Last year crowd favourite and local hero Michael Dunlop played the ‘maverick’, riding whichever make of machine he and his plethora of individual sponsors felt was best suited to each class.
This year everything has changed for the 24-year-old Ballymoney whizzkid as he looks to cement his reputation as a world class road racer, having joined the Honda Racing TT Legends squad alongside North West and TT icons John McGuinness and Michael Rutter.
This time last year Michael would admit that he turned up at the North West under-prepared after putting together his MD Racing Team at the last minute and arriving at the Triangle with few testing miles under his belt.
Not this year, as the slimmed down Dunlop has already competed in the legendary Bol d’Or 24-hour endurance race for the Legends team alongside McGuinness and Simon Andrews after Rutter had broken his leg in pre-season testing.
Dunlop won at the Cookstown 100 before taking a runaway double at last weekend’s Tandragee 100 where, despite the lack of major opposition, he came within half a second of breaking his own lap record.
The opposition at the Vauxhall North West 200 will be a much sterner test for Michael, who is clearly being groomed by Honda as heir apparent to TT lap record holder McGuinness.
Dunlop has, of course, only ever won once at the North West in that unforgettable, emotional 250cc race in 2008 less than 48 hours after his father Robert had lost his life in a practice accident at Mathers Cross.
The superbike class is the one that every top rider wants to win and Michael is no exception, having broken his ‘big class’ duck at international level last year during the Ulster Grand Prix and he believes he has as good as chance as anybody of winning the feature class at the North West come Saturday.
He said: “I’m a factory rider now and it used to be the whole go about the locals fearing the English BSB riders when they came to race here. Now it is the other way round.
“They know I have the speed and have quite a few miles on the TT Legends Honda superbike already, so we should not be too far from the sharp end.”
In his 11th season of racing Michael has followed his father Robert and uncle Joey as a winner at the North West (once), TT (three times) and Ulster Grand Prix (five times) with a burning desire to add a Superbike or Senior TT victory to his CV.
The fastest Irish rider around the three current major international road race circuits, the sight of a fired-up, confident Dunlop on board a factory-backed Honda Fireblade is an exhilarating prospect.
It should captivate the huge crowds that will line the nine-mile Triangle as the exuberant Dunlop tackles the more mature masters like McGuinness, Rutter, Andrews, Bruce Anstey, Cameron Donald, Alastair Seeley, circuit newcomer and current British Superbike second place man Josh Brookes and more.
Of course, Dunlop the older, William, also factory-supported by Milwaukee Yamaha, will also be a threat.
It is not only the superbike class that will see heart-stopping close racing, with Dunlop capable of winning in any class come Thursday and Saturday with fireworks set to explode around the fast nine-mile stretch of public roads.
Joey Dunlop’s last Honda superbike race victory at the North West 200 was in 1987, Robert’s last Honda superbike success at the event was in 1994. If there were to be another Dunlop—Honda victory in the superbike class 19 years on it would be the real icing on the cake.