International road racing frontrunner Lee Johnston is a free agent for 2017 following confirmation that the East Coast Racing team is taking a sabbatical from the sport.
The Fermanagh rider was in hot demand for 2016 after a sensational year last season, when he clinched his maiden big bike success at the North West 200 in the Superstock race and followed it up with an excellent podium on the same BMW S1000RR at the Isle of Man TT, finishing third behind Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop.
Johnston capped his best year on the roads to date with a hat-trick at the Ulster Grand Prix in the Superstock and Supersport races as his stock soared, making the 27-year-old a key target for some of the biggest teams in the international road racing paddock.
Northern Ireland’s Tyco BMW team was understood to be keen on securing Johnston’s services for 2016 but the ‘General’ opted to remain at East Coast Racing for another season at least as he attempted to win a TT for team owner and close friend Phil Reed.
Unfortunately for Johnston, the same highs were unattainable this year after the livewire Maguiresbridge man was left on the back foot following a big crash at the Spring Cup meeting at Scarborough in April.
He struggled with injury at the North West and TT and endured more bad luck at the Ulster Grand Prix in August, when he crashed in practice on the 250cc Honda he was due to ride at the Classic TT meeting, sustaining a broken collarbone.
The likable Ulsterman was also left heartbroken following the death of his father Everitt, who sadly passed away last month following a battle with cancer.
Johnston has decided to race on next year with the blessing of his family and it is understood he already has two offers on the table for 2017.
Speaking earlier this season, he told the News Letter a move to one of the major road racing teams was not necessarily the golden ticket to greater glory.
“There’s a lot of its, buts and maybes when it comes to thinking about whether or not you’d be better off in one of these bigger teams and if I was on a Tyco bike maybe I would do nothing with it, or maybe I’d win a TT – it’s just hard to know.
“It’s not just a matter of making a decision and away you go, there is so much else that comes into it. Anyone watching from the outside thinks it’s just pretty much a case of a rider doing this or that and then everything is sorted, but there is more to it than that.”
Johnston has already proven he belongs at the top level and with the right team behind him, more international silverware will surely follow.
A statement issued by East Coast Racing said the team planned to take a break from racing ‘due to business and personal commitments’.
“After seven years of involvement in motorcycle sponsorship, with memorable results at all the major international road races, East Coast Racing will take a break from competition.
“Due to business and personal commitments, Phil Reed of East Coast Construction will cease to run a privateer racing team with immediate effect.
“Phil has supported a number of riders over the past seven years with success, both with Gary Johnson at the TT in 2011 and more recently with Lee Johnston at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix under the East Coast Racing banner.
“Phil will continue to support Lee on a personal level next season wherever he may decide his future lies.”
“On behalf of everyone at East Coast Construction and East Coast Racing, we would like to thank our staff and associated sponsors for their dedication and support over recent years. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.”
Meanwhile, Banbridge rider Shaun Anderson made a successful debut at Frohburg in Germany, where he won both Supertwins races.
Anderson, who achieved a personal best finish of 14th in the feature PokerStars Senior TT this year, was competing at the final round of the International Road Racing Championship, where Michael Rutter sealed a treble in the Superbike class on the Penz13.com BMW.