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Lewis Duncan

How Hickman bounced back to take the 2023 Isle of Man TT's big prize

Without wishing to put too fine a point on it, there is no better a big bike rider at the Isle of Man TT than Peter Hickman right now. From his first win in the Superstock class in 2018, he has raised the game on big bikes, setting a new outright lap record at the TT in that year’s Senior on his BMW Superbike at 135.452mph.

In 2019, Hickman won the Superbike TT and the Superstock race, and arguably should have added the Senior to his list. That unbeaten big bike run was broken due to a foreseeable mechanical issue, which allowed Dean Harrison to do the honours. Hickman and his Smiths Racing team at the time had hoped to run the Superbike with a stock engine to avoid the problem, but weren’t allowed to by the scrutineers after that year’s delayed Superstock race.

There were no such problems in 2022 when the TT returned from a two-year COVID absence, with Hickman victorious in all three big bike races on his FHO Racing-run BMW M1000RR.

Nothing was expected to change in 2023. Except, he was beaten by Michael Dunlop on the Hawk Racing Honda in the Superbike TT, the Ulsterman celebrating his first big bike win since the same race in 2018. Hickman was 8.2s adrift of Dunlop at the finish of the six-lap contest.

Throughout practice week Hickman hadn’t been happy with the Superbike-spec M1000RR. It was violently unstable, which in turn was knocking the bike’s brake pads back. The team turned the bike upside down through practice to try and fix these issues, but the problems only got worse. To further complicate things, a swingarm he had been using that he liked had to be discarded because it was flexing too much.

“The biggest issue is, we know what the problem is – we don’t know how to fix it,” Hickman told on the Thursday rest day prior to the final three races of the week. “That’s the problem. And all the obvious things that you do aren’t working, and that makes it like a proper headscratcher because you don’t know what to do and what not to do. It’s like, in theory what we did for the [Superbike] race should have been better but it made it worse.

“The other big issue we’ve had, unfortunately, is the swingarm that we’ve developed, that we’ve been using in BSB, and we used here at the start of the week is awesome, works really well and I had less issues when that was in. However, because we built so much flex into it, it’s actually been flexing too much. So, the swingarm has been bending while I’ve been riding. So, when we come in and go to change the wheel, you can take the spindle out but it won’t go back in because the actual swingarm is twisted. So, it meant at the end of the week – so, for Friday – we decided to take the new swingarm out and put the old swingarm in, which I don’t like anyway, and that has made our issues worse.”

Hickman's Superbike-spec BMW proved a handful throughout the TT (Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press)

Despite this, Hickman was able to overhaul Harrison on the Superbike TT on Sunday 4 June and came close to a new outright lap record of 135.445mph on his badly behaved M1000RR that had also developed a quickshifter issue as soon as he set off.

As such, on the Thursday prior to the Senior finale, there was no doubt in Hickman’s mind about what the lay of the land would have been for the rest of the TT had the Superbike race gone differently: “I mean, basically without the Superbike issue – without being a big head – I feel like I would have won the Superbike race, and then nothing would have been said.”

Dunlop’s Superbike TT win set the narrative towards the Ulsterman making history as it put him onto 23 wins and just four away from matching the all-time record set by his late uncle Joey. Having already won the opening Supersport race of the week, Dunlop doubled up in the class and also took top honours in the first Supertwin outing of the event. That put him on 25.

But Dunlop’s momentum was slowed in the opening Superstock race of the week. The M1000RR in stock trim performed perfectly, Hickman able to beat Dunlop by over 23 seconds. It was here where a rivalry between the pair formed, though not by choice for Hickman.

When asked by if his Senior TT win, the third of his career and the 13th victory on the Isle of Man, if this meant he is still the rider to beat around the 37.75-mile course, Hickman said: “It appears so!”

“Both Superstock results got protested before we’d even left the winners’ enclosure with stupid shit,” he said after the Senior TT. “I guess that just means I’m in their head more than what they are in mine.”

It’s unclear at this stage who lodged the protests, but someone from within the Dunlop camp (not thought to have been anyone from the Hawk Racing outfit) protested FHO and Hickman after Superstock 1 for allegedly using an illegal earpiece in his helmet. That argument was tossed out, but it came as Hickman faced social media abuse.

Clearly it lit a fire in Hickman, who absolutely obliterated the outright lap record at the TT in the second Superstock contest with a 136.358mph effort to dominate the race. That win was also protested, this time for an alleged use of an illegal electronics system. That, too, didn’t go very far.

A new outright lap record came from Hickman in the second Superstock race. Both of his wins were protested, but nothing came of it (Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press)

Later that Friday, Hickman took a shock win in the Supertwin class on a Yamaha R7 that had only completed one lap to qualify prior to the first race and was running a borrowed engine from Michael Rutter that was at least 10 horsepower down. Mechanical issues for Dunlop and then Mike Browne gifted Hickman the win.

But it also meant that Dunlop would have to wait until the Senior TT to match the all-time win record. Even on Friday evening, FHO had yet to decide on if it was going to persevere with the Superbike or race the Superstock version instead.

Big changes were made to the Superbike for Friday’s warm-up lap in the morning. The team fitted dataloggers to the bike to better understand what was going on. It managed to fix the braking problems at least. One final set-up change was tried for the morning of Senior race day. The team has succeeded.

Hickman was only behind on corrected time in the Senior for one sector, after which he pulled away from his rivals Harrison and Dunlop. A 135mph lap from a standing start was a threat, but one that didn’t need followed through. Harrison pushed, but could do nothing to pressure Hickman. Dunlop, meanwhile, made a front set-up change for the race in anticipation of a faster pace that backfired on him.

When asked by if his Senior TT win, the third of his career and the 13th victory on the Isle of Man, if this meant he is still the rider to beat around the 37.75-mile course, he said: “It appears so!”

While what was billed as potentially being one of the TT’s best ever races didn’t ultimately live up to that, Hickman’s victory was a statement to his rivals: ‘this is the level you need to be at to beat me on a big bike.’

That level, it’s worth noting, wouldn’t have been possible without the FHO team. It’s a partnership that works because both have enough trust in each other: Hickman trusts his team to get his bikes to where he needs them to be, and it can rely on him to make the most of them. It was partly for this reason, he told, why he wanted to keep chipping away at the Superbike ahead of the Senior.

Hickman's FHO team managed to get the Superbike just right on the day of the Senior (Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press)

It's a true road racing juggernaut and one with a big target on its back for 2024. Dunlop won’t take his Senior defeat lying down, and now armed with the knowledge that he can still win on Superbikes at the TT, he will raise his game even more for next year.

Given everything that happened in 2023 on track and behind the scenes, it will make each future encounter between Hickman and Dunlop all the more intriguing.

For now, however, Hickman can rest easy having salvaged his Senior TT crown in the nick of time and ended the 2023 event with ultimate proof of what he always believed throughout race week.

Hickman's 13th win puts him one behind grand prix legend Mike Hailwood, and also sets up a fascinating rematch between himself and Dunlop in 2024 (Photo by: ttracesofficial/Pacemaker Press)
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