Few riders have captured the imagination of the Irish road racing family in such a short space of time like popular young English prospect Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who tragically lost his life at the North West 200 on Saturday.
The 20-year-old from Chorley in Lancashire only made his debut between the hedges at the Mid Antrim 150 National meeting six weeks ago, but by the time the final race was over, everyone in attendance knew they had witnessed the birth of a star.
‘MMT’, who only a day before had donned the bright orange bib denoting his status as a newcomer, shocked seasoned road racers including Ryan Farquhar and Derek Sheils as he made a sensational impact, winning first time out in the Supersport class on the Friday evening and proving it was no flash in the pan on Saturday, when he completed his treble with another Supersport triumph plus victory in the Open Superbike event.
Cookstown B.E. Racing team owner John Burrows told me he had taken a gamble by signing Mitchell-Thomas for 2016, but it was clearly one that looked set to pay off.
“With Malachi, we’re taking a gamble to an extent,” said Burrows.
“We don’t really know what he’s capable of, although we know he has lot of ability and he’ll be fast: how fast, we don’t know but at the National road races I don’t see why he couldn’t start off running in the top eight or top six.
“I do believe as the season goes on he’ll get stronger and stronger because you don’t lap the TT Mountain Course at 122mph at the Manx Grand Prix and not have good potential as a rider.”
Even Burrows couldn’t have believed his hunch would be proven so spectacularly right.
Mitchell-Thomas was in his element, granted an opportunity to achieve his racing dreams with a full complement of expertly-prepared machinery in Burrows’ slickly-run privateer team and boy was he making it count.
On the crest of a wave after his Mid Antrim treble, he pinpointed his background as a top-level Supermoto rider in the British and European championships as an invaluable asset when it came to tackling the undulating challenges of Irish road racing.
“I didn’t really know what to expect with it being my first ever Irish road race,” he told me. “I did my homework and I was confident that I knew which way the track went, but I didn’t know how quick the other boys would be.
“I haven’t had a lot of time on a ‘thousand’ and I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the big bike, but I loved riding it at the Mid Antrim and the Superstock Suzuki was pretty good.
“I think I gelled with the bike pretty well and having a background in Supermoto has helped me as well, especially for the jumps,” he added.
“It’s been brilliant though and I’ve loving it. I’m really looking forward to Tandragee now.”
Regarded as the toughest of the Irish National courses, Tandragee presented a stern test for Mitchell-Thomas, but it was one he passed with flying colours to reconfirm the belief that he was indeed the real deal.
A third place in the Supersport race behind William Dunlop and Dan Kneen was followed by a barnstorming ride in the Supertwins race, when he only just lost out to Ryan Farquhar after running wide at the final corner on the last lap.
Malachi added two thirds in the Open and Grand Final Superbike races as his rise through the ranks continued unabated, so much so that he was now heading to Cookstown as one of the pre-race favourites.
“Everyone talks about the TT but these Irish road races are important too,” he said.
“I want to put as much effort into them as I can because they are important for the sponsors and the team.”
Yet again, he did himself proud at the team’s home race in Co Tyrone, finishing on the podium in both Superbike races and making it a one-two for Burrows behind Derek Sheils in the feature event.
A crash in the Supersport race failed to take the wind out of his sails and Malachi finally claimed the spoils on the little 650cc Kawasaki, after twice having to settle for second best behind Farquhar at the Mid Antrim and Tandragee.
The North West was still to come, but Mitchell-Thomas was relishing the chance to make his full TT debut and planned to arrive on the island early this month to continue learning the 37.73-mile course.
“I’m making my TT debut because I obviously can’t go back to the Manx Grand Prix after winning last year, so I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“We’ll get over there a week early, top up my knowledge of the track and see how we go. It’ll be my first time around there on the big bike and the 650, so I’ll try and get plenty of practice in and hopefully do some good laps.”
He will never get there, of course, after Saturday’s North West 200 ended with the heart-breaking news of Malachi’s fatal crash, which happened in the same place where Ryan Farquhar came off in Thursday’s Supertwins race.
His maiden international podium was on the cards when tragedy struck, plunging the event into darkness as news filtered through that Malachi had succumbed to his injuries at the scene.
Earlier, he had produced the ride of his short life to finish fourth in the Supersport race after starting from the sixth row of the grid in 17th place.
The highs and lows of road racing have never been so graphically illustrated as they were on Saturday.
A young talent, in the prime of his life, cruelly snuffed out in the blink of an eye.
Ironically, Malachi’s star is now shining brighter than ever.