Arguably the greatest road racer ever, Joey Dunlop’s career was littered with highlights and stunning achievements and wherever he went, races were won and records broken.
From his record 26 wins at the Isle of Man TT to his 24 victories at the Ulster Grand Prix, or from his five World Formula One Championships to his countless national road race victories, Yer Maun did the lot and rather than choosing ten career moments, it would have been quite easy to have profiled 30 of them.
The Ballymoney publican’s International race victories spanned an incredible 23 years with his Formula One TT victory in 2000, at the age of 48, considered to be one of the very best, if not the best and we look back at ten of his finest moments.
1977 Jubilee TT
Dunlop made his TT debut in 1976 and the first time he actually saw the circuit was on his very first lap of practice, his lack of knowledge so much so that when he got to Ballacraine, he had no idea whether to go left or right! He waited for another rider to come before following him and did that for the remainder of the lap when a faster rider would come by.
It was a relatively low key debut with 16th and 18th in the Junior and Senior races followed by two retirements but those two finishes saw a glimpse of what was to come as he lapped at over 102mph and won two bronze replicas.
He returned the following year and shot up the leaderboard with tenth in the Junior followed by a brilliant fourth in the Senior when riding his 350cc Yamaha. Seventh was then taken on the 750cc Rea Racing Yamaha in the Classic race, where he lapped at almost 108mph, clear evidence of how his course knowledge was improving.
He saved the best until last though and a standing start lap in excess of 110mph saw him take the lead in the Schweppes Jubilee race, a lead he wasn’t to relinquish. At the time only three other riders had lapped at more than 110mph and with his second lap being quicker still at 110.93mph, he went on to take the win by almost a minute – Joey Dunlop had arrived.
1979 North West 200
That maiden TT win should have catapulted Dunlop right up to the top of the racing tree but the next two years weren’t as kind around the Mountain Course with no less than six retirements from his ten races although fifth in the 1978 F2 race and sixth in the 1979 Classic race weren’t to be sniffed at.
He was making good strides forward elsewhere though and nowhere was this seen more than at the 1979 International North West 200 where the line up again contained the very best mainland Britain had to offer as well as Joey’s regular rivals from the Irish National road races.
Joey’s first podium at the venue came in 1976 with third in the 250cc race before going one better in the same race the following year. However, 1979 saw him claim his first win in superb style as he got the better of Mick Grant and Australian Jeff Sayle in the 1000cc Match Race despite a slipping clutch.
A few hours later he made it win number two as he took victory in the 1000cc race, carrying out running repairs on a loose clutch cable to see off the close challenge of Tony Rutter. However, it proved to be a very sad day as both Tom Herron, who had been a good friend and mentor to Joey, and fellow Armoy Armada member Frank Kennedy lost their lives in separate accidents.
1980 Classic TT
The loss of Herron and Kennedy affected Joey deeply but worse was to follow at the 1980 North West 200 when brother-in-law and third Armoy Armada member Mervyn Robinson was killed after crashing at Mather’s Cross. It led Joey to seriously consider quitting the sport and it was only a last-minute decision to take the fishing boat across the Irish Sea for the Isle of Man TT races.
It proved to be a wise decision and although ninth in the Senior and 12th in the Junior weren’t earth-shattering results, the Classic race would give Joey not only his biggest victory to date but also one that would change his career forever.
Riding the 750cc Rea Racing Yamaha once more, Joey and the team opted to modify the petrol tank so it could carry more fuel and allow him to make just one fuel stop, something that out-thought the opposition particularly the two factory Hondas of Mick Grant and Ron Haslam.
Grant was favourite for the victory but an opening lap of 112.25mph gave Joey a 6.4s lead, one which he’d increased to almost twenty seconds at the end of lap three, half race distance, despite the petrol tank retaining strap having broken. After making his solitary pit stop, Joey continued on his way holding the tank between his knees and although Grant took the lead, the pair were almost level going into the final lap.
Grant lapped at more than 113mph on the 1062cc Honda but Joey was riding like a man possessed and with a final lap of 115.22mph, he shattered the outright lap record to take his second TT win by over twenty seconds
1985 Isle of Man TT – First hat-trick
Dunlop’s 1980 TT victory hadn’t gone unnoticed by Honda team manager Barry Symmons and after a brief flirtation with Suzuki, Joey signed with Honda for the 1981 season and he’d stay with them for the rest of his career.
Success soon followed, including wins in the Formula One TT race in 1983 and 1984, the latter also seeing him increase his own outright lap record to 118.47mph after a titanic battle in the Senior with Rob McElnea, the Suzuki rider going on to take the win. He also took three successive F1 World Championships from 1982-84.
