Comment: William Dunlop has chosen the safe and sensible road to follow
William Dunlop's last-minute withdrawal from the Isle of Man TT has raised a question mark over the future of one of motorcycle racing's best-known names.
The 32-year-old made the shock decision after participating in the first two nights of practice around the Mountain Course on the Temple Golf Club Yamaha machines, his team issuing a statement citing 'personal reasons' as the cause of the Ballymoney man's difficult call to pack his bags for home.
The feeling now in the close knit motorcycle racing paddock is that we are seeing the beginning of the end of a Dunlop second generation career and, for all he has achieved and how he has enhanced the sport, he will have journeyed home on a tide of goodwill.
Son of the late Robert Dunlop, who lost his life in an accident during practice for the 2008 North West 200, and nephew of the legendary Joey, William, like his younger racing brother Michael, was always going to be under a microscope.
And while his successes have been rightly celebrated, it has been noticed and remarked upon of late that his head, if not his heart, does not appear to be dialled into the high speed decision making process of road racing at 120mph plus.
That being the case, as a young father himself, he has made a safe and sensible decision to leave it for now.
It has been coming. Two weeks ago, William withdrew from the North West 200 main race day, in the highly publicised week of the 10th anniversary of his father's death. He had valid reasons after suffering bruising in a Thursday night practice accident.
But it added to a sense of building frustration since last year when he was left high and dry after a deal to ride for British championship team Halsall Racing fell through.
It was then that his association with Temple haulage company owner Tim Martin began in earnest, with the former Mar-Train Racing team boss stepping in to loan Dunlop his Yamaha R1 machines in time for the North West 200.
With no pre-season testing completed, Dunlop was playing catch-up from the get go and, although he claimed a podium in the Supersport class at the North West with a runner-up finish in race two, he struggled for form at last year's TT.
A fourth place in the only Supersport race was his best result on his 600 Yamaha but he came home 10 seconds behind Peter Hickman in third.
He finished ninth, seventh and 10th in the Superbike, Superstock and Senior races respectively - results that would represent a fantastic week for many accomplished riders, but not for William Dunlop.
Brother Michael (below, with William) won two more races last year to become the fourth most successful TT rider ever with 15 wins under his belt.
William has yet to break his duck around the legendary 37.73-mile course, although he finished on the rostrum three times in the Supersport class in consecutive years from 2012 to 2014.
He is a multiple winner at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix but, like most out and out road racers, a TT victory is the prize he coveted most.
A big fan of the fast and flowing Dundrod course, Dunlop seemed to be fired up to end last year on a high at the Ulster Grand Prix.
He set a new outright speed record of 200.4mph - becoming the first rider to break the 200mph barrier - and was right on the pace in Superbike qualifying, setting the fourth fastest lap at 132.606mph.
However, a freak accident away from the track left him with a wrist injury, forcing Dunlop to sit out both Superbike races at the event.
Nonetheless, the potential he displayed at Dundrod convinced Tim Martin to return to the sport full-time this year as he fulfilled a long-held desire to work with Dunlop.
The newly-rebranded Temple Golf Club Yamaha team was officially launched at the end of January, with Dunlop optimistically identifying this year's TT as his top priority.
He took part in pre-season testing in Spain and went to the opening round of the British Superbike Championship at Donington Park to gain more track time, but poor weather conditions led Dunlop to later claim it had been a waste of time.
He travelled to Brands Hatch with his 600 Yamaha but, after breaking down in race one, he pulled the plug the following morning after warm-up and decided to head home.
The signs were ominous and Dunlop's woe continued at the first Irish road race of the year at the Cookstown 100 in County Tyrone last month, which he described as 'one of the worst days I've had in racing'.
Dunlop encountered problems with the Yamaha R1 and pulled out of the Open Superbike race.
He also struggled with his 600 Yamaha and retired from the Invitation Supersport race before finishing only sixth in the second encounter.
The multiple Irish road racing champion hoped for a change in fortunes at the Tandragee 100 prior to the North West, but Dunlop was seven seconds behind Derek McGee in the Supersport race as he finished third behind young prospect Adam McLean.
He has dominated in the class at the Irish road races in particular and has also claimed Supersport victories on the international stage at the North West and Ulster Grand Prix. Finishing third at Tandragee was a bitter pill to swallow and it was clear that William was far below his best.
He changed to the new model of the Yamaha YZF-R6 for 2018 and has been unable to iron out teething issues with the machine.
At the North West 200, the bike was some 14mph down on what he managed in 2017 on his previous Yamaha through the speed trap.
Uncharacteristically allowing frustration to get the better of him, he collided with newcomer Davey Todd in the feature race at Tandragee, with both riders crashing out without major injury.
Things went from bad to worse at the North West.
Although Dunlop was satisfied with his performance in qualifying on the Superbike, he was forced to miss Saturday's main race day after crashing at Church Corner in the Superstock race on the Thursday evening schedule.
It was far from the preparation he would have wished for a week before TT practice was due to commence.
On Saturday, he was eighth fastest in the first Supersport TT practice session, lapping at 122.755mph.
Dunlop then lapped at 125mph in the opening Superbike session on Monday evening but, with Dean Harrison and his brother Michael setting the pace at over 131mph, he was well off the pace.
There had been rumours that all was not well and yesterday, a team statement confirmed that Dunlop had withdrawn from the meeting, which he said had been a 'very difficult decision'.
He has now pledged to spend time at home before making a decision on when he will return, while team owner Martin says his focus is now on the Ulster Grand Prix in August.
"We all know what a natural talent he is so having a fit and well William back to fight for wins at the Ulster Grand Prix is now our focus."
In the meantime, Michael Dunlop will attempt to keep the famous Dunlop name at the forefront of the TT, where his uncle Joey remains the most successful rider with 26 victories.
Whether or not William will return later this year remains to be seen, but for now his decision must be respected in this most unforgiving of sports.