Was the 2022 Isle of Man TT a farewell to a king?
This is the question that has dominated the preparation for the 2022 Isle of Man TT: will this year be John McGuinness’ swan song?
Never likely to make the cover of Vogue or be the guest of honor for Los Angeles celebrities, McGuinness will never have the profile of some of Britain’s other great sporting icons. But those in the know know that the Morecambe bricky is a true legend of the sport.
Making his Isle of Man TT debut in 1996, some two months before this writer was even born, McGuinness tasted victory for the first time in 1999. From then on he would go on to change the game in motorcycle road racing the same way. his great hero – and teammate at one point – Joey Dunlop, the TT’s most successful rider with 26 victories, did so from the 1970s until his death in 2000.
McGuinness won 22 more times after that Lightweight 250cc TT victory in 1999, including 12 in the Superbike class. McGuinness has won on Superbikes, Supersport bikes, two-stroke, four-stroke e-bikes and achieved the first-ever 130mph TT lap in 2007 – achievements by a man who never shied away from doing it , for a lot of that, he wasn’t exactly the model of an ultra-athlete.
It’s this egoless humility that has won McGuinness a legion of fans and made him motorcycle road racing’s most prolific rider, a man with some big-name supporters in his corner – notably a certain nine-time Grand Prix motorcycle world Valentino Rossi.
But since 2017, time hasn’t been kind to McGuinness. A massive crash at the North West 200 when the throttle on his brand new Honda Fireblade Superbike stuck open, leaving him with a badly broken leg. This ruled him out of the 2017 and 2018 TT, while his comeback in 2019 was disastrous.
The two-year gap caused by COVID has robbed McGuinness of time in a career that is now in its twilight
Partnering with Stuart Garner – a man, who this year pleaded guilty to corruption offenses turned out to be as horrible as one of his motorbikes – and Norton for his comeback in 2019, he only managed to finish none of the Superbike contests as the bike was massively unreliable and the results in the other classes, aside from a podium finish in the Zero TT, were less than special.
Speaking to Autosport directly after a dismal end to his 2019 TT, McGuinness confirmed he was not done yet and wanted to formulate plans to get back on his A game for TT 2020. And then COVID came…
The two-year gap robbed McGuinness of time in a career that is now in its twilight, but crucially, the events of 2019 had not broken it.
“If I had sat on my ass for two years [during COVID] and come back I wouldn’t have had a chance” John McGuinness
“It was never a loss of love for the TT,” said McGuinness, who admits he “hated every minute” he spent riding the Norton in the 2019 TT, ahead of a senior race that was eventually rescheduled from Friday. see you Saturday.
“It was just doubting yourself, [the thought that] you forgot how to do it, you can’t ride anymore. I had a hard time, really. But it’s weird, I went to Macau at the end of the year [in 2019] and climbed [Paul] Bird’s Ducati, I did well, qualified well and realized I hadn’t forgotten how to do it. I hadn’t gotten off the hamster wheel, as I call it.
“I continued to do the BSB, two years of Ducati Cup while in the meantime I was negotiating with Honda. So yeah, all that was on my mind was to do more TTs. If I had sat on my ass for two years [during COVID] and coming back I wouldn’t have had a chance. But I kept going, I kept riding, I kept the love of the job and I ran my own Ducati thing.
McGuinness has some form of Ducati Cup podium on the British Superbike support package, and for 2022 has secured a return to Honda (having originally signed for Bournemouth Kawasaki in 2020 after parting ways with Norton amid corruption Garner was starting to make headlines). It was an unlikely ‘home’ ride given the acrimony with which things ended between him and Honda after his 2017 crash.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Fireblade and the new CBR1000RR-R was a much more competitive package than the last bike he rode in 2017.
But it almost felt like his return to Honda was a moment of planetary alignment. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Fireblade, the new CBR1000RR-R, a much more competitive package than the last bike he rode in 2017; the opening Superbike race of the 2022 TT would mark McGuinness’ 100th start and he had just turned 50. This thought of the perfect storm was only reinforced by his own revelation to the media earlier in the year after receiving his MBE that the 2022 TT could well be his last.
When Autosport sits with McGuinness in the back of the Honda truck, he’s a man who looks conflicted on the inside. Maybe it was because our conversation took place an hour before the Senior TT final, or maybe it was because he was dreading facing a question he’s been asked a thousand times already.
