This week sees the first International road race of 2019 take place with the traditional curtain raiser of the North West 200 seeing the world’s best road racers do battle in Northern Ireland at speeds of more than 200mph.
The 8.9-mile circuit links the North Coast towns of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush and celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and with three races taking place on Thursday evening and five more on Saturday, we can expect some fierce encounters and certainly some high speed slipstreaming throughout the meeting.
Seeley and Irwin the favourites?
The last two years have been billed as a battle – and grudge match – between Alastair Seeley and Glenn Irwin and with the duo again only contesting this particular road race in 2019, they perhaps have more to gain by coming out on top than some of the other riders in the field who have their eyes on next month’s Isle of Man TT races.
Both riders have switched teams this year with record 24-time winner Seeley taking Irwin’s place at PBM Be Wiser Ducati. Track time on the new Panigale V4R has been limited for Seeley as the team have focused their early season efforts on Josh Brookes and Scott Redding in the British Superbike Championship but Brookes’ recent double at Oulton Park show how they’ve now got to grips with the new machine.
Seeley’s diminutive stature should suit the Ducati and having seen Irwin sweep to victory in the last three Superbike races, he’ll be hoping to emulate the feats of his fellow countryman.
Racing is never as predictable as that though and although Irwin’s chances, in theory, are slim given his awful start to his BSB campaign on the Quattro Plant JG Speedfit Kawasaki, the roads of the NW200 may be the ideal platform for him to kick start his season. In some ways, the pressure is off him and he always sees his results at the North West as a bonus rather than a given.
He’s confident he turned a corner with the set-up of the Kawasaki ZX-10RR in the second race at Oulton and with more time on the bike this week, as well as in the Superstock and Lightweight classes, he could be in an extremely strong position come race day.
Hickman and Harrison on form
Many of the leading protagonists have been in regular action already this year with last year’s opening Superstock race winner Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison both enjoying excellent outings at Oulton Park, the former having made huge strides forward with the new BMW S1000RR he only rode for the first time in mid-April.
Having qualified in third place, his race results didn’t reflect just how well he performed and both he and the Smiths Racing team are finding their feet at the right time with the NW200 and TT, where he holds the outright lap record, on the immediate horizon.
Results at the North West haven’t always gone his way and the same applies to Harrison who is yet to win on the Triangle circuit. His form at the TT and Ulster GP is always exemplary but he was in contention for all of the race wins this time last year and with his short circuit riding benefitting him all the time, he has a great chance of breaking his duck this time around.
For some riders, the North West 200 will mark their first competitive outing of 2019 with respective 18 and 23-time Isle of Man TT winners Michael Dunlop and John McGuinness amongst them. Dunlop has been testing both at home and abroad on the Tyco BMW S1000RR Superbike he’ll use this year and although there were rumours of a broken wrist, it seems that all is well and he’ll be in action as scheduled.
McGuinness, meanwhile, makes his return to the venue for the first time since the heavy crash two years ago left him with serious injuries. His participation at both this year’s event and TT had been in doubt due to the ineligibility of the 1200cc Norton engine the British manufacturer had planned to use but reverting back to the Aprilia V4 engine used in 2018 means he’ll now be on the start line.
It will be the first sight we have of him in race action on the eye-catching Norton but having tested on all manner of circuits around the UK, including Croft, Cadwell Park and Anglesey, he’ll be confident of giving a good account himself in the Superbike and Lightweight races, the latter seeing him debut the 650cc Superlight machine.
Grand Prix technology
One rider who’ll definitely be looking to make the most of his time in Northern Ireland is Michael Rutter as he gives the Bathams Racing Honda RC213V-S its first race outing in the UK. Second at last year’s Macau Grand Prix showed the potential of the Grand Prix-spec bike so he’s keen to take it out on the UK roads to work on set-up and see exactly what it can do.
With 14 wins and 32 podiums at the venue already, his record is second to none so it’s perhaps the road race that gives him his best chance of success especially as he’ll also be in action on one of Ryan Farquhar’s KMR Kawasaki’s in the two Lightweight races.
As we’ve become accustomed to on the roads in recent times, there are at least ten potential race winners in each class and two more can be found at Honda Racing in the form of Ian Hutchinson and David Johnson. The duo have been clocking up the miles in testing, with Hutchinson doing more than anyone over the winter months and now back to full fitness, getting back to winning ways whether in Ireland or at the TT is firmly on his mind.
Regular podium finishers Conor Cummins and James Hillier have both gained valuable mileage at the early season British Superbike Championship races and line up in Ireland on their respective Milenco by Padgetts Motorcycles Honda and Wicked Coatings Quattro Plant Kawasaki machinery where there’ll both be eager to impress.
Hillier took two superb second place finishes behind Seeley in last year’s Supersport races and is determined to do the same in the big bike classes whilst Gary Johnson on the RAF Regular & Reserve machines is another rider who cannot be ruled out.
One rider definitely worth keeping an eye on is Lee Johnston and with race wins at the meeting already to his name in the Superstock and Lightweight races, he’ll be confident of scoring podiums, at least, in all of his races. His return to the British Supersport Championship has started in fine style with three top five finishes and is keen to take that form to the roads on all of the striking blue Ashcourt Racing machines.
Derek McGee has had a brilliant start to his 2019 campaign with numerous wins at the early season Irish National road races and although Adam McLean has been ruled out through injury the likes of Derek Sheils, Michael Sweeney and Paul Jordan, the latter on the Dafabet Devitt Racing Kawasaki’s, will all be looking to make their mark.
However, one local rider who has to start as a favourite for a race win is former 250cc Grand Prix race winner Jeremy McWilliams. He’ll also be mounted on a KMR Kawasaki for the two Lightweight races and despite having recently turned 55, the fact of the matter is that he’s as fast as ever and, crucially, determined as ever to stand on the top step.
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.