TT history-maker Dunlop perpetuates family dynasty

Michael Dunlop
Michael Dunlop claimed the all-time record with his second win of the week [Pacemaker]

The nature of the challenge posed by the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course and the level of adversity faced by Michael Dunlop make it difficult to quantify the scale of his achievement in becoming the most successful rider ever at the event.

Racing motorcycles around a 37.73-mile public roads circuit with all its inherent dangers at speeds of up to 200mph may seem like an anachronism in today's safety conscious society but for those who conquer 'the Mountain' it makes the level of adulation and respect they receive all the more.

The pain of losing three family members as a result of racing accidents - dad Robert, uncle Joey and brother William - in a sport that has elevated the Dunlop family name to the status of road racing royalty, make Michael's success in surpassing Joey's record number of wins at this year's TT all the more poignant.

The iconic Manx meeting is steeped in history and heritage - and no name is more synonymous with the event than the Dunlop dynasty - a combined total of 58 wins (Michael 27, Joey 26 and Robert five) over the course of almost 50 years bears testimony to that.

Joey Dunlop was a legendary figure in motorsport, racking up 26 wins over close on a quarter of a century and drawing the affection of thousands of fans the world over. His victory roll culminated in a treble at the 2000 TT, one month before his death as a result of an accident at a road race in Estonia.

His nephew has now carved his name firmly in the history books by surpassing that tally thanks to his record-breaking exploits.

The 35-year-old triumphed in the opening Supersport race on Saturday to draw level with his revered relative and after suffering the disappointment of losing out on a seemingly certain Superbike success, went on to win Wednesday's Supertwins race.

Not that 2024 has been without its challenges - Dunlop sustained a hand injury at the Cookstown 100 Irish national race in late April which hampered his efforts and only switched to ride his tried and tested Yamaha, instead of a Triumph, in the Supersport class during practice week.

He also had to familiarise himself with a new Honda Fireblade as he set out to achieve more glory but when history was made he was quick to pay tribute to his uncle, saying it was an honour to be mentioned in the same breath and explaining that the pressure of the weight of expectation had been lifted off his shoulders.

Sharing centre stage with Rossi

Michael Dunlop in action on the Mountain Course
Dunlop negotiates one of the stone walls that make up the IOM TT course [Pacemaker]

The Northern Ireland rider made his TT debut in 2007 and 12 months later opted to compete a few weeks after his dad was killed as a result of a crash at the North West 200.

Michael had remarkably secured a hugely emotional 250cc win at the North West just two days after his father's passing.

He first stood on the top step of the podium as a 20-year-old in 2009, belying his tender years by putting on a masterclass to win the Supersport race in mixed conditions.

That victory announced him as one of the future stars of the TT, although on that occasion he had to share the limelight with multiple MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi, who was paying a high-profile visit to the races.

The wins continued to stack up thereafter, including joining an elite band of riders who had won four races in a week thanks to quadruple triumphs in both 2013 and 2014, a feat he would repeat in 2023.

The Ballymoney man was team-mate to John McGuinness for his initial four-timer as part of the official Honda Racing team and a year later became only the second rider to win a Senior race on a BMW, 75 years after Georg Schorsch took the German manufacturer's only other win.

The 2016 running proved to be a record-breaking one for Dunlop as he became the first competitor to lap the circuit in excess of 133mph and break the sub-17 minute barrier on his way to a second Superbike and Senior double of his career with the Hawk Racing team run by father-and-son Stuart and Steve Hicken.

The same partnership helped him to a 2017 Senior race win on a brand new Suzuki.

He endured further heartache in 2018 however with the death of his brother, himself a podium finisher at the TT, at the Skerries road race in the Republic of Ireland - another devastating blow for the renowned racing family.

Wins across a variety of classes continued to inch Dunlop closer to the all-time record and a shake-up of the schedule and the addition of two extra solo races for 2023 presented the opportunity to achieve further success and make up, to some extent for the cancellation of the races in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

'Maverick image'

Michael Dunlop with his MD Racing team
Michael Dunlop with members of his MD Racing team after recording the first ever 130mph lap on a Supersport bike in race two in 2023 [Pacemaker]

Dunlop has revelled in his 'maverick' image, insisting he is prepared to push the boundaries further than his rivals, and his abundant talent and will to win are undoubted.

He has long since shed any reputation for reckless riding, merited or unmerited, and is keener to do his talking on the roads rather than in front of microphones.

When he does speak he has established a reputation for being direct, straight-talking and occasionally outspoken, and has attracted a huge following of fans.

Many of his successes have been achieved under the umbrella of his own MD Racing team, an arrangement which has allowed him to choose his own personnel, oversee the preparation of his bikes and select his preferred manufacturer for each class.

A remarkable feature of his success is that his victories have been accumulated on such a diverse variety of machinery across such a wide range of different classes as Dunlop sought to prove it was at least as much about the rider as the machine he was on.

Eight of his wins have come on Yamaha bikes, seven on Hondas, six on BMWs, four on Patons, and one each on a Kawasaki and a Suzuki.

He has won a record 12 Supersport races, five Superbike events, four Supertwins, three 'blue riband' Senior races and three Superstock races.

Dunlop has often taken added motivation from seeing himself in the role of underdog and in 2023 felt he had a point to prove on the bigger capacity 1000cc bikes, believing he had been written off in some quarters as Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison received the plaudits for their performances in the feature class in recent years.

TT 'the pinnacle'

DJ Carl Cox has been a sponsor of Dunlop in recent years

With a deal in place early to ride a Honda Fireblade for Hawk Racing in 2023, the annual guessing game for race fans over which manufacturer he would compete for in the Superbike class was avoided and Dunlop appeared to display a renewed sense of purpose to go on a winning streak and further perpetuate the family name.

While Dunlop has excelled at other meetings, including five wins at the North West 200, six Ulster Grand Prix triumphs, three Southern 100 Solo championships and 10 wins in the feature 'Race of Legends' event at the Armoy national road races staged near his hometown, he has made no secret of the fact that his primary focus every year is the Isle of Man TT.

He regards that as the pinnacle, the Olympic gold medals of the sport.

From the offset in 2023, Dunlop appeared even more focused than usual, particularly determined and single-minded in his approach to the task in hand.

He produced some scintillating lap times from the 'get-go' in qualifying and by the time he scored his first couple of wins, there was a palpable sense in the paddock that history beckoned, that something special was unfolding as Dunlop set out on a seemingly relentless march towards rewriting the history books.

Michael remained guarded on the issue of matching or overtaking his uncle's long-standing record, aware that the vagaries of TT racing meant nothing could be taken for granted, also likely playing the matter down through an awareness of the sensitivities of surpassing the total achieved by the most revered and respected road racer of all time.

He repeatedly refused to be drawn on the likelihood of becoming the most successful ever TT rider, preferring to limit his comments to delight at the achievement of winning each individual race for its own sake and thanking his loyal band of sponsors and mechanics for their continued support and hard work.

In recent years it appeared that Hickman and Harrison had raised the bar in the celebrated 'big bike' races in terms of results and lap speeds.

Dunlop appeared to have fallen behind, as niggling injuries and late deals for rides in the Superbike class proved contributory factors which combined to thwart his efforts.

It was appropriate then that his return to the summit in the Superbike class came in the livery of long-time backers Hawk Racing.

The established British Superbike team have come to his rescue at the last minute on more than one occasion after plans to ride other bikes fell through.

In the end Dunlop's four-timer saw him fall narrowly short of the wins benchmark last year but 2024 proved to be the one where he created history.

At just 35 years of age, he has time on his side to forge ahead and extend his record even further.