But more than anything, McGuinness looks like a conflicted man because his decision doesn’t seem to be made.
“Yeah, sure I can,” he replies without hesitation when asked if he could walk away happy if the 2022 TT was ultimately his last. “Absolutely. How can I not be? 20 years of racing here, fantastic results, fantastic people, the joy of doing it, success, a few pounds. Yeah, absolutely, there’s nothing on which I can look back and think I could have done differently or worse. I can hold my head up. It won’t be my last, but it would be nice to just cross the line.
Pressed to know if “not that it will be my last” meant he was already considering a future in TT, his answer further suggests that this is a rider who thinks there are still opportunities to be competitive.
“I want to run until I’m 100, but I can’t,” he says. “I have to stop at some point. Time does not stop for anyone. It’s getting harder and harder. You just have to accept that if you’re eighth, you’re eighth. If you ride and you’re eighth and you can accept that you’re eighth, that’s fine.
“You get used to winning and getting on the podium, and when you’re not, you’re like ‘why am I not?’ But I have to figure out why I’m not, if I want to continue. I’m not going to dwell on it too much. I’m just going to ride my motorcycle, enjoy it, and then ride around the table with the family and everyone, the sponsors and just enjoy it, embrace what we’ve done, what we had. And then, if I want to do another ride, I’m sure Honda will provide something.
McGuinness tackled the iconic Mountain Course again in 2022, having made its debut in 1996
There are, of course, many considerations when it comes to someone of McGuinness’ stature deciding to hang up his leathers. And because of that, he’s unlikely to drop that bombshell on a reporter he’s only spoken to three times since 2019.
That said, there’s a real tone to McGuinness’ responses. He probably hasn’t made up his mind yet and more than likely thinks there’s at least one more TT in him. After all, his 100th wasn’t exactly six demo laps on his Honda.
Number one starter on the road on a Fireblade decked out in a special 100th start livery, McGuinness was not a factor in the battle for the podium. But he was riding comfortably in the top six in the opening Superbike race last Saturday and took the checkered flag in a fine fifth after taking advantage of some mechanical issues for riders ahead of him on corrected time.
In the Senior TT he managed to get back into the top 10 after being hit with a 30 second speeding penalty in the pit lane, catching and passing Michael Dunlop – who won the 2022 TT twice – on the road and moving away from him in the final stages of the race.
“You have to be here for the right reasons, even your team” John McGuinness
His Superbike TT result proved that the rekindled McGuinness/Honda partnership is working on all cylinders and has the potential for further strong results.
“It’s nice to know that things are being done without you having to look over someone’s shoulder,” he said when asked about his new relationship with Honda, with which he won all his Superbike races at the TT.
“My mechanics are in top form, my team manager has won world titles with riders and the guys on the keys want to be here, they’re having fun. You have to be here for the right reasons, even your team. Sometimes there’s a lot going on behind closed doors that you can’t see. But unless you’re all on the same page, you’re not going anywhere. But it’s good.”
Stepping back and analyzing his comments earlier in the year that the 2022 TT was potentially his last, they seem to have been framed with one caveat: “The 2022 TT could be my last, if…”
McGuinness sported a commemorative livery at the Superbike event to mark his 100th TT start
Great if, next, is whether the lingering doubt he had after his 2019 TT disaster could be shaken. Macau’s results are one thing, but they were really gone last Saturday in their 100th TT start.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he replied when asked if his doubts had been cleared up in the Superbike race. “Through practice I was back in the swing, and like I say, I’m not quite the fastest and it’s really kind of my fault, things could be straightened out a bit from everyone’s point of view. But at the end of the day everyone just needed to come back here and have one under our belts and get some confidence back in Honda and the new Blade, 30th anniversary, there just had a lot of left, right, and center ticks that were really cool.
It will be some time before we find out if the 2022 TT was in fact John McGuinness’s last. And that’s OK. He’s earned the right to call time on his own terms, whether that’s with a final outing in 2023 or with a pint in hand surrounded by his family out of the spotlight.
But if 2022 had been his last, McGuinness was on a roll after showing in his historic 100th start that he wasn’t there just to grab attention and just be an extra…
If 2022 had been McGuinness’ last TT, the legend would have come out with a bang