The 2023 Isle of Man TT has been one for the ages. Perfect weather conditions throughout allowed ample practice time, which already suggested lap records would be broken in race week.
Michael Dunlop set the tone with an unofficial lap record of 135.537mph on his Hawk Racing Honda Superbike in practice, having never even done a 134mph before this year. And indeed, the lap times tumbled. The first ever 130mph laps in the Supersport class were registered, both Dunlop – 130.403mph – and Peter Hickman – 130.2mph – did the honours.
The Superbike race record went to Hickman at 135.445mph on an FHO-run BMW that had a broken quickshifter, massive stability problems and braking issues. Then in the second Superstock race on Friday 9 June, Hickman did something truly special – the first ever 136mph lap of the 37.75-mile TT course.
On a stock bike, a BMW M1000RR essentially taken off the showroom floor and with a couple of slick Dunlop tyres chucked on it, Hickman posted a 136.358mph lap on his way to a second win of the week in the class.
All week, aside from the opening Supertwin race, Dunlop and Hickman have been locked in a war with each other. Dunlop dominated the Superbike TT on his Honda, and did the double in the Supersport class. The Superstock class belonged to Hickman, while a shock retirement for Dunlop in the second Supertwin race left the door open for a Hickman win on his embattled R7 Yamaha that had only completed one lap prior to the first Supertwin outing.
That last win came just a few hours after Hickman’s all-time lap record in the Superstock race. And it’s a day that has completely changed the complexion of TT 2023.
Throughout race week, Dunlop got close to, matched and then exceeded TT legend John McGuinness’ tally of 23 career wins. Then he got to 25, putting him one away from the all-time record set by Joey Dunlop – Michael’s legendary uncle, who tragically died in 2000 during a road race in Estonia.
Michael Dunlop was aged just 10 when that happened. When he was 19, he lost his father Robert in a crash at the North West 200. Two days after that, Michael won the 250cc race. Then in 2018, Dunlop’s older brother William was killed in a crash.
A low-key 2019, when Hickman started to rise to the fore in the big bike classes and had already set his first outright lap record of 135.452mph (doing so in 2018), led to Dunlop being written off. Three wins in 2022, two in the Supersport and a Supertwin success, started to build things back up.
His Superbike victory on the Hawk Racing Honda was as much a statement to his doubters as anything else. He’s done his best to bat away questions about win records and the Dunlop dynasty, though there’s no way this is not on his mind.
This was revealed after the first Superstock race, the first time Dunlop got beaten in 2023. And quite convincing by Hickman, who trounced him by over 23 seconds. Autosport understands Dunlop’s team wanted Hickman’s crash helmet to be inspected as they thought he was using an illegal earpiece. No official protest was lodged, but it was an unnecessarily sour note to end a good race on.
There was no doubt about Dunlop matching Joey’s 26 in the Supertwin race. The fact that it didn’t happen because of a mechanical issue was a genuine shock
Add to this a heap of abuse on social media Hickman and the FHO team has received from a rogue selection of Michael Dunlop fans, and it teed up Friday to be an intriguing day – one that could have potentially changed the entire narrative of TT 2023.
There was no doubt about Dunlop matching Joey’s 26 in the Supertwin race. The fact that it didn’t happen because of a mechanical issue was a genuine shock. The fact that it happened after Hickman once again resoundingly beat Dunlop in the Superstock class and with the fastest ever lap, meant so much more.
Now Saturday’s Senior TT finale is the last chance for Dunlop to match the 26, but beating it will have to wait another year. And, there’s no guarantee he’ll even get the win.
His Superbike race was a brilliant display of just how good Michael Dunlop is. But a 135mph lap from Hickman on the last lap to steal second from Dean Harrison on a broken BMW showed just how different 2023 could have been had Hickman’s Superbike-spec M1000RR been better-behaved.
At the time of writing, it’s still unclear whether Hickman will race the Superbike or put all of his chips on the Superstock-spec version. He told Autosport on Thursday that he was determined to try and make the Superbike work, for himself – “I know what I can do with that Superbike if it’s on point” – and for his team. The bike has been turned upside down over the past week and a half and they still can’t figure out why it’s so unstable. At the very least FHO was able to fix the brake problems the bike had in warm-up on Friday.
Given the Superstock result on Friday and his lap time in the Superbike race, Hickman just needs the BMW to be in a roughly better shape than it was so he can ride around the problems.
Dunlop already has the bike he needs.
Just as Dunlop’s Superbike win was a statement, so was Hickman’s Superstock 2 victory and lap record. Though he wouldn’t be drawn on it, the post-race events of Superstock 1 – and the social media pile-on from the past week – lit a fire and Hickman’s message to the Dunlop camp was clear: ‘watch your back in the Senior’.
“I want to spoil the party anyway,” Hickman said if the dynamics of the Senior now made him want to spoil the Dunlop party. “I want to win, that’s why I’m here. I look after myself, I do my own thing, I don’t really worry about everyone else too much. Everyone tries to play mind games, but I’m not really a mind games guy. I just get on with the job.”
That may be, but Hickman’s declaration that his 136mph lap was “chilled” suggests a little gamesmanship. As did Dunlop’s ‘doing it for the craic’ line about his 130mph lap in the second Supersport race.
Observing the pair of them after Superstock 2, there was some chit-chat, but nothing to the same jovial degree as Hickman was having with Harrison. There’s tension there; nothing venomous, but one suggesting the magnitude of the Senior has dawned on the pair.
It’s almost not about records anymore. This is the two best Superbike riders at the TT wanting to win the event’s biggest race and show the world who’s boss.
"I want to win, that’s why I’m here. I look after myself, I do my own thing, I don’t really worry about everyone else too much" Peter Hickman
In 2018, the outright lap record went to Hickman because Harrison forced him to do it. Dunlop did so, in a slightly different manner, in Superstock 2. What level both riders will have to go to beat each other in the Senior is scary to think about.
What’s in store for the Senior rivals is what we saw in 2018, and could even surpass the legendary 1992 clash between Steve Hislop and Carl Fogarty.
What’s certain is Dunlop versus Hickman is a special moment in motorsport history.