To many he was all about the Isle of Man TT but he was quick on the short circuits too - never more so than in winning his last Formula 1 title
t’s 30 years since the great Joey Dunlop won his fifth, and final, TT Formula One world championship. Riding an exotic factory Honda RVF750, he dominated the original four-stroke world series – held on both roads and short circuits – taking five wins from eight rounds. No-one knew it at the time but it would prove to be the Irishman’s last world title. This is how it played out.
At the start of the 1986 season Joey was at the very top of his game. At 34 he had already won the TT Formula One world championship four years in a row, had seven TT wins to his name, had a full-factory RVF750 Honda in classic Rothmans colours at his disposal for his title defence, and was by far the most popular man in road racing thanks to his unkempt appearance, modesty, and maverick approach. He was already the people’s champion but in 1986 the Queen made it official.
Joey gets a gong
Included in the New Year’s Honours List for 1986 was one William Joseph Dunlop of Ballymoney, Northern Ireland. Joey was to be awarded an MBE for services to motorcycling and for once he actually got dressed up. More accustomed to oil-stained overalls, Joey turned up at Buckingham Palace in a grey morning suit complete with top hat – and tidy haircut! He arrived in a chauffeur-driven Daimler to accept his honour from Prince Charles and quipped that the car “had as much room in the back as my van”.
“He was amazing about the whole MBE thing,” says Joey’s Rothmans Honda team boss from 1986, Barry Symmons. “He was highly patriotic so the thought of going to meet royalty was a huge deal. He sorted everything out himself – got himself and his family kitted out in the finest clothes. I remember he requested about 24 tickets to get friends and family into Buckingham Palace but he could only get three. But he took all his children anyway. The only thing I arranged was the loan of the Daimler to take him to the Palace because otherwise Joey would have turned up in his van!”
Full factory machinery
Of the three-man Rothmans Honda Britain team for the 1986 season, only Joey received a new full-on HRC factory bike from Japan and only he would contest the full Formula One world championship. His team-mates, Roger Marshall and Roger Burnett, would focus on the British championships and would ride year-old bikes.
The TT Formula One world championship had very generous regulations, which meant there were some seriously trick machines on the grid but none more so than Dunlop’s works RVF. The championship meant a lot to Honda as it was road bike-related and they pulled out all the stops to make sure their number one rider had the very best tackle. The 1986 RVF750 was an amazing, one-off, hand-built HRC special from an era when money was no object and fag companies paid for everything anyway. It was based on the Honda works world endurance racers and in 1986 Joey used it to devastating effect, taking five wins from the eight-round championship.
“Joey’s RVF750 was a proper factory bike whereas my Skoal Bandit Suzuki GSX-R750 had an old chassis and the engines were built in-house with Yoshimura parts,” says Paul Iddon (father of current BSB star Christian) who finished second to Joey in the 1986 F1 championship. “So, while we had some factory parts, it wasn’t a full-on factory effort like the Honda. That RVF was a proper missile but it was thirsty too. At Hockenheim Joey had to stop for fuel whereas I didn’t – but he still just blasted straight back past me!”
Who says Joey couldn’t ride short circuits?
Of the eight championship rounds that year, half were on short circuits, including Misano, Hockenheim, Assen and Jerez, and Joey won two of those (Hockenheim and Assen) and would have added another win in Misano had his bike not run out of fuel on the last lap. Who says yer maun couldn’t ride short circuits?
“I think there’s a difference between a typical British short circuit and the Grand Prix circuits that were used in the Formula One world championship,” Symmons says. “Joey liked to have a bit of space around him when he was racing – he didn’t really like going into a first corner that was only ten feet wide with 30 other riders jostling for position, but he was fine with bigger, more open, circuits. But in general he enjoyed the roads more because there weren’t quite so many people around him.”
Iddon saw first-hand how good Joey could be on short circuits despite his preference for the roads. “He wasn’t a cut-and-thrust kind of rider and would rather not get involved in those kind of battles,” he says. “Having said that, he was capable of it. I caught and passed him on the penultimate lap at Vila Real that year. Knowing that he’d suffered from heat exhaustion the previous year, I thought the same thing was happening again so I seized my chance because I knew I was far fitter than him. But he came straight back at me and just had enough left to beat me on the final lap. He was a very wily character and he just dug that bit deeper to ensure victory.”
