In less than four weeks’ time, the first International road race of the season takes place with May’s North West 200 and in what promises to be one of the widest open seasons in years, everything is in place for it to be one of the best meetings ever.
First held in 1929, the North West – held on an 8.9-mile circuit linking the towns of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush on the north coast of Northern Ireland – had a phenomenal rise during the 90s and early 00’s, so much so that it was, arguably, the premier road race in the world as the Isle of Man TT experienced a downturn in fortunes.
With a run of fine weather, superb racing, high profile sponsors like Coca-Cola, and TV coverage never seen before, the North West was able to attract leading short circuit riders from the British Championship – in addition to the established road racers – that put its entry above that of the TT and whilst attendance figures of 150,000 may have been exaggerated somewhat, there can be no denying its popularity soared.
However, the last decade has seen the TT rise from the ashes and the North West take a significant dip as a spate of fatal accidents and poor weather year after year has left its existence teetering, financially, on the brink. The restrictions on road closing orders and increase in TV coverage has essentially had a negative effect as locals know they can see more on their computer screens or on the TV red button than they can trackside and with rain forecast, it’s obvious only the diehards will turn up. It’s safe to say the event is due a week of decent weather and, if it does, it will go some way to re-establishing itself on the calendar and see the fans return.
Of course, the cream of British road racers will again be in attendance and there are probably more questions than there are answers in terms of who’s going to do what when the lights turn green as never before has an off-season seen so much change.
Michael Dunlop has switched to Milwaukee Yamaha with the Tyco pairing of Guy Martin and William Dunlop foregoing Suzuki in favour of the German BMW machines, the ones which Michael swept all before him in 2014. Gary Johnson and Ian Hutchinson are now Kawasaki mounted in the Superbike class having switched from Honda and Yamaha respectively with young starlet Dean Harrison the official Yamaha rider on the roads. Keith Amor (BMW) and Ryan Farquhar (Kawasaki) are also back in the premier class.
Switching manufacturers always brings with it some form of uncertainty but some things do remain the same and John McGuinness, Conor Cummins and Bruce Anstey all stick with Honda with James Hillier doing likewise at Kawasaki. Meanwhile, multiple North West 200 winners Michael Rutter (13 wins) and Alastair Seeley (12 wins) are two more riders to be BMW-mounted, the latter re-joining the Tyco team for the first time since 2012.
And the good news for all the neutrals is that any one of the aforementioned 14 riders can win and that’s before you’ve thrown the likes of Lee Johnston, Peter Hickman and Dan Kneen into the mix!
The TT, in the opinion of the author, will always be the premier road race in the world and its strength in depth is now superior to that of the NW200 but there’s no denying the sight of six to eight riders slipstreaming at speeds in excess of 200mph on the high speed run from Portstewart to Coleraine is one like no other. It’s a scene that isn’t replicated at any other road race and with the final run along the coast road offering similar opportunities, the North West sees action more akin to that at Donington Park as opposed to a street circuit complete with telegraph poles, brick walls and so on.
Some riders have come in for criticism for seemingly having a short circuit mentality on a road course littered with lethal obstacles and last year saw event organiser Mervyn Whyte issue warnings to the entire field that such riding would not be tolerated. Whilst the numerous chicanes and slow hairpins offer prime overtaking points, even slow corners on the roads can cause serious injury and it’s an issue that everyone will be keeping a close eye on this time around.
After such dismal meetings in recent years, everyone will simply be hoping for a trouble free event this time around and the North West to get firmly back on track.
So, if you had to choose from all the Road Races, which would you say is your favourite?
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.