THE stage is set for a spectacular showdown on the north coast this week as the 2013 Vauxhall North West 200 kicks into gear.
With a line-up that includes six riders who have notched up 40 race wins between them on the 8.9 mile Triangle course, the event can boast the finest entry list of any road race in the world this year.
2012 treble winner Alastair Seeley will lead the big bike charge with the Number One plate on his MSS Kawasaki in the feature Superbike race which will have a new look this year.
Seeley will start as favourite to add to his tally of eight North West wins as he takes in the Superbike, Superstock and Supersport classes.
The Carrickfergus rider will be the main standard-bearer for Kawasaki, having ended his productive association with the TAS Suzuki outfit during the winter.
Also flying the flag for Northern Ireland will be Honda-mounted Michael Dunlop and his elder brother William, who is in the Yamaha camp this season.
Michael has shown promising early season form in the colours of the Honda Legends World Endurance team, and has also enjoyed Superbike doubles at the Cookstown 100 and Tandragee Irish national races.
The 24-year-old has yet to win a four-stroke race at the seaside circuit and will want to make up for a disappointing 2012 North West 200, which failed to yield a podium finish.
William is part of the Milwaukee Yamaha British Superbike outfit and will be a strong contender to add to last year’s victory in the Supersport 600 class.
Morecambe’s John McGuinness joins Dunlop in the Honda ranks, with his best chance of success likely to come in the showcase Superbike events.
Michael Rutter is joint second with Joey Dunlop on the all-time winners’ list with 13, but the Midlands maestro may struggle to add to that total as he continues to recover from an injury sustained in pre-season testing.
Scot Stuart Easton returns to the nine-mile roads course just two years after a major practice crash on the fast Cromore section of the course almost ended his racing days.
Easton and Seeley are set for a potentially explosive clash in the Supersport races, and the Mar-Train Yamaha star will also take in the Superbike jousts.
There are also some notable newcomers set for a debut ride around the north coast. British championship regular Karl Harris and Australian Josh Brookes are two which immediately jump out at you.
Brookes will look to make an immediate impact in the colours of his Moneymore-based Tyco TAS Suzuki team as he hopes to transfer his short circuit prowess onto the roads.
BBC Motorcycling analyst, Steve Parrish, believes Brookes is a dark horse.
“I believe he has the potential to win in his first year at the event,” said Parrish ahead of this week’s racing.
“Josh is the most high profile newcomer for some considerable time and by the sound of it he has been chomping at the bit to make his road racing debut.
“Now that he has finally persuaded his bosses at Tyco Suzuki to let him race on the roads, he has the opportunity and the quality to become a real force to be reckoned with.
“He needs some good weather and plenty of practice time on the bikes, but if he gets the hang of it, he will take some beating.
“Josh is ultra-competitive, he has a good bike under him, and is with a good team, but the other key component is getting to grips with riding the Coast Road section.
“Jeremy McWilliams proved what he could do as a first-timer last year and he’s a lot older than Josh.
“Karl Harris is another notable newcomer - and although I don’t think he can win, he’s a hard charger and I expect him to be there or thereabouts.
“But if you’re looking for favourites, then the first name you must come to is Alastair Seeley, as he has been the man to beat in recent years.
“Alastair should be in contention for every race, but a possible showdown with Stuart Easton in the Supersport class is a particularly mouthwatering prospect.
“The two of them have been battling it out at the front in the British championship and there is every chance that their rivalry will now be transferred to the North West 200.
“This year’s entry list is probably as good as we have ever had and reads like a real who’s who of road racing. I wouldn’t want to be putting any money on the outcomes.
“There are up to 12 potential winners or podium finishers in every race, but I believe Michael Dunlop could be Seeley’s biggest threat.
“He has lost a lot of weight, has plenty of miles under his belt with the Honda Legends World Endurance team, and has arguably the most reliable bike out there, which is likely to go the distance.”