William Dunlop: When tragedy strikes, words are not enough to convey our deepest sympathies to family
When news filtered through from Skerries on Saturday evening that 32-year old William Dunlop had died from injuries received in a practice crash, I was numbed to the bone, shocked and just lost for words.
It is not just the racing fraternity that has lost a true gentleman, but the whole of Ireland and beyond, such was the history and sadness known by the Dunlop family.
William kept himself to himself, had a close circle of friends and was the most modest, genuine rider in racing. He was always approachable and had an elegant racing style all of his own.
My first reaction was, 'what was William doing there in the first place' Given that he had withdrawn from the Isle of Man TT just a month ago to be with his pregnant partner Janine as they were going through a difficult time after hospital scans - and no-one disagreed with that decision in what, after all, is a sport that requires 100% concentration at all times.
Then I thought, William was a motorcycle racer, it was a way of life, like everyone that faces the starting lights the risks are well known. The helmet goes on, the visor is closed and racers go into a different world that us mere mortals will never understand.
I know that is of little comfort at this time to Janine and the entire Dunlop family circle, a family that has paid a heavy price in road racing with William's uncle Joey killed in a crash in Estonia 18 years ago and his father Robert in a practice crash during the 2008 North West 200.
No question about it, racing was in Dunlop blood and I remember William's first race at Aghadowey 18 years ago when he could not even start the 125cc Honda belonging to his father; how things changed in the ensuing years.
Four North West 200 wins, seven Ulster Grand Prix victories, 108 Irish national road race wins, 21 wins around the Billown Circuit in the Isle of Man - 13 at the Southern 100 and eight at the Post TT meeting, William won 10 Irish and eight Ulster road race championships and collected seven Two-Stroke Racing Supporters Club titles in his career.
William's first win came during a clubman's 125cc race at Mondello Park in 2001 and two years later took his first national win on Easter Monday at Kirkistown in 2003.
A memory from 2001 at Nutts Corner during a clubman's meeting is of two young 15/16-year olds, William Dunlop and Eugene Laverty, battling it out in a Young Guns Challenge race, which William won.
Two riders who left an indelible mark in racing, in fact Eugene rode in yesterday's Misano World Superbike race with a William Dunlop motif on the front of his bike.
Like his father, William was a class act on 125 and 250cc two-strokes and when he made the move to four-strokes he was arguably the best Supersport 600cc rider in the country.
However, Superbikes carry the lure of being the race everyone wants to win at the big three international road races - the North West 200, TT and Ulster Grand Prix and in 2014, riding a Tyco Suzuki, William got his only major Superbike victory in the first Superbike race at the North West 200, beating his younger brother Michael by half a second.
One ambition William never got to fulfil was to stand on the top step of a TT podium, a real shame. Second in the 2016 TT Zero his best result alongside three Supersport third places in 2012, 2013 and 2014 with a third place overall (third and fourth place finishes) in the two 250cc TT races in 2009.
Now we all know of the competitive nature between William and his brother Michael, yes, they were rivals on track, but remember when William crashed at Graham Memorial during the TT? When Michael came in for his pit stop the first thing he asked was is William all right. And then again in the Isle of Man, William crashed at Laurel Bank in practice, injuring a leg, Michael actually helped carry the stretcher.
Yes, arch rivals, but still brothers at the end of the day. I also think back to 2010 and after Robert's death William decided he was riding on race day come hell or high water and Michael then decided he, too, was going to race and he won the most emotional race I've ever seen.
Away from the race tracks William was a 'dab hand' on the golf course, but at the end of the day he was a family man and I remember him telling me when he had to go to Germany for a couple of days in connection with his Supersport machine he could not wait to get back home to see his daughter Ella.
The lure of road racing would not let go however, and on Saturday William's luckran out.
Tributes have been flowing in from around the world: "Ex-world champion Carl Fogarty MBE tweeted, "Life's pretty s*** sometimes; feel on top of the world one minute then brought back down to earth the next with the sad news that William Dunlop has lost his life racing today. Thoughts are with Louise, Michael and family."
On behalf of all at Belfast Telegraph Sport, I would extend deepest condolences to William's partner Janine, daughter Ella, his mother Louise, brothers Daniel and Michael, his Granny May, who has buried two sons and now a grandson following road racing accidents, and to the entire Dunlop family circle and his team.