The men he had to beat
The TT Formula One world championship threw some serious competition in Joey’s way, including 1991 500cc world champion Marco Lucchinelli and future world champion Kevin Schwantz. Lucchinelli rode a Ducati as a wild card in the opening round at Misano and led Joey by 20 seconds at one point but the Ulsterman had caught up more than a second a lap over 20 laps and was ready to pounce on the last lap when his RVF ran out of fuel. At Assen in round four, Schwantz appeared as a wild card on a Suzuki RG500 but Joey beat him into second place after early leader, Neil Robinson, had problems with his chain.
The Assen incident
After beating Schwantz to win the race at Assen, Joey and his crew were celebrating when they hit upon the idea of doing one more lap of the course – in a Rothmans company car. Iddon takes up the story: “Joey and about five or six others had been drinking and decided to take the Rothmans Honda car for a lap of the circuit.
“They rolled the car and it ended up on its roof in a ditch. His race trophy went flying around the car in the mêlée and my team-mate, Neil Robinson, spent a night in hospital, Joey broke five ribs and needed stitches on his forehead, and Neil’s mechanic broke his jaw in the crash. He had to drink through a straw for months after that.”
Symmons also remembers the incident well. “I only found out recently that the idea to do a lap was suggested by Joey’s mate Derek McIntyre. Dave Sleat, one of the mechanics, was actually driving. I wasn’t best pleased when I heard what had happened. It obviously put a blemish on the team’s reputation – not to mention a fairly large dent in Joey’s head!”
King of the roads
Of the four rounds held on public roads, Joey won three. Not only did he win his fourth consecutive F1 race at the Isle of Man TT, he also cleaned up at Vila Real in Portugal and at the Imatra circuit in Finland. The only roads round he failed to win was his home round – the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod – and there was little incentive to do so as he had already wrapped up the championship in Imatra. The wet Ulster race was won by rising Irish star Neil Robinson on a Skoal Bandit Suzuki GSX-R750 after Joey made a wrong tyre choice.
What happened next?
The 1986 TT Formula 1 World Championship was Joey’s fifth consecutive title but it would prove to be his last. For starters, his team folded, leaving Joey without a job. “It became too expensive for Honda UK,” Symmons says. “Sales were down and while the amount of support we got from Japan for the Formula 1 world championship was very good, we didn’t get that level of support for our other racing.”
In 1988 Joey suffered injuries at Brands Hatch which meant he spent many years struggling back to full fitness and would not win another TT until 1992 and even then he could only manage to ride smaller capacity machines. It wasn’t until 2000 that he won another TT Formula 1 race – 11 years after his last victory in that class on the Island. Sadly, it would also be his last. Joey Dunlop, MBE, OBE, and the people’s champion, lost his life just a few weeks later in an obscure road race in Tallinn, Estonia. He is still considered the greatest road racer of all time and still has more TT victories (26) than any man in history.
Joey’s Honda RVF750
Joey’s 1986 Honda RVF750 was about as factory as it gets. Intended mainly for the world endurance championship and the Suzuka 8-Hour race, it was hand-built by HRC and, until the modern era of four-stroke MotoGP, was arguably the greatest four-stroke racer ever built – and was Joey's favourite bike of all time. Debuted in 1984, the V4 was dripping in magnesium and titanium and made around 150bhp while only weighing 130kg. “The RVF750 and the road-going VFR750 were mainly developed with Joey’s skills and knowledge so the bikes suited him perfectly,” Barry Symmons says. “Joey was the only man outside of Honda’s official World Endurance team to be given a works RVF. It was a real hand-crafted jewel from HRC. The engines had to be more or less standard but you could develop the chassis and running gear and electronics almost as much as you liked in F1. That’s why Honda valued that championship so much – because it allowed them to develop better road bikes. A lot of the chassis technology that went into the FireBlade was developed in F1. That championship meant a lot to Honda which is why Joey is still revered by Honda Japan.”
What was the TT F1 World Championship?
Set up in 1977 to give the TT some kudos after it lost its world championship GP status, the series was originally a one-round championship. Over the years, however, it grew to include up to eight rounds and took in not only roads circuits such as Dundrod and the TT, but also top short circuits including Misano, Assen and Jerez. The series catered for four-stroke Superbikes at a time when Grand Prix was all two-stroke and it paved the way for the World Superbike Championship which started in 1988. The TT F1 series was dropped in 1990 as WSB took over as the world’s premier four-stroke motorcycle championship.
Words: Stuart Barker Photos: Bauer Archive/Don Morley