Backmarker: Michael Dunlop & BMW at the TT

June 4, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Michael Dunlop won the Superbike race to begin his 2014 TT
campaign. It was the first TT win for the BMW S1000RR, and it
came on the 75th anniversary of BMW’s most famous TT victory.

BMW Experiences the Highs and Lows of ‘Real Roads’ Racing

Last winter, TT star Michael Dunlop had a falling out with Honda. Despite winning four races in 2013, he announced that he was not going to race at all. Then, a few months later, we heard that he’d be racing after all, on a BMW S1000RR.

I suppose it was not a surprise when Michael won the Superbike race last Friday. He was the dominant rider at last year’s TT, and won a race at the Northwest 200 just a few weeks earlier.

In fact, there are a lot more roundels visible in the paddock this year than previously; nine other S1000RRs finished the Superbike race. (The best of the rest was Michael Rutter, in fifth place. I believe the previous best finish for an S1000RR was Keith Amor’s sixth place in the 2010 Superstock race.)

Although Dunlop has often run his own machines, the deal to put him on a BMW involved a well-established team—Stuart Hicken’s Hawk Racing outfit, which also fields Riyuchi Kiyonari on a Buildbase-sponsored BMW in the British Superbike Championship.

For the TT, Dunlop’s Hawk Racing BMW is primarily sponsored by by BMW UK, and is running in Motorrad livery, so it looks like a factory team. I was curious about the extent to which the factory was involved, and how the deal came together, so I called Berthold Hauser, head of motorcycle racing activities for BMW and got the lowdown.

Backmarker: Are you in Munich right now, or on the Isle of Man?

Berthold Hauser: I’m in Munich, but I have some guys over there.

BM: How many people does Motorrad [BMW’s motorcycle division] have on the Island?

Hauser: It’s mostly an effort that comes from the UK market. The job we’re doing is to be available, for support and technical issues.

BM: Did the opportunity to field Michael Dunlop come out of the blue?

Hauser: I don’t know the exact reasons he left his former team, but at the same time our UK division was working on a new marketing strategy, with more focus on racing both on the roads and in BSB. I wasn’t involved in the negotiation, but I hear they [BMW UK and Michael Dunlop] came to an agreement quickly.

BM: Now that he’s won the Superbike race, I imagine the head office in Munich is paying attention.

Hauser: We’re overwhelmed. For us, as racers, we love to win. But nevertheless, to win at the TT, it’s not only me that’s happy. Our board is happy. 20 minutes ago, Michael won the Superstock race as well, and I just got an email from our President about it!

BM: Has any information come back to Munich on the technical level? Have you learned anything yet?

Berthold Bertie Hauser is BMW Motorrads Motorsport Director. Hes been with BMW for over 30 years  and supervised racing programs from the Dakar rally to World Superbike.
Berthold “Bertie” Hauser is BMW Motorrad’s Motorsport Director. He’s been with BMW for over 30 years, and supervised racing programs from the Dakar rally to World Superbike.

Hauser: Not yet, we’re still enjoying the victory. But that exchange will happen; our engineers are very close to the people there. We’ll get a lot of information, especially about the mapping and setup of the bikes, and that information will be available to future riders and teams.

BM: Is it safe to assume BMW will secure the services of Michael Dunlop for the future?

Hauser: It will be up to BMW UK to keep him on board, but I’d love to see that.

BM: When the UK guys told you, “OK, we’re going to put Michael Dunlop on an S1000RR, you must have realized that your ‘real roads’ efforts would get a lot more scrutiny. Were you worried about what might happen if he didn’t do well?

Hauser: You can never expect to win right away. And yes, we thought, that’s a big load on our shoulders. But from the first contact with Michael at the BSB races our job was to understand his way of working, and figure out how to give him what he needs. We thought, OK, podiums are possible, but everyone would understand if we didn’t win in the first year. [Wins at the Northwest 200 and TT] show how quickly we were able to understand what Michael needs.

BM: BMW left some unfinished business in the World Superbike Championship [by ending factory participation before winning the title—MG]. Do you feel the machine has been vindicated now that it’s won at the TT, which is a better test of a road-going bike anyway?

Hauser: I wouldn’t say that we had unfinished business. At the time [BMW’s withdrawal of the factory team] was due to an internal strategic decision. It was also in line with what we thought the World Superbike Championship was going to do; that the championship would move directly to the ‘Evo’ rules [for all entrants].

It was clear that they wanted to reduce budgets for the teams, and [Motorrad] management made a decision that factory teams weren’t necessary. If you look at the DTM [German touring car championship] our colleagues in the four-wheel section work with many top teams very successfully.

That is what we want to do [at Motorrad]. The TT success comes from Hawk Racing, a top team, with technical support from Munich. It might take longer to see comparable success in World Superbike, but we have to wait for the FIM to create the right regulations.

BM: Much has been made of the fact that it’s 75 years since Georg [aka “Shorsch”] Meier won the Senior TT on the 500cc BMW Kompressor Grand Prix racer. Karl Gall, another BMW rider, was killed during that TT. And this year, Simon Andrews was killed riding an S1000RR at the Northwest 200. At the corporate level, was there discussion of the fact that, by fielding a top rider like Michael Dunlop, you were exposing yourselves to more scrutiny, and potentially risking terrible PR?

Hauser: I’m speechless. We’re very aware of what happened at the 200 with Simon Andrews, and very sorry for his family and the whole Penzkofer team, who we are very close with. But that’s racing, and if we say we don’t like it, or turn our back to it… [I almost made him cry with this question, but I feel it had to be asked—MG]

Everyone who races on the roads knows he must prepare himself. I feel a big pain in my heart, but we don’t forget him. We say, Simon, you are in our hearts when we’re celebrating with Michael.

Georg Meier

The last man to win a TT on a real BMW was Georg Meier.
His win in the 1939 Senior TT was also a propaganda victory
for the Nazi party.

In the late 1930s, Georg ‘Shorsch’ Meier was a motorcycle cop in Bavaria, and a skilled enduro rider. He impressed BMW during the 1937 ISDT, by winning the speed trial that year (held at Donington Park, in England.)

At that time, there was essentially no way to separate the Nazi party’s propaganda machine, and BMW’s factory race efforts. They were both racing for the glory of the Fatherland. Meier was, initially, an unenthusiastic road racer—the high speeds frightened him—but he was an enthusiastic Nazi, so he put his heart into it.

In 1938 he was on the official BMW team at the TT, along with Karl Gall—perhaps the top German racer. Gall crashed in practice, coming to a stop face down and unconscious in a Manx stream. In fact, he would have drowned were it not for Meier, who saw the crash and stopped to rescue him.

Meier practiced well, but fate intervened when it came time for the Senior TT. His machine had to be started and warmed up on one set of spark plugs, then it needed a different set of plugs for the race. Frustratingly, a stripped plug hole forced him to abandon the race, and he watched from the Grandstand.

The next year, Gall wanted to retire but was, ahem, ‘strongly encouraged’ by the Nazi party to return to the TT. He crashed at Ballaugh and was killed. Meier won the last Senior before WWII. Second place went to yet another BMW rider, Jock West. On the podium, West didn’t conceal his distaste for all that Nazi propagandizing.

Two months later, Meier was injured in a crash of his own at the Swedish GP. He was thus deemed unfit for military service, although he spent much of the war as Admiral William Canaris’ personal driver. (Canaris was one of the most feared men in Germany; Google him.)

Jock West rose to the rank of Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force, and later was awarded the Order of the British Empire, for his services in managing the massive effort needed to build and maintain the RAF’s fleet at a time when Britain was being bombed relentlessly.