With the 2018 Isle of Man TT launch set to take place on the Isle of Man today, almost all of the top riders have already confirmed their 2018 plans. All except the biggest name of all; Michael Dunlop.
The 15 times TT winner dropped a bombshell on the road racing paddock last Friday evening when he announced he was not renewing his contract with Hawk Racing to ride the GSXR1000RR Suzuki he raced to victory in last year’s Senior TT - as predicted by MCN last week. Thanking Hawk bosses Stuart and Steve Hicken for their support Dunlop said he was still considering his superbike options for 2018.
The 28 year old Northern Irishman had tested the Suzuki in Spain two weeks ago, leading many to assume he would retain the successful partnership. But Dunlop was disappointed by the bike’s performance at Cartagena where he lapped slower than he had 12 months previously.
The Ballymoney man had brought all of his vast Mountain course knowledge to bear in winning last year’s Senior time trial on a brand new motorbike, an experience he later described as “just too hard”.
It was obvious the Suzuki lacked pace when pitched against BMW S1000RRs and ZX10RR Kawasakis in the mass starts at the North West 200, Southern 100 and Ulster Grand Prix.
Parts and development aimed at tackling this issue had been promised during Dunlop’s January visit to Sepang, where he tested the firm’s MotoGP as a reward for his Senior success. An angry Dunlop pulled the curtain down on the Hawk Suzuki partnership when this support failed to materialise in Spain, leaving the Japanese manufacturer without representation at this year’s TT.
Dunlop’s TT record will ensure there will be no shortage of callers to his Ballymoney door even at this late stage. He has won 15 TTs over the last decade, including three Superbike and three Senior races in the last four years, and remains the only rider to lap the Mountain course under 17 minutes. Almost a yawning seven seconds a lap faster over the 37 ¾ mile circuit than his nearest rival, Ian Hutchinson, the received wisdom amongst all of the top team bosses is if you want to win superbike TT races you will require Dunlop’s services.
Already this winter Dunlop gave serious consideration to a strong offer from Tyco BMW before finally rejecting it several weeks ago. Approaches from Honda were also turned away and a brief flirtation with Shaun Muir’s Gulf Oil squad came to nought. So what might the next move be for the TT’s biggest star?
The Northern Irishman has been linked with a last minute deal to replace Ian Hutchinson in the Honda squad. The Bingley man appeared at last week’s North West 200 launch with the protective cage still in place on the left leg he smashed in a crash during the 2017 Senior TT. He revealed a recent scan has shown the bone has still not fully grown back and with just seven weeks before start of NW200 practice the chances of a fit and competitive Hutchy making the grid are diminishing.
Honda have already begun considering a replacement for the 16 times TT winner should he not be able to race but Dunlop is unlikely to be amongst the candidates. The Irishman has already unveiled the BMW stocker he will ride under his own MD Racing banner in 2018, something which would create a conflict of interest with the Louth based squad.
Dunlop remains the darling of the BMW Motorrad race headquarters in Berlin. Sales of the German bikes rose by over 10% in the year after he gave BMW it’s first TT victory in 75 years and most of his recent Island success has been on the S1000RR.
Tyco BMW remains an open door as Dan Kneen is currently the only rider Philip Neill has contracted for the 2018 TT. That, though, could cause an issue for Dunlop, who won’t accept the distraction a teammate might present to the squad’s undivided focus on his efforts.
BMW Motorrad is also known to be very keen to debut the carbon fibre framed HP4 superbike at the TT. With the German manufacturer’s support, it might be a challenge that Dunlop, who frequently boasts he can win TTs on anything, might relish.
Although both Dunlop and TT race bosses are staying silent ahead of today’s press conference, even going so far as to suggest there is not yet a deal in place, it seems highly unlikely Dunlop dumped his Suzuki deal without having a ready alternative.
Whatever option he chooses, the fiery Irishman will not be in the slightest bit concerned about not having finalised his Senior TT mount with just 70 days to go until the start of TT practice. On the contrary, Dunlop will be relishing the attention that has all of his principal TT rivals scratching their heads and wondering what Michael might do next.