This week sees many of road racing’s finest head to the Antrim hills above Belfast with the Ulster Grand Prix taking place on the high-speed Dundrod circuit and the final International road race of the domestic season means it’s the last opportunity on British shores for the likes of Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison, Michael Dunlop and Lee Johnston to add to their tally of race wins in 2019.
The majority of riders have been busy racing since the Isle of Man TT in June with double TT race winner Hickman taking a podium at the recent Thruxton British Superbike Championship round to bring himself into Showdown contention and Harrison dominating the Southern 100.
The duo have proven to be the class acts of the road racing field in the last three seasons and whilst it’s no foregone conclusion that there’ll dominate proceedings this week, they’re definitely the men to beat around the 7.4-mile Dundrod circuit that will be looking to regain its title as the fastest road race in the world, a tag currently held by Hickman and the TT Mountain Course at 135.452mph.
Hickman and Harrison have enjoyed superb form at Dundrod in recent times, the former having been crowned Man of the Meeting for the last two years after taking a total of five wins in 2017 and 2018, despite rain seeing the meeting cut short last year.
The Smiths Racing rider took a hat-trick two years ago when Harrison set the outright lap record of 134.614mph on his way to victory in the Superbike race, a mark that should – weather permitting – be bettered this year.
The Silicone Engineering rider, who took his third TT win earlier this year with victory in the Senior, made a winning return to Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough last month and, like Dunlop and Johnston, will also be amongst the favourites for honours at the Isle of Man Classic TT later this month.
Dunlop is the rider who’s done the least amount of racing since the TT but although he crashed at the Southern 100, suffering numerous injuries, a double victory at the recent Armoy road races showed they weren’t slowing him down.
Winning at Armoy is a different proposition to competing in seven races at the UGP though and his participation remained in doubt but having successfully passed a stringent medical at the beginning of this week, he’ll line up on both the Tyco BMW Superbike and his own Superstock and Supersport machinery.
The venue hasn’t been the kindest to Dunlop and you have to go back to 2012 to find his last Superbike victory, a year when he took a hat-trick of wins in total. Indeed, his last win in any class was six years ago in 2013 but with proven pedigree elsewhere – none more so than at the TT where he took his 19th win earlier this year – he has to be considered as nothing but a major threat.
Having formed his own Ashcourt Racing team this year, Johnston targeted International road race wins specifically in the Supersport class, and having re-joined the British Supersport Championship for the first time in eight years, it’s a move that’s paid dividends.
The now 30-year old has racked up top six finishes in the premier 600cc series right from the very first round and he’s subsequently been victorious in the Supersport class at both the North West 200 and TT this year, the latter being his first win at the biggest road race on the calendar.
He’ll certainly fancy his chances of completing the set at the Ulster, especially as there are three 600cc races on the schedule, but he’ll be confident of success in the other classes too.
He took a hat-trick at the Ulster GP four years ago, which included a superb win in the Superstock race, and with his short circuit performances seeing him running at the sharp end week in, week out the County Fermanagh rider has every chance of serving up a repeat performance.
Johnston has a busy month with three outings at the Classic TT but another challenge this week will come from David Johnson who returns to action after enjoying a break back home in Australia following his superb third place finish in June’s Superstock TT race.
The Adelaide rider took his maiden UGP podium twelve months ago and, riding this year for Honda Racing, Johnson will be hoping for more of the same this week. The official teams’ hopes rest solely on his shoulders with team-mate and nine-time UGP winner Ian Hutchinson sadly missing as he recovers from recent surgery on his leg.
A double pronged attack will again come from the Milenco by Padgetts Motorcycles Honda team with Conor Cummins and Davey Todd riding for the Batley-based concern. Cummins, who took podium finishes in this year’s Superbike and Senior TT races, always goes well at Dundrod, as seen by his Supersport race victory last year, and with the venue seeing him claim more podiums (14) than any of the other International road race meetings, he’ll be quietly confident heading into the races.
Todd, meanwhile, will be aiming to repeat the Supersport victory he took for the team at the North West 200 in May before also enjoying a superb second appearance at the TT. He rides for the Penz13.com BMW team in the 1000cc races with whom he currently leads the International Road Racing Championship after a series of high class performances at the likes of Chimay and Imatra.
As always, there’s a large supporting cast of privateers looking to upset the factory-supported riders with Jamie Coward spearheading their challenge. The Yorkshire rider has been enjoying a great season on the PreZ Racing Yamaha machines, and five top ten finishes at the TT saw him dominate the Privateer’s Championship.
Second place to Dunlop in the Lightweight TT race on the KTS Racing Kawasaki was a career best and a maiden UGP podium must be his aim ahead of the Classic TT where he has every chance of standing on the podium in all four races.
Phil Crowe, Sam West and Dominic Herbertson lead the English attack at Dundrod and with Derek McGee opting out of the meeting to continue his recovery from the injuries he sustained at the TT, the home contingent will be led by Derek Sheils, who’s been in superb form at the Irish National road races, Paul Jordan, Brian McCormack and Michael Sweeney.
Jordan impressed last year on his first outing with the Dafabet Devitt Racing team, taking fourth place in the single Superbike race that took place, and must have high hopes for the two Supertwin races in particular. However, all of the above have the ability to put themselves firmly in the top six in the Superbike, Supersport and Superstock races.
Practice takes place on Wednesday and Thursday with four races scheduled for Thursday afternoon and seven more on the main race day on Saturday.