1985 saw Joey line up in the Rothmans Honda colours for the first time and, armed with a factory RVF, he opened his account for the week at the TT with another record-breaking win in the F1 race. A second win soon followed as Joey won the Junior 250cc race for the first time, also giving Honda their first win in the class since 1967.
That just left the Senior and whilst team-mate and arch rival Roger Marshall chose to ride the 500cc Honda, Joey opted for the 750cc RVF which he felt would be better-suited to the blustery conditions. It was another Dunlop master-stroke as he won the race to complete his hat-trick, only the second rider after Mike Hailwood to achieve the feat and the first time it had been done since the Englishman did it in 1967, having previously done it in 1961.
1988 Isle of Man TT – Second hat-trick
Continuing with Honda, Dunlop took his fifth F1 World Championship in 1986 following it up with two more TT wins in 1987, a year when he also took a hat-trick at the North West 200. Honda’s support had changed by then though and no longer did Joey have the luxury of a factory RVF at his disposal.
Instead, he had the same machinery has all other Honda supported riders and for 1988 that meant he was armed with one of the all-new RC30’s, which subsequently went down as one of the best bikes of all-time.
Joey was 36 when the 1988 TT got underway and there were a whole host of new, young pretenders and challengers to his accolade of ‘King of the Mountain’ but he wasn’t prepared to let go of that title just yet and the F1 race saw him take his 11th TT victory, also setting a new outright lap record of 118.54mph.
The Junior race saw him have a close battle with regular sparring partner Brian Reid but Joey and the 250cc Honda again prevailed and he went into the closing Senior race eager to complete his second hat-trick.
It was another Ulsterman that proved to be his closest challenger on this occasion and after two laps of the Mountain Course, Joey led Steve Cull by just 1.4s, the latter having wrestled the outright lap record away from Joey after a lap of 119.08mph. However, Cull began to slow on the fourth lap, his 500cc Honda eventually bursting into flames a lap later and that allowed Joey to sweep to his 13th TT victory and second hat-trick.
1992 Ultra-Lightweight 125cc TT
Although Carl Fogarty got the better of Joey for the 1988 F1 World Championship, he was keen to regain it in 1989 but his season was over before it had begun as he crashed heavily at Brands Hatch on Good Friday sustaining a number of injuries that kept him out of the saddle for almost the rest of the season.
At the age of 37, it looked like the tide was beginning to turn for Joey as Fogarty and Steve Hislop were the men in ascendancy and the injuries, which included a badly broken wrist and leg, were hard to come back from. He battled back but when he did, it was on the 125cc and 250cc machines as the big 750 was just too much of a handful to manage initially.
He was actually lapped in the F1 race at the Ulster Grand Prix that year but slowly but surely, Joey got back into his stride and second behind Hislop in the 1991 Senior race was a pivotal moment.
He’d also taken second that year in the 125cc race, behind brother Robert, and was getting more and more used to the little machine and with Robert having taken a hat-trick of wins in the class he was determined to have one of his own.
The 1992 125cc TT race saw the siblings fight tooth and nail and after two of the four laps, Joey’s lead was a miniscule 0.2s. A perfect pit stop by Joey’s team though gave him the upper hand and, aided by a new lap record of 108.69mph, he took his 14th TT victory, finally equalling Mike Hailwood’s record total which had stood since 1979.
1995 Senior TT
Further TT wins came for Joey in the 125cc race of 1993 and 1994, making him the most successful TT rider ever, whilst the latter also saw him take the first of five successive victories in the 250cc race but it was success in the Formula One and Senior races that he craved having failed to make the top step in either race since 1988.
Battling back from injury had been hard and although Hislop and Fogarty had now quit the TT, it was Joey’s team-mate and countryman Phillip McCallen that was now seen as the man to beat in the 750cc division. Ironically, McCallen had taken over Joey’s machinery when he was injured in 1989 and had remained with Honda ever since.
Now aged 43, Joey was equipped with the 750cc RC45 Honda for 1995, the bike having replaced the RC30 the year before when he’d taken third in both the F1 and Senior races, but it was McCallen who got the ’95 meeting underway with a win in the F1 race although Joey had led in the early stages before finishing in second place, albeit only 18s adrift at the end of six hard fought laps.
McCallen was absent from the Senior race though and Dunlop wasn’t to be denied as he romped to victory for his first ‘big bike’ win at the TT in seven years and his 19th in total, his record tally increasing all the time and showing no signs of slowing down.
1995 Ulster Grand Prix hat-trick
The Dundrod circuit and the Ulster Grand Prix had always been a happy hunting ground for Joey and the venue saw him claim his first major win since his Brands Hatch accident with victory coming in the 1990 F1 race.
