As has so often been the case in recent years at the Vauxhall International North West 200, Alastair Seeley will take centre stage on Thursday evening when the Carrickfergus rider steps up for his first crack at breaking Robert Dunlop’s all-time victory record.
Seeley can set a new benchmark with a sweet 16th triumph tonight around the 8.9-mile Triangle course and lines up as a hot favourite on the Gearlink Kawasaki ZX-6R in the opening Actavo Supersport race (6 laps).
The 36-year-old was significantly faster than nearest challenger Ian Hutchinson (Came BPT Yamaha) during Tuesday’s first practice session, lapping at 116.412mph to go 3.8 seconds clear.
Final qualifying takes places on the north coast and with more fine weather expected, it would come as no surprise if Seeley’s 2015 lap record of 117.077mph was surpassed.
The ‘Wee Wizard’ came within two seconds of his year-old mark first time out and was rapidly into his stride on the Kawasaki, which he previously rode to victory at the North West in 2013 for Michael and Norma de Bidaph’s British championship team.
Seeley won both Supersport races last May and the middleweight division has been his most prolific class at the international meeting, with the double British champion claiming seven wins in total since his first 600cc success in 2010 on the Relentless Suzuki.
Thursday’s opening race, due to take place shortly after roads close at 5.15pm, offers Seeley an excellent opportunity to bag the record and ease the weight of expectation on his shoulders ahead of Saturday’s main race bill.
“The bike was actually missing a bit as well [on Tuesday],” said Seeley, of his table-topping lap in first qualifying.
“I’ve obviously rode for Gearlink before and I was happy with the team and the bike, which was a good package when I rode it.
“That’s part of the reason why, when I was doing a deal for a Supersport ride this year, I was happy to go with Michael and Norma.
“The Akira motors from France are the best engines that can be supplied so I know how strong they are plus we have our settings and data from the last time I rode the bike,” he added.
“I know the bike well from riding it in the British championship in 2013 and everything I’ve asked for, the team have given me.
“Obviously, getting the record would be very special but with the calibre of riders now it’s getting harder every year to win.”
Ben Wilson was also due to contest the Supersport races for the Gearlink team but was unfortunately ruled out of the event after breaking his leg during a crash in Superstock practice on Tuesday, when he came off the EHA Aprilia at the Mill Road roundabout.
Seeley’s chief opponents include Bingley Bullet Hutchinson, who has remained within Keith Flint’s Team Traction Control outfit for 2016 after claiming a sublime double at the Isle of Man TT on the Yamaha R6 last year.
Hutchy tested the Came BPT-backed Yamaha for the first time at Oulton Park at the beginning of May and made a solid start in NW200 practice on Tuesday, lapping at 114.806mph.
The 36-year-old was happy overall with the performance of the R6 but is seeking an improvement in braking in final qualifying.
“We just need to make the bike stop better now and we wont be far away,” Hutchinson said.
“It’s great to have the good weather because it allows you to get some laps in and not be worrying about slipping off.”
Somerset’s Martin Jessopp was something of a surprise package on Tuesday as he posted the third fastest time on the Riders Motorcycles Triumph, but Fermanagh’s Lee Johnston could give Seeley the most to worry about.
The ‘General’ is some way off peak fitness after hurting his groin in a crash at the Scarborough Spring Cup meeting last month and aggravated the injury further on Tuesday, when he banged his leg at Juniper chicane.
However, Johnston remains a major threat nonetheless and pushed Seeley all the way in last year’s second Supersport race in a thrilling three-way battle that involved newcomer Glenn Irwin, who misses the event this year due to his commitments in the British Superbike Championship with Paul Bird’s Be Wiser Ducati team.
Michael and William Dunlop are former winners in the class and can’t be dismissed lightly either on their respective Yamaha machines, while Bruce Anstey (Valvoline Padgetts Honda) is another leading contender in what promises to be an explosive opening race.
In the Vauxhall Supertwins race (4 laps), Martin Jessopp will be hopeful of challenging for his maiden NW200 win after topping Tuesday’s times, but Lightweight TT winner Ivan Lintin looks a big danger on the Devitt RC Express Kawasaki along with last year’s winners Ryan Farquhar and Jeremy McWilliams on the SGS KMR Kawasaki machines, plus James Hillier (Quattro Plant Muc-Off Kawasaki).
Magherafelt’s Paul Jordan (B&W Kawasaki) will be gunning for the top six while Peter Hickman is a dark horse as he makes his Supertwin race debut on the Cookstown B.E. Kawasaki alongside exciting team-mate and event newcomer Malachi Mitchell-Thomas.
Roads closed 9.15am-3pm.
Roads closed 5.15pm-9pm
Race 1 – Actavo Supersport Race (6 laps)
Race 2 – Vauxhall Supertwin Race (4 laps)
Race 3 – Spidi Superstock Race (6 laps)