John McGuinness: “I’m going to carry on… I don’t see the problem with that”

John McGuinness will be 52-years-old by the time the 2024 Isle of Man TT rolls around, but he still has no intentions of stopping


John McGuinness is more than 25 years on from his first race at the Isle of Man TT, an event to which his importance almost matches that of the event’s to him. More than eight years on from his last win, McGuinness still finds motivation to race, and has no intention of stopping just yet.

The last few years of Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP career were characterised by a lack of success compared to his earlier years, and a conviction that such success could return.

It was almost an irrational conviction. Even the move from the factory Yamaha team to the satellite Petronas SRT squad for 2021 was considered a move that could bring the Italian back to competitiveness.

For John McGuinness - who did much of his winning at the Isle of Man TT in a similar period to that when Rossi did most of his winning in Grand Prix racing - the belief is more grounded.

“I used to walk onto my bike knowing I was going to win because I was going to beat everybody,” McGuinness said, “because I was maybe a bit stronger, or maybe a bit more determined, really.” 

McGuinness’ peak saw him claim 23 TT wins on the Isle of Man, a total that placed him second on the all-time list until earlier this year, when Michael Dunlop extended his own tally to 25, just one short of the record of 26 held by Joey Dunlop.

When McGuinness won his last - or most recent - TT in the 2015 Senior race, it would have been hard to fathom a reality where he didn’t match the 26 wins of Dunlop. Yet, by 2023, it feels like an impossibility.

“Now, I have to be honest with myself,” McGuinness said, “I’m 51, I’ll be 52 on the grid next year.” As McGuinness has aged out of winning contention, another group of younger racers has arrived to take his place at the top. Two of those will be McGuinness’ teammates at Honda Racing UK 2024, namely Nathan Harrison and Dean Harrison - related only through profession, not blood.

“[He’s] another interesting guy, another guy who’s got the same hunger that I had at his age, wanting to win TTs,” McGuinness said of Bradford’s Dean Harrison, winner of the 2019 Senior TT. 

Going back to the Rossi example from earlier on, another characteristic of the second half of Rossi’s career was his rivalries with teammates, even as far back 2008 and Jorge Lorenzo’s arrival to the factory Yamaha team. McGuinness’ approach to the arrival of Harrison is different.

“There’s no hierarchy,” he said, “there’s no ‘bullying’, or whatever you want to call it. I’m just John, I’ve just been in the team a long time. Whatever is open to me will always be open to Dean; if he wanted help from me I would never curveball him or bullshit him, I’d always be dead honest.

“I actually genuinely want to see Dean win, you know? I want to see Dean do the business.”

The passage of time has meant that McGuinness “can accept being sixth,” in his words. “Everyone around me - like Honda, my sponsors, my family, and everybody else - are happy for me to go out and enjoy myself, do my best, fly the flag, bring the bike home safe and if it’s sixth it’s sixth, if it’s seventh it’s seventh.”

But, despite the change in expectations, there is little doubt about where McGuinness wants to be. “If Dean [Harrison] goes and wins as my teammate,” he said, “I’ll be the first man in the winners’ enclosure to shake his hand. 

I’d love to be in there with him, but he’s just that little one step ahead of me - which he should be, he’s in his prime.”

And, while it is true that Harrison - as well as riders such Peter Hickman and the aforementioned Michael Dunlop - are that step ahead of McGuinness, it is also true that McGuinness himself had something of a ‘renaissance’ in 2023, returning to the 130mph+ group for the first time since 2016, and clocking laps in the 131mph bracket. The speed and competitiveness he’s shown in 2023, which saw him on top six pace, is a source of motivation for McGuinness. “[I’m] still going round at 131mph, and I thought all the young lads would just be bashing me up now, and be long gone, they’d be all doing 133, 134,135. But they’re not, there’s only a couple of them doing that. 

“So, I’m going to carry on, while I’m still getting good bikes, good products, good people around me, I’m enjoying it. I don’t see the problem in that, if that makes sense.”

At some point, though, the end of McGuinness’ racing career will arrive. It’s something he is aware of - he is not delusional - but also something he is not considering as something too close beyond the horizon.

“Yes,” McGuinness said when asked whether he thinks about his final race. “I do, yeah, I’m split with it all. I hope that I’ll make the decision at some point where I just have to walk away from it.

“I’ve heard it off people before where they’ve just ridden the bike and they know, they know the time’s right to stop and they stop. Obviously, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way than that, I don’t want to hurt myself or anything like that. It’s a real difficult one, [...] it’s hard to put it into words.”

McGuinness’ discipline is one where the danger is at its most prominent, and one in which reminders of that danger are frequent. At the 2023 TT, as McGuinness was building his speed through the fortnight, Raul Torras was, too. The Spanish racer set his fastest ever lap of the Snaefell Course during the second Superstock TT, but crashed in the following day's Supertwin race with fatal consequences. Including Manx Grands Prix and Classic TTs, there have been a total of 269 racing deaths on the Mountain Course in its history, and 89 of those have happened during McGuinness’ career. The danger is not something it is possible to be oblivious to.

“I suppose if you look at it,” McGuinness said, “the ‘law of averages’ is going to get me at some point if I don’t pack in. You can’t just keep going and going and going, mile after mile after mile, even if it’s not your fault, you know - something else can happen. 

“But, at the minute, yeah, not thinking about hanging my boots up.”

Instead, McGuinness is “just thinking about: ‘can’t wait for the new bike to arrive,’ ‘can’t wait to get into the test programme,’ ‘can’t wait to see what sort of figures the bike makes,’ [et cetera]. The stocker sounds like it’s a weapon, [...] it sounds like it’s upgraded again. So, that’s more the thing I think about.”

McGuinness’ first Isle of Man TT race was on a two-stroke Honda RS250R in 1997, and next year he will be on his fourth generation of Honda Fireblade, which is updated once more for the 2024 model year with chassis and engine changes, as well as new winglets. 

A new model is still something to be excited about for McGuinness. “I’m looking forward to it, yeah. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Like, yesterday (7 November 2023) [the 2024 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade] was out, and I was reading about it and looking at it being unveiled in EICMA and stuff like that. 

“It’s like a footballer getting a new set of football boots, or a skier getting faster skis. It’s the tools we work with, and there’s nothing like a new bike. And I’m fortunate to be able to get my leg over it, give my feedback on it, give all my experience on it, and hopefully turn it into a proper winning package.”

The 2024 Fireblade has a claimed maximum power output of 215bhp, which is around 130bhp more than the RS250R McGuinness debuted with back in ‘97, and won his first TT with in 1999. McGuinness’ first 130mph bike - a Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade from 2007, dressed in that iconic HM Plant paint scheme - lives in his house, along with the RS250R from 1999 that he won that first TT on - “proper bike that, lad; carburettors, things that people know nothing about these days.” [Reader, he is not wrong.]

There was media speculation last year that a ‘final edition’ of the Honda Fireblade could be on the way, a last hurrah for Honda’s flagship supersports machine. There has been nothing official from Honda on the subject, of course, but the speculation and the current global climate - in terms of temperature, finances, and motorcycle demand - means that its lifespan is currently uncertain. Similarly, the remaining time of McGuinness’ racing career is uncertain, but the enjoyment he still seems to derive from racing and being around motorcycles means that he could still be around for another generation of Fireblade, yet.