As we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, the International North West 200 again proved to be a challenging meeting for all concerned with Saturday’s feature race day being hit with all manner of issues and delays, all of which were outside of the control of the event organisers.
The sunshine from earlier in the week had disappeared and instead everyone was greeted with rain and cold temperatures whilst oil spills delayed the racing further. If that wasn’t enough, a helicopter made an unscheduled landing near the Magherabuoy section of the course and subsequently cut three power cables. That led to a power surge with a telegraph pole near Mill Road, a good three miles away, beginning to smoke!
It all meant it was 3pm before the racing finally got underway and the final Superbike race was cancelled but we were able to witness some superb action despite the inclement conditions and with seven different winners from the seven races, and Kawasaki’s first Superbike win in 42 years, it was certainly a meeting to remember – for the majority of people at least!
Man of the Meeting
After racking up a total of eight podiums at the North West 200, including no less than five second place finishes, James Hillier could have been forgiven for thinking he was always going to be the bridesmaid at the event. Thankfully, that all changed and a combination of an inspired tyre choice and some faultless, high-class riding in the Superstock race saw him finally get to claim his maiden win.
Riding for the Quattro Plant Wicked Coatings team run by Pete Extance, for whom he’s ridden for since 2009, the 34-year old had claimed third and fourth place finishes in the dry races on Thursday evening and then led the opening Superbike race on Saturday for three of the four laps. Using his Superstock-spec Kawasaki ZX-10RR appeared to give him the edge over the Superbike of team-mate Glenn Irwin but the latter had other ideas to deny him a win.
However, opting for a wet front and an intermediate rear for the Superstock race, Hillier disappeared into the distance and after opening up an unheard of nine second lead after the first lap, he’d extended it to twenty seconds by half race distance. He eased off, almost too much, in the closing stages but held on for a deserved and popular victory and with first, second, third and fourth place from his four races he was the clear Man of the Meeting.
Without doubt, Hillier is one of the most amiable and laid back riders in the paddock but with 12 TT podiums already to his name, including a win in 2014, he must now go into this year’s meeting as one of the favourites as he strives to get back onto the top step.
Irwin does it again
As mentioned, Hillier was denied a Superbike victory by local favourite Irwin and after three successive Superbike victories for Be Wiser Ducati, he made it four in a row with his new Kawasaki team. Almost unbelievably, it was the first time the Japanese giant had won a NW200 Superbike race since Mick Grant all the way back in 1977!
Irwin came into the event with his confidence almost non-existent after two lacklustre rounds in the British Superbike Championship. A change in crew chief appeared to have lifted his spirits but he was again at a low ebb in first qualifying on the North Coast despite posting top six times in both the Superbike and Superstock classes.
However, he found a new gear on Thursday and grabbed pole position with a lap of 123.362mph, which was 0.362s inside the outright lap record and although the rain on Saturday almost led to him pulling out, he decided to continue. It proved to be a wise decision as he clung on to the back of his team-mate before making a decisive move at the Juniper Chicane on the final lap.
Amazingly, he also went through the speed trap – in the wet – at 199.2mph and was a different man at the end of the weekend. He clearly hasn’t forgotten how to ride a motorbike but now needs to transfer his roads form onto the short circuits and get his BSB campaign up and running.
Throughout 2018, Davey Todd was the quickest and best newcomer at all of the meetings he contested and a lot of expectation has surrounded the Northumbrian coming into the new season. Rides with the vastly experienced Padgetts team for the Supersport races and the respected German Penz13.com outfit for the Superbike and Superstock classes gave him a great platform and he delivered in spades at the North West.
With a background in Supermoto and Moto Cross, the wet weather on Saturday played into the hands of the 23-year old and he took a brilliant win in the Supersport race for his first International road race victory. Just getting the better of Derek McGee and team-mate Conor Cummins, he never put a foot wrong in the six-lap race despite coming under constant pressure and he followed this up with an equally fine ride in the Superstock race where he took third on the BMW S1000RR.
Despite his tender years, Todd looks to have all the qualities to become a star on the roads but whilst he’s now expected to go well at the TT, he’s well aware he needs to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. His aim is simply to keep progressing so with all the experience around him, he’s well placed to do just that but everyone will be keen to see what results he can rack up around the Mountain Course next month.
Johnston and Hickman on form
With the rain on Saturday seeing many of the leading protagonists opt out of the races, perhaps the best indicator of form ahead of the TT came on Thursday when Peter Hickman and Lee Johnston were in fine form on their way to respective Superstock and Supersport victories.
Riding for Smiths Racing, Hickman gave BMW their first International race victory, of any sorts, with their new S1000RR with a dominant performance in the Superstock race whilst Johnston was equally impressive in the Supersport encounter when he fought off the close attentions of Alastair Seeley, Dean Harrison and Hillier for his first win at the meeting since 2015.
Harrison was strong in all classes in the dry, lapping inside the outright lap record on his Superbike whilst third and fourth for Michael Dunlop showed he was immediately on form despite a lay-off of almost a year. All four will be expecting to challenge for TT wins.
Age no barrier
At 55 years of age, Jeremy McWilliams was one of the oldest riders on the grid at this year’s North West 200 but the former 250cc Grand Prix winner’s hunger for success remains as strong as ever and this could be seen when he took victory in Saturday’s Supertwin race despite having suffered two crashes on Thursday, one in qualifying and one in the evening’s race.
Battered and bruised, McWilliams almost withdrew from Saturday’s meeting such was the low ebb he found himself at, feeling like he’d let everyone down including his family and KMR Kawasaki team. Despite the conditions, McWilliams went head to head with Christian Elkin for the entire four-laps but he wasn’t to be denied and duly swept to his third victory at the event.
Having only made his debut at the meeting in 2012, which was his first ever road race after a long career in Grands Prix racing, his record now reads three wins and nine podiums in total so don’t bet against him being back for more in 2020.
Meeting to forget
Whilst many riders enjoyed a profitable time in Northern Ireland, others fared less well with Honda Racing’s Ian Hutchinson and David Johnson amongst them. A sixth place finish for Hutchinson in the first Supersport race was all they had to show for their efforts with Australian Johnson suffering a spill during qualifying. He was back for Saturday but the team opted out of the races and now head to the island with a busy practice week ahead of them.
John McGuinness and Norton struggled with an 11th place finish in the Superbike race their only finish as problems in practice limited him to just a half dozen laps. The new Superlight machine for the Lightweight class proved even more temperamental and was eventually parked up which must put its participation at the TT, where Hickman and Todd are also due to ride one of them, in doubt.
Meanwhile, record race winner Alastair Seeley failed to win a race for the first time since 2008 when a crash and an engine blow up kept him out of the Supersport results, the former whilst leading on the last lap, and the poor weather leaving him in fifth in the solitary Superbike race that was held.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Racing, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.