There is so much to look forward to at this year’s Ulster Grand Prix as the world’s top out-and-out road racers prepare to dazzle once more around the historic Dundrod course.
The fast and flowing 7.4-mile layout is a riders’ favourite and always seems to showcase the sport at its breathtakingly most spectacular – when the weather plays ball.
Too often the dreaded wet stuff has literally put a dampener on the Grand Prix and last year’s highlight turned into a damp squib as the weather ruined what should have been a terrific day’s racing.
It’s no fault of the organisers, of course, who are entirely at the mercy of the elements.
Never was that so starkly illustrated than at this year’s Isle of Man TT, when day after day of rain, low cloud and mist resulted in a decimated practice week, which had an adverse knock-on effect when it came to the race schedule.
Even with a full two weeks set aside to run practice and racing, this year’s TT was effectively condensed into one week and has gone down as one of the worst-hit festivals weather-wise in recent memory.
The North West 200 in May was also overshadowed by inclement weather, which caused long delays and the loss of a Superbike race at the end of the programme.
Yet in contrast to the organisational team at the TT, Event Director Mervyn Whyte and his Ulster Grand Prix counterpart, Noel Johnston, face the unenviable task of trying to squeeze in a full racing programme in a single day.
They don’t have the option, or a realistically viable one at least, of simply calling the schedule off and saying ‘we’ll try again tomorrow’.
Tough decisions have to be made under great stress, with the need to weigh up rider safety and appeasing those fans who have shelled out good money and travelled from far and wide to watch the racing: not to mention the abundance of other factors that create additional headaches when it comes to running a race around closed public roads. Who would be a Clerk of the Course?
Hopefully, it will be a case of third time lucky this year and the last of the ‘big three’ major road races of the season takes place in dry conditions, even if the latest forecast is somewhat hit and miss.
When it comes to the crunch, will anyone be able to stop Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison continuing their dominance?
Hickman exudes confidence in his ability and was able to lap comfortably at 134mph at the TT, even with next to little practice laps on his Smiths Racing BMW.
Harrison, too, has raised his own level and he remains the outright lap record holder at Dundrod, where he set the current benchmark of 134.614mph in 2017.
Michael Dunlop passed a medical on Monday evening and has been cleared to race, but the Ballymoney man’s last victory at the Ulster Grand Prix was back in 2013.
He missed the event last year and is far from peak fitness after breaking his pelvis in a crash last month at the Southern 100, so it is asking a lot of Dunlop to carry the fight to the Englishmen.
Lee Johnston will certainly fancy his chances after winning Supersport races at the North West 200 and TT.
The Fermanagh man has a fine record at Dundrod and he will expect to be in the mix in the Superbike and Superstock races, never mind the Supersport class.
Magherafelt’s Paul Jordan will also be out to make his mark and it would be no surprise to see him involved at the sharp end on his 600 Yamaha in particular.
You can never rule out Conor Cummins at the UGP and the Manxman won’t be far away when it comes to the main Superbike events on his Padgett’s Honda in particular, although the Ramsey man was a surprise Supersport winner in the damp last August.
However, one rider who could really upset the applecart is Davey Todd. A Supersport winner at the North West 200 this year, Todd finished sixth in the Senior TT on the Penz13.com BMW and lapped at over 131mph in just his second year at the event.
The 23-year-old has the potential to go all the way and Todd is the most exciting prospect in road racing at the moment.
Finally, a special parade lap on Saturday marking Joey Dunlop’s famous 1999 Superbike win on his Honda RC45 over V&M Yamaha’s David Jefferies will stir up many fond memories.
I can scarcely believe it was 20 years ago but it’s a day that I remember vividly as I watched the race unfold from my position as a flag marshal at the foot of the Deer’s Leap.
I can still hear the scream of Joey’s RC45 at full chat as he thundered towards the crest of the hill before flashing past on the drop towards Cochranstown.
It was a special day but also one that was tinged with sadness following the death of Coleraine man Owen McNally, who died due to injuries sustained when he crashed in the 250cc race.
I got to know Owen as a young reporter with the Coleraine Times newspaper and he was always happy to grant an interview.
He was a hugely popular figure and a fantastic rider who is sadly missed.