He’d added further Superbike wins to his tally in both 1991 and 1994, and had also tasted success in the 125cc class, further confirming his tag as the master of Dundrod. There was talk of retirement for Joey in 1995 though – not by the man himself, it has to be said – and the sweltering heat at Dundrod that year meant it was going to be hard work.
Joey had given up his long term smoking habit by 1995 as he realised he needed to do everything he could to stay fit and keep in contention with the younger brigade and it certainly showed at Dundrod that year as he swept to a hat-trick in front of 50,000 fans.
The opening Superbike race saw Joey locked in battle with Steve Ward, Iain Duffus and Robert Holden in the early stages with all four taking their turn in the lead. By lap four though, Joey turned on the style and with the fastest lap of the race at 124.54mph he defeated Kiwi Holden by eight seconds.
Two quick-fire victories then followed in the two 250cc races, after overcoming the fierce challenges of Mick Lofthouse and James Courtney although neither could do anything to precent Joey taking his 21st and 22nd UGP victories. Exhausted by the demands from the races and effort he’d put in, Joey pulled out of the second Superbike race but had again proved he was still very much at the top of his game.
1998 Lightweight 250cc TT
The Dundrod meeting of 1995 showed that although Joey’s ability was still clearly in evidence, the passing of years looked to be taking their toll and by 1998, he was aged 45 and starting the 30th year of his stunning and illustrious career.
Wins in the 125cc and 250cc races at TT and Dundrod continued to come his way but it was getting harder and harder to finish in the top there of the Superbike races and to prepare for the ’98 season, Joey spent the off-season in Australia, taking full advantage of the guaranteed warm weather and he started the year as fit as he possibly could be.
However, all the good work he’d done Down Under was undone after a heavy crash in the 125cc race at the Tandragee 100 left him with a cracked collarbone and pelvis, broken hand and a badly mangled ring finger which ultimately led to part of it being amputated. It also left him with a race against time to be fit for the TT and when he arrived on the island, it was clear he’d only be fit enough for the 125cc and 250cc encounters.
He wasn’t sure if he could manage the 250cc race either but on race day, the weather was dreadful which played into his hands. Knowing the course better than anyone else, the wet weather meant the physical strain wasn’t as much as what it would have been in the dry and he lined up on the grid knowing he was in with a chance.
Conditions were truly awful for the race which was cut from four laps to three and a third of the field were lapping at 80mph – but not Joey. His opening lap of 100.50mph gave him a lead of more than half a minute and with conditions worsening, organisers cut the race to two laps. Joey duly took his 23rd TT win after yet another masterful performance.
2000 Formula One TT
Joey’s final years gave him some of his finest career moments with the 1999 Ulster Grand Prix being particularly special as the resurgent Dunlop defeated the V&M Yamaha pairing of David Jefferies and Iain Duffus in the second Superbike race.
The duo had been in superb form at the TT, where Joey lapped at more than 123mph, with Jefferies winning both the F1 and Senior races but after taking first and second in the first Superbike race at the Ulster, the tables were turned as Joey edged them both out in the second after a thrilling last lap.
Jefferies was now the man to beat at the TT after taking a hat-trick in 1999 and his case looked even stronger as Joey was riding an unproven 1000cc Honda V-Twin SP1 machine particularly as it only had a kitted engine as opposed to a full works specification which was being used in the World Superbike Championship.
A disappointing North West 200, where he retired from both races, meant he was up against it for the TT but Honda’s hopes lay with the 48-year old Dunlop and they flew in one of Aaron Slight’s works WSB engines along with one of the swinging arms which would aid front end stability on the vast bumps and jumps around the Mountain Course.
Come the Formula One race, he still wasn’t entirely sure if the package he had was good enough to win but what followed was, arguably, his finest hour. With a few damp patches around the Mountain Course, Joey flew out of the blocks although his an opening lap of 121.31mph only gave him a 0.3s lead over Michael Rutter. Jefferies was back in fourth but he was the quickest rider on lap two and he was now just half a second behind.
Joey added four seconds to his lead at half race distance and although Jefferies hit the front for the first time a lap later, there was still only half a second between the pair with two laps to go. The race changed on lap five when Jefferies was forced to retire at Ballig Bridge and Joey duly romped to TT victory number 24 and his first in the F1 race since 1988.
Further sublime victories followed in the 125cc and 250cc races and the sixth lap of the Senior, where Joey finished third, would prove to be his quickest ever with a speed of 123.87mph. Aged 48, Joey had taken his third TT hat-trick to move onto a career total of 26, a tally that remains unbeaten almost twenty years on.
Sadly, it would be his last ever Isle of Man TT race as, on 2nd July 2000, the greatest ever road racer was killed at Tallinn, Estonia. Over 50,000 mourners attended the funeral but his memory lives on and no-one will ever forget witnessing the unbelievable talents of William Joseph Dunlop.