The 2018 Isle of Man TT is almost upon us, with practice sessions and qualifying now over and the racing proper around the 37 ¾-mile closed-roads circuit starting tomorrow, June 2.
That opening event is the six-lap RST Superbike TT, when at midday the 1,000cc superbikes will hurtle along the Glencrutchery Road and down Bray Hill in anger for the first race of the 2018 TT festival.
This year feels like a transitional year for the TT; there is no Guy Martin, who called time on international road racing last year. John McGuinness has not yet recovered from the injuries sustained at last year's North West 200 road races in Northern Ireland, while Bruce Anstey is fighting cancer.
Ian Hutchinson recently returned to racing at this year's North West after sustaining an horrific broken leg last year; whether he will be competitive remains to be seen. Of the established "big names" that leaves Michael Dunlop, who once again has switched manufacturers for the event.
He may never have won a TT, but to many Martin will be the biggest miss, the truck mechanic cum TV personality from Lincolnshire divides opinion among hardened race fans but to many he was the main attraction.
Like Dunlop, McGuinness had switched manufacturers for 2018, ending a long association with Honda in favour of the newly developed Norton V4 machine. McGuiness is tantalisingly close to the all-time TT winners record. He remains on 23, just three behind the late, great Joey Dunlop with 26.
McGuinness’ total does include two TT Zero (electric) wins which some, including racers past and present, say shouldn’t be counted in the total, the main argument being that the race is one lap only. Whether they should or not is something that will continue to divide opinion, but when you consider the TT Zero lap record stands at 119.279mph, there are not many capable of lapping the infamous course at that speed no matter what the machine.
McGuinness may not have reached Joey’s wins total but he has surpassed his number of podium finishes. In that particular race, with 46 to his name he is six ahead of the Irish road-racing legend. Of the current competitors, Anstey is his nearest rival with 37.
The Norton flag will be waved by British Superbike racer Josh Brookes who, prior to Peter Hickman arriving in 2014, was the fastest ever newcomer. After his comeback at the recent North West races Hutchinson will be looking to add to his tally of 16 wins at this year's isle of Man event.
Hutchinson can never be written off at the TT; the quietly spoken Yorkshireman has an abundance of determination, backed up with talent in an equally large measure. And he remains the only man to win five TTs in one week. That was in 2010, but just weeks later in a British Supersport race at Silverstone Hutchinson suffered a potentially career-ending leg break. Hutchinson fought through the pain and mental turmoil to return to the TT and win races once again. I for one wouldn’t write him off just yet.
Like Dunlop and McGuinness, Hutchinson has also changed manufacturers, moving from BMW to Honda. For 2018 Michael Dunlop has switched to BMW for the big classes, a bike he has previously gone well on, while in the Supersport class he continues with his own MD Racing team, once again with superstar DJ Carl Cox as title sponsor.
Dunlop undoubtedly has the talent and determination on track, his will to win is probably greater than any other competitor. However, it is widely known that Dunlop is not the easiest to work with from a PR perspective. He’s never shy to offer an opinion, regardless of who it may upset, and he actively shuns the limelight of TV interviews and publicity events.
All Dunlop wants to do is win races - and, let’s face it, he is quite good at that. The similarities between Dunlop and his uncle Joey are clear to see when it comes to the non-racing side of the sport, Joey also didn’t like being in the media spotlight.
After winning last year's supersport race Dunlop was congratulated in parc fermé by his sponsor Cox; little did we know at the time that this was the first time the pair had met. Such is Cox’s love for motorsport that he has continued his association with Dunlop and not dragged him kicking and screaming into 21st century of political PR correctness.
With Dunlop currently one place and one win behind Hutchinson, 2018 should be the year when the Northern Irishman overtakes his fierce rival in the all-time TT winners' standings.
Next in the standings is ace sidecar racer and the Isle of Man's own, Dave Molyneux, with 17 wins, just two ahead of Dunlop. Should Dunlop surpass Molyneux he will be third behind McGuinness.
Dunlop is currently one win ahead of the late, great Mike Hailwood, who claimed 14 TT wins over his career. 2018 is the 40th anniversary of what is surely the greatest of those wins. In 1978 "Mike the Bike" returned to the island after an 11-year absence and took victory in the TT F1 race.
Not only had Hailwood been absent from the TT for more than a decade, it was also 11 years since he had raced on two wheels on the world stage; he had raced at historic and endurance events in Australia in 1977, but nothing that compared to the TT.
That famous 1978 victory on board the Sports Motorcycles Ducati 900SS has to go down as one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time. Grown men were reduced to tears. For me personally, just coming into motorcycling, it cemented Hailwood as a hero.
Away from the old guard of the TT, riders to watch include Peter Hickman, who has improved year on year. Should that progression continue, he will be looking for his maiden victory after his three second- and two third-place finishes to date.
Hickman, after only three years of competing at the TT, has a fastest lap of 132.465mph; only three riders, Hutchinson, McGuinness and Dunlop, have gone faster.
Close behind Hickman in fastest lap terms is James Hillier, at an average of 132.414mph. Hillier, who made his TT debut in 2008, does however have one win to date, which came in the 2013 lightweight TT.
Regardless of the winners and losers, the TT as always is guaranteed to deliver heart-in-the-mouth moments aplenty. It really is one of those events that has to be witnessed first-hand at least once.
You may see more of the action on TV, but there is nothing like being just feet away as man and machine hurtle past at logic-defying speeds. Just think about it; 37 ¾ miles on public roads, at an average speed in excess of 130mph, on production-based motorcycles.
To put that in perspective, the fastest average speed for a factory MotoGP bike on a purpose-built race circuit is some 20mph or so less.
The Isle of Man TT is a truly special event and all who compete deserve our utmost respect.