This week sees the International road racing season get underway with the North West 200 taking place from Tuesday to Saturday. And with a number of off-season changes, all classes are wide open so predicting a winner around the high-speed ‘Triangle’ circuit is no easy task.
Hutchy’s sitting pretty
With the way the early season has gone, the rider arguably in the best shape is Ian Hutchinson, who remains with Tyco BMW for a second successive term. With main rivals like Michael Dunlop and John McGuinness yet to show their form, the Yorkshire rider should be able to roll out for first practice and be on the pace straightaway. A switch to Dunlop, from Metzeler, shouldn’t be any form of barrier given his previous track record with the Anglo-Japanese rubber and his confidence should be significantly higher than others.
At the North West, he does have a rapid team-mate to contend with though in the shape of Alastair Seeley. It’s the only road race the diminutive Northern Irishman contests but with the record number of wins, 17, already tucked away he’ll undoubtedly be the favourite for honours across all three of the major classes – Superbike, Superstock and Supersport.
Dunlop yet to show hand
Michael Dunlop has been a major force for the past few seasons, particularly at the TT where he shattered the outright lap record last year, but whilst he’s remained with the Hawk Racing team, his potential on the Bennetts Suzuki is very much an unknown. The bike, and team, has struggled at the first three British Superbike rounds with former World Superbike Champion Sylvain Guintoli having a best finish of just seventh and nowhere near the front.
Dunlop competed at both Donington Park and Oulton Park and was more than competitive at the latter and, of course, the Ballymoney rider is known for grabbing a bike by the scruff of the neck and riding the wheels off it no matter what. From the proven BMW, the move to Suzuki was seen as a bit of a gamble but the speed of the bike doesn’t look in question and whilst he, like many others, uses the NW200 as preparation for the TT, he should be at the sharp end all week.
Testing times for Honda
2017 was scheduled to be the year Honda firmly put themselves back at the top of the pile with the combination of a new Fireblade and McGuinness and Guy Martin expected to complete the task in hand. But the build-up has been anything but smooth and both riders have stated time is working against them.
A quick look at the World Superbike race results thus far will show it’s been an uphill struggle for Stefan Bradl and Nicky Hayden whilst it’s been a similar story in Britain where Jason O’Halloran and Dan Linfoot have been up against it in more ways than one. Only O’Halloran’s performances at the recent Oulton Park meeting have offered hope.
A lack of parts arriving from Japan plus issues with the electronics has meant neither McGuinness nor Martin are yet to feel comfortable on the bike. And it’s paramount that they are when they’re doing 190mph+ at the likes of the North West and TT. It’s highly likely this week’s meeting in Northern Ireland will be more of a shakedown and high-speed test in preparation for the TT as opposed to challenging for the race wins.
A lot of excitement certainly surrounds the entry of Glenn Irwin and his Be Wiser Ducati team. The Carrickfergus rider has started the BSB in superb fashion with podiums at both Donington and Oulton and has clearly made the step up in 2017. His form at the North West is limited to just one appearance, and in the Supersport class at that, but 2015 saw him challenge for the wins in both 600cc races and only just miss out on a race win.
He performed similarly at the Ulster GP and again on his Macau GP debut in 2016 so if the Ducati withstands the rigours of the roads and being held flat out at 200mph for sustained periods, he could well upset the established guard. One thing’s for sure, he’s won’t be making up the numbers and the number one spot is what he’s after.
Best of the rest
The meeting could well play into the hands of those riders who have started the short circuit season the best and that particularly applies to BMW riders Peter Hickman (Smiths Racing) and Michael Rutter (Bathams/SMT Racing).
Hickman has regularly ran with the leading pack in BSB and currently sits just outside the Showdown positions whilst Rutter has again shone in Superstock, with three podiums already to his name. He’s a 13-times winner at the North West too so both he and Hickman, who’s gunning for his maiden win, can be expected to be on the podium, at least.
Other riders expected to be well to the fore include Lee Johnston, Martin Jessopp (the fastest rider ever through the speed trap at 208mph), Dean Harrison, James Hillier, Austrian ace Horst Saiger and the Dafabet Devitt Racing pairing of Ivan Lintin and Steve Mercer. And, of course, never, ever rule out Kiwi Bruce Anstey.
Are you looking forward to the North West 200?
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 Triumph, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Keith Amor. 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.