Michael Dunlop admits his vast experience of the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course could prove to be more invaluable than ever as the event returns today for the first time in almost three years.
Dunlop, still only 33, made his debut on the iconic 37.73-mile course 16 years ago as a teenager and won the Newcomers’ C race on a 125cc Honda at the Manx Grand Prix.
From those humble beginnings, the Ballymoney man has gone on to amass 19 TT victories since his maiden success in the 2009 Supersport race, securing his place among the pantheon of TT greats.
He is third on the all-time roll of honour, with only his uncle Joey (26 wins) and John McGuinness (23) ahead of him, but Dunlop still has plenty of time on his side to scale even greater heights.
His most recent victory came when the TT was last held in 2019, when Dunlop won the Lightweight race on the Italian Paton for the second successive year, despite carrying a wrist injury that hindered his hopes on the bigger capacity machines.
The Ulsterman holds the lap record in the class and remains the fastest man ever around the TT Course on Supersport machinery, clocking a record 129mph lap in 2018.
Prior to the Covid-19 cancellations in 2020 and 2021, Dunlop has been overshadowed in the blue riband Superbike and Senior races somewhat by English duo Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison, who have undoubtedly raised the bar.
Hickman established a new Senior TT and outright lap record at 135.452mph, while Harrison set a new benchmark in the Superbike TT at 134.432mph.
However, Dunlop — whose last Superbike win was achieved in 2018 during an emotional week after his Tyco BMW team-mate Dan Kneen was tragically killed in practice — remains the third fastest rider ever at the TT, courtesy of his 133.962mph lap, recorded on his way to victory in the 2016 Senior showpiece.
Now fully fit after a few years of injury niggles, he will be out to reclaim the top spot in the TT’s most coveted races on the Hawk Racing Suzuki.
His lack of track time on the GSX-R1000RR machine — which Dunlop only rode for the first time at the North West 200 after quitting Paul Bird’s Ducati team — could count against him, but his experience may be a telling plus after such a long absence.
“It’s been three years, so yes, it’s going to be interesting,” said Dunlop.
“You’re just building that confidence back up over the practice days. I’ve been going for a few years now so I’m hoping my experience can come to the fore.
“I always say that the first two or three days of TT practice, that’s the most dangerous part of motorsport, ever.
“We have had two years off, and now we’re getting back to, ‘Does the road go right? Does the road go left? Where are we at?’ When you take off down Bray Hill you’re soon flat to the board, you’re soon hitting 180mph,” he added.
“You just have to get into that feeling of what we did three years ago. So it’s going to take a minute or two to get back into things and where you’re going again.”
Dunlop is also quick to point out that the TT is like no other road race in the world, posing challenges that are unique to the Manx motorcycle festival.
“There are a lot of factors in play. You don’t experience anything like the TT,” he said.
“You can have 2,000 flies on your visor, you don’t have that anywhere else and you’ve to re-adapt to that. People say things like, ‘I’m watching 18,000 on-board videos’ and, ‘I know where I’m going’.
“Listen, you could watch someone going to Crosby 100 times on TV, but will you end up on the exact same spot as the rider in the video?
“Will you be on the exact same motorbike he’s on? Have you got the same talent he’s got? Yes, you can get an understanding of going left or right, but that’s about it. You’re on your own.”
In addition to the Hawk Suzuki, Dunlop will also ride his MD Racing Yamaha Supersport and Honda Superstock bikes under the Carl Cox Motorsport banner, plus a Paton in the newly-named Supertwin TT race.
◊ Roads are scheduled to close today from 12.30pm to 6.30pm for the first practice sessions.
Practice is also due to take place each evening (roads closed 6pm to 9.30pm) until Friday, when a final afternoon session will be held (roads closed 12.30pm to 6.30pm).