft up. His other winning machine was prepared by the well-established Hawk Racing outfit.

Dunlop has ridden for many teams and nearly ridden for many others, sometimes doing deals and changing his mind at the last minute, leaving him scrambling for machinery just weeks before the TT. He only has one way of going racing – his own.

Most of his rivals park their motorhomes together in the paddock next to the start/finish line on the Glencrutchery Road in Douglas, forming their own support group to get them through the highs and inevitable lows of a TT fortnight – one week of practice, one week of racing. Since 1911 the Mountain course has claimed the lives of 269 racers. Dunlop prefers to stay elsewhere on the island, shunning the limelight and the media.

“I just don’t have many dealings with a lot of people,” he explains. “I just get to it. Everyone’s got their own way.”

Dunlop’s greatest TT rival is Peter Hickman, a relative newcomer to the event. The Staffordshire rider made his name in the British Superbike Championship but was so deep in debt that he faced a choice: retire or contest the TT and street events, where good money (by motorcycling standards) can be made. It didn’t take long for Hickman to fall under the Mountain course’s spell.

“I get asked a lot what’s my favourite part of the course,” he says. “My answer is, ‘From the start line to the finish line!’ There’s no part I don’t like. There are bits that are more technical and difficult and there are bits that can make you apprehensive or make you really make sure you’re on your game. But overall it’s awesome. It has a bit of everything: it’s long, it’s got massive undulations, it’s got bumps, it’s got smooth sections. It’s unbelievable to ride.”

Hickman’s short-circuit speed and precision have made him the most successful TT rider of recent years and the current lap-record holder, at 136.358mph.

Dunlop comes from a background steeped in racing around the streets. It’s a particular Irish obsession, born out of ancient British road laws that banned racing on the mainland, but not in Ireland or on the Isle of Man. And he’s not keen on BSB riders coming over to steal his glory.

“Roadracing is a bit changed now, because you’ve got BSB-type people floating across to reinvent themselves,” says Dunlop, without mentioning any names.

“At the end of the day it’s no different to any other year”

There’s little doubt that Dunlop and Hickman will go head-to-head this year, facing the Isle of Man’s unique challenges that make it the world’s most dangerous motor sport event.

Hickman wants to add to his 13 wins. Dunlop wants to make history but insists there’s no more pressure than usual.

“At the end of the day it’s no different to any other year,” he deadpans. “We just need to keep pushing on and see what comes.”

At the TT, you don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley