Michael Dunlop could hardly have made a bigger impression on his first roads outing on the Honda TT Legends Fireblade as the Ulster rider set the fastest Superbike lap during opening practice at the Vauxhall International North West 200 yesterday (Tuesday).
Dunlop, who is seeking his maiden four-stroke success on the 8.9-mile coastal circuit, left it until his final lap to really up the ante, increasing his average speed to 118.21mph to comfortably end the session on top by a massive 7.6s from New Zealand’s Bruce Anstey.
It was a brilliant effort by the Ballymoney man, who has been in stunning form in the premier class so far this season, taking four wins from four on his MD Racing Fireblade at Cookstown and Tandragee.
Anstey lapped at 115mph on the new-look HM Plant by Padgett’s Motorcycles Honda to finish behind the 24-year-old, with Tyco Suzuki’s Guy Martin third with a best lap of 114.68mph.
Conditions were far from favourable for the 30-minute Superbike outing with parts of the circuit wet while other sections were dry.
Dunlop, whose sole victory at the North West was achieved in an emotional 250cc race that he won in 2008 following his dad Robert’s tragic death following a crash during practice, was clearly surprised to be so far ahead of Anstey.
“When you are that far in front there is something not right. I couldn’t see where I was going because Martin Jessopp blew up in front of me and covered my screen in oil,” he said.
“I had to keep my head above the bubble for most of the time. But I’m happy enough, we are on the front two rows in every class if it rains on Thursday.”
Anstey was satisfied with his afternoon’s work on the black and orange Honda machines. “The bikes feel good but I was out on my own most of the time so I didn’t get much to compare with,” he said.
“But I don’t think that we are too far off, it’s been a good start.”
Bradford’s Dean Harrison underlined his status as one of road racing’s most exciting prospects as he finished fourth fastest on the RC Express/MSS Kawasaki ZX-10R ahead of Australia’s Josh Brookes on the Tyco Suzuki, who was equally impressive on his road racing debut in fifth.
Harrison lapped at 114.15mph with British Superbike Championship frontrunner Brookes posting a highly respectable lap at 113.87mph.
William Dunlop took sixth position on the Milwaukee Yamaha YZF-R1, which the 27-year-old was riding on the roads for the first time after a solitary test at Cadwell Park last month.
Michael Rutter – 13 times a winner at the North West – was seventh fastest with his Honda Legends team-mate John McGuinness in ninth.
Morecambe man McGuinness was quickest in the Supersport class on the HM Plant/Padgett’s Honda machine, lapping at 112mph in the wet and dry conditions with nine-times winner Anstey second (111.49mph) and Martin third on the Tyco Suzuki (111.24mph).
McGuinness, a podium finisher in the 600cc category 12 months ago, said: “Yeah I was going alright. People sometimes forget that I can ride a 600!
“It is a good bike but the conditions were a bit iffy with wet patches all over the place.”
William Dunlop, a winner in the first Supersport race last year, was fourth on the Milwaukee/CD Racing Yamaha R6 at 111.16mph ahead of Scottish rider Stuart Easton on the Mar-Train Racing Yamaha, who is back at the North West two years after a horrendous accident that nearly claimed his life.
Carrick’s Alastair Seeley, still regarded as the main favourite for honours at the North West, had a nightmare opening to the 2013 event as he picked up a holed radiator on his Gearlink Kawasaki 600 in the Supersport session before his MSS Kawasaki lost power on the first lap of Superbike practice.
The 33-year-old later made amends in the Superstock outing – shortened to 15 minutes after an oil spill led to a delay – to round off the day on a brighter note as he set the best lap in the dry at 118.05mph to lead Michael Dunlop (117.24mph) and McGuinness, who was snapping at Dunlop’s heels with a speed of 117.19mph on the HM Plant/Padgett’s Honda Fireblade.
Anstey (116.75mph) narrowly kept Gary Johnson (Kawasaki) at bay to seal fourth place with Rutter sixth on the black and gold Bathams Honda Fireblade.
Former Grand Prix star Jeremy McWilliams made his intentions clear on Ryan Farquhar’s Vauxhall KMR Kawasaki ER6 as he had the upper hand in the Supertwin class yesterday over team-mate Rutter.
McWilliams, who finished as the runner-up a year ago in the inaugural Supertwin race at the North West behind Farquhar, lapped at 104.78mph with Rutter close behind at 104.72mph.
Kilrea’s William Davison was an excellent third at 104.26mph followed by KMR Kawasaki regular Jamie Hamilton (104.25mph) and Michael Dunlop on the McAdoo Kawasaki at 103.08mph.
Final qualifying takes place tomorrow, with roads closed from 9.30pm-2.30pm.
The first three races, for Supersport, Superstock and Supertwin machines, will then be held tomorrow evening, with roads closing again from 5.15pm and re-opening no later than 9pm.