All to play for as top stars get set to take a step into the unknown
Vauxhall International North West 200 practice and qualifying begins this morning with a number of top riders and teams heading into the unknown having switched manufacturer, tyres and/or suspension.
Yes, they have been putting in the miles in testing over the off-season and getting a race or two under their belts in preparation, but all that could go out the window depending on how the new machines and riders react when they hit the north coast.
Michael Dunlop is no stranger to switching Superbike machines and turning them into winners, with Yamaha the only exception to date.
The North West 200 outright lap record holder has switched from the all-conquering BMW of last season to the untried package of the all-new GSX-R1000R Suzuki, still within the Hawk Racing squad he has raced for in recent years.
Dunlop has a habit of making things work, and will have been buoyed by the treble success of his National Superstock 1000 rider Carl Phillips at Mondello Park over the weekend on the Superstock Suzuki.
However, the Superbike has not been enjoying much success to date at BSB level and Dunlop may well be a little apprehensive.
Derek Sheils also rides a new Suzuki under the Cookstown BE banner and is worth watching, while Honda have a brand new Fireblade for John McGuinness and there is the much-heralded return of Guy Martin.
So far at World Superbike level, the machine has been ineffective and struggling to make the top six, while in BSB, Dan Linfoot and Jason O’Halloran are riding the wheels off their machines to achieve top-six finishes.
The roads are a different ball game though with McGuinness and Martin no mugs at making a motorcycle go fast and could well surprise a lot of people.
The returning Glenn Irwin, who will have his first Superbike outings at the event on the PBM Be Wiser Ducati, is a real dark horse.
Shayne Byrne and Irwin finished 1-2 in their last BSB outing, but will the 2016 series-winning Ducati Panigale be able to withstand the high speeds required around the Triangle?
BMW have won the last three Superbike races at the North West, and with Ian Hutchinson and Alastair Seeley — the event’s all-time record holder with 17 wins — on the Tyco BMWs, Peter Hickman on the Smiths BMW and Dan Kneen riding the Penz13.com BMW, the action is sure to be fast and furious.
Kawasaki are not to be forgotten, with Dean Harrison — coming off the back of seven wins from seven starts at Scarborough — Ivan Lintin and Steve Mercer leading their challenge.
And with leading Superbike stars changing tyres and suspension, the North West 200 is looking good with the quest for glory getting under way this morning.
Roads close between 9.15am and 3pm today with the Newcomers’ half-hour session first up. That is followed by 45 minute sessions for Supersport, Superbike, Supertwin and Superstock machines, which should give a clue as to who has switched in the right direction for 2017.
This is your life: As the North West 200 starts in earnest today, record-breaking road racer Ryan Farquhar has shared the highs and lows of his sporting career as part of Ulster University’s Life Stories event series. Ryan spoke about his key successes and plans for the future following a serious accident this time last year. Ryan is pictured with the Head of Ulster University’s School of Creative Arts and Technologies, Professor Paul Moore (far right), his wife Karen and daughters, Keeley and Mya