The sense of anticipation is palpable on the North coast ahead of Tuesday’s opening practice sessions for the fonaCAB International North West 200 in association with Nicholl Oils.
All-time record holder Alastair Seeley only had his first full test on the PBM Be Wiser Ducati V4-R at Kirkistown in Co. Down on Sunday, but the 24-time winner will have the chance to really unleash the full potential of the Italian racer on the long, fast straights around the 8.9-mile ‘Triangle’ course on Tuesday afternoon.
There is huge expectations surrounding the potential of the Ducati in the hands of the experienced Seeley, who will be giving the machine its debut on the public roads.
In World Superbikes, Alvaro Bautista won the first 11 races in sensational style to streak into the lead of the championship from Northern Ireland’s Jonathan Rea.
The Spaniard’s winning run was only halted by reigning champion Rea at Imola in Italy at the weekend, where he was competing in a race for the very first time.
Aussie Josh Brookes was also victorious on the V4-R for Paul Bird’s team at the second round of the British Superbike Championship at Oulton Park in Cheshire, winning both races from Tommy Bridewell, who was also competing on a V4 for the Oxford Racing outfit.
The Ducati is certainly not lacking in top-end speed, something that is essential at the North West 200.
However, Carrickfergus man Seeley’s lack of track time on the bike may be the biggest obstacle he will have to overcome this week as he adapts to the machine.
A favourable weather forecast should offer the two-time British champion the chance to maximise his time on the Ducati during qualifying.
Seeley has dropped the Superstock class from his schedule this year, allowing him the freedom to concentrate solely on his Superbike preparations.
There is no question the V4-R will be a formidable package, particularly with Seeley at the controls.
If his team can find a solid set-up early, then it would be no surprise to see Seeley at the summit of the qualifying time sheets heading into Saturday’s two blue riband races on the North coast.
He has made no secret of his desire to land another coveted triumph in the blue riband NW200 Superbike race, with the seven-lap showdown serving as the finale to Saturday’s main race bill.
His fourth and most recent Superbike win was achieved on damp roads in the opener at the North West in 2017, but Seeley went agonisingly close to a double, losing out on the final lap to fellow Carrick man Glenn Irwin on the run along the critical Coast Road section of the course.
Irwin has reassessed his prospects on the Quattro Plant JG Speedfit Kawasaki after a tumultuous start to the British Superbike Championship and admits he doesn’t quite know what to expect on Saturday.
The 29-year-old has won the last three Superbike races at the North West on the outgoing PBM Ducati V-Twin and remains one of the major contenders, but his struggles so far this season have tipped the scales in Seeley’s favour.
Yet this is by no means a two-horse race. A sensational entry for the 90th anniversary meeting includes plenty of former winners on some very special machinery, not least Michael Rutter, who will ride the Bathams/Aspire-Ho Honda RC213V-S.
The Grand Prix-derived machine has won before on the roads in the hands of Bruce Anstey at the Ulster Grand Prix and Rutter means business as he chases a 15th victory.
He has the experience and the pedigree to become seriously involved on Saturday and the 47-year-old could well spring an upset.
Michael Dunlop remains the outright lap record holder at the North West and warrants plenty of respect, although the Ballymoney man will be racing competitively for the first time since last year’s Isle of Man TT. Dunlop hasn’t had much track time on his new Tyco BMW machine and there is a slight question mark over whether or not he is at peak fitness, with the 30-year-old undergoing a medical on Monday – which he passed successfully – following a crash at Kirkistown.
The world’s fastest road racer, Peter Hickman, seemed to be getting to grips with the new Smiths BMW at Oulton Park and shouldn’t be far away, while Dean Harrison is in terrific form and is high on the list on his Silicone Engineering Kawasaki.
I also fancy the prospects of Lee Johnston this year, who has come into the season fully fit for a change and is in a good place after forming his own team, hand-picking his BMW and Yamaha machinery.
Honda Racing’s Ian Hutchinson should also be a different prospect this year after battling injury in 2018, but the smart money has got to be on Seeley.