It’s that time of year when tens of thousands of road racing fans descend upon a small island in the Irish Sea for what is arguably the most spectacular event in the world of motorcycling – the Isle of Man TT races.
Raced around 37.73 miles of demanding high speed public roads, the event remains at the top of the bucket list for many enthusiasts from around the world.
This year once again sees nine more races taking place, from Saturday June 2 to Friday June 8, with two races each for the 1000cc superbikes, 600cc supersports and sidecars, with one Superstock TT, Lightweight TT (650cc twins) and the TT Zero for electric motorcycles.
Much of the talk around this year’s event is about who is not, or might not, be competing in 2018. After his much vaunted comeback in 2017, fan favourite Guy Martin appears to have finally hung up his TT helmet, while veteran Kiwi Bruce Anstey misses out, but has the best wishes of the motorcycling community, as he battles cancer. TT legend John McGuinness is another seeded rider that looks likely to be missing in 2018. The 23-time TT winner surprisingly switched from his long-term employers at Honda to join the rapidly improving Norton concern but does not look likely to make it down Glencrutchery Road after failing to sufficiently recover from the nasty leg injuries that saw him miss last year’s event.
For a while it looked like his successor at Honda, Ian Hutchinson, would also be with him on the sidelines. The 16-time winner also suffered a broken leg, in his case during last year’s thrilling Senior TT, but the tough-as-teak Yorkshireman made his Honda Racing debut at last weekend’s North West 200 and, although you can never rule Hutchy out, it’s going to be hard for him to be at his peak performance at TT 2018.
The decimation of top riders means that it is hard to see past Michael Dunlop for this year’s main races. The 29-year-old Ulsterman also has 16 TT wins to his name and is the fastest man ever around the iconic course. In 2016 he became the first rider ever to record a sub-17 minute lap of the 37.73-mile track, averaging a staggering 133.962mph on his way to the Senior TT win.
This year Dunlop has switched back from Suzuki to BMW power and looks unstoppable on paper, as he heads off the line wearing his customary sixth place.
Local rider Conor Cummins has the prestige of running the number one plate for the first time, meaning that he and his Padgett’s Honda Fireblade will be first away from the line in all the major solo races. The tall Manxman has been unable to quite crack the top spot at a TT but is podium material on his day, and any rider capable of landing on the podium is always a potential winner – if the cards fall their way.
Starting 10 seconds behind Cummins is Kawasaki’s star man James Hillier. The 33-year-old from Hampshire runs with the same JG Speedfit Kawasaki outfit that runs Leon Haslam in British superbikes and has been on the cusp of that elusive big bike TT win for a number of years now. Hillier won the Lightweight TT in 2013 and has nine other podium finishes to his name, as well as a best lap of 132.414mph.
Behind him, veteran Michael Rutter is another who can usually be relied upon to be there or thereabouts whenever he rolls up to the startline. Look out for him in the TT Zero race for electric bikes, where he’s been drafted in to the all conquering Mugen squad in the absence of regular riders McGuinness and Anstey.
Hutchinson will set off at his usual number four. This year, Hutchy is the great unknown at TT 2018. At his very best, he’s probably the only man capable of taking the fight to Dunlop, but with injury doubts lingering and the Fireblade’s TT credentials still unproven, we’re unlikely to know just how strong he will be until practice starts next week. His team-mate Lee Johnston is another podium contender, but not yet a consistent top three man, though he did take a third place at the NW200 last weekend.
Dean Harrison, fifth of the line, is another ex-Lightweight winner who’s bubbling under. The Bradford rider has a total of eight podiums and a best lap of 131.163mph under his belt, including third place finishes in each of last year’s big bike races.
Of the other seeded riders, look out for British superbike regulars Josh Brookes and Peter Hickman. Australian rider Brookes is at his fourth TT and was a surprise signing for Norton last year. The former British champion finished sixth in the superbike race and could be a potential podium man this year, especially if the gorgeous Aprilia-powered British bike has unlocked a little bit more performance in the last 12 months.
Hickman, meanwhile, will rightly be considered one of the main threats to Dunlop. His best lap of 132.465mph is quicker than all but Dunlop and Hutchinson, and he’s only at his fifth TT. Last year he scored a podium finish in every race he entered, and he remains with Smith’s Racing BMW team with which he’s formed a strong partnership. Many consider the popular Hicky to be the leading light of the next generation of TT racers and there’s every chance he can take at least one win in 2018.
Practice for the 2018 Isle of Man TT Races starts on Saturday (May 26) with race week running from June 2-8.