Lee Johnston weighs up 2017 options

Lee Johnston on the East Coast Racing BMW at Union Mills in the Senior TT in June.

Lee Johnston on the East Coast Racing BMW at Union Mills in the Senior TT in June.

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Multiple international road race winner Lee Johnston is loath to rush into a deal as the Maguiresbridge man ponders his options for 2017.

Johnston became a free agent after East Coast Racing announced a sabbatical from the sport in September.

The 27-year-old attained plenty of success in Phil Reed’s team, culminating in a memorable year in 2015 when he won the Superstock race at the North West 200 and clinched the man of the meeting award at the Ulster Grand Prix, where he chalked up a treble with two wins in the Supersport races and another impressive victory in the Superstock race on the ECR BMW.

Johnston, who also shared the Superstock rostrum with Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop at the Isle of Man TT in 2015, went into this season as one of the big favourites for more international glory, but an early crash at the Scarborough Spring Cup meeting was the worst possible start to 2016.

He struggled with injury at the North West 200 and TT and was dealt another cruel hand at Dundrod, where he sustained a broken collarbone following a crash during practice.

The Fermanagh rider is keen to put this year behind him and Johnston says he feels more motivated than ever to come back stronger in 2017.

“I can’t afford to have a bad year next year. This year has been a complete write-off to be totally honest and I want to get back to winning races again,” he said.

“I do have some good options at the moment but I couldn’t even say when I’ll have something sorted. I am talking to a few people, but I don’t really want to sign something just for the sake of signing a contract.

“I want to know exactly what bikes I’ll be riding, who will be working on them and everything else before I make a decision. I do have one or two good offers and it’s not that I want to try and fob anyone off, it’s just that I don’t want to rush into anything – I want it to be right and have everything sorted out properly so there are no grey areas,” added Johnston, who was previously linked with Halsall Racing and Lee Hardy’s RAF Reserves team.

“I don’t want to do a full season in the British championship but ideally I’d like to do a few rounds before the North West and then some more in between the TT and Ulster Grand Prix. Maybe for some teams that makes it a little bit harder but there are so many different scenarios and it makes things more difficult.”

Johnston has excelled on BMW and Triumph machinery in recent seasons, but the ‘General’ says there is little to choose between any of the leading manufacturers.

“I don’t think there’s much between the bikes although the biggest thing would be taking a risk on a new bike: you’d need to be in a factory team so you’d know the development and the back-up would be there,” he said.

“I’m not tied to any manufacturer specifically and I think if you put good riders on any of the bikes, they’d be at the front – Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki or the BMW because they are all so close.

“At this rate I could be working on the tools next year!” joked Johnston. “I’m not in a mad rush to sign anything but it would be nice to have something sorted before Christmas.

“I don’t want to ride something for the sake of it and actually I feel more fired up now than I have done in years. I want to have a good go and I believe I’m good enough to win.

“There are four or five good seats out there and I want to try and get on one of them.”

Johnston had several tempting offers to race at the Macau Grand Prix earlier this month, including the opportunity to ride the factory Be Wiser Ducati alongside Glenn Irwin for Paul Bird’s British Superbike team.

“It was nice to know that some of the top teams were still interested in me and Paul Bird even offered me the factory Ducati, but I wasn’t really fit enough,” Johnston said.

“I wanted to let my shoulder heal properly itself without pushing it but all being well I’ll be back next year.”