Trying to find the balance between making road racing as safe as it possibly can be, while not taking away from the white knuckle excitement of the sport, is no easy task by any means.
The thrill-seeking exuberance of the riders is just one of the factors that Mervyn Whyte and his team at the North West 200 have to take on board but of paramount importance is the welfare of the competitors.
It was fitting then last night that just two weeks before Whyte drops the flag on the action for the May 15, Relentless International North West 200 showpiece in association with Black Horse, he majored on radical improvements to the circuit at the final press call before the off.
A total of £35,000 has been spent on a new safety-conscious chicane at the ill-fated Mather’s Cross section of the 8.9-mile Triangle circuit — and additional improvements at the equally fast Station corner.
But in a sport where opinions fly as quickly as the action, top riders Guy Martin and Ryan Farquhar (pictured) had contrasting views on the new piece of tarmac on the North Coast
Lincolnshire rider Martin is particularly unhappy at the changes.
“I am gutted with what's happened at Mather's Cross,” blasted Martin.
“We've lost one of the best corners in road racing and the chicane will probably be more trouble than it's worth, so I'm not sure if it's going to solve or improve anything.
“Road racing's a dangerous sport, and things like the flat-out, high-speed corners are what give it its buzz and its appeal.”
Farquhar, not known for his love of chicanes either, gave a more sobering review, supporting the need for safety at Northern Ireland’s blue riband event.
“The corner had to be slowed down and whilst I’m not a fan of chicanes, it was the only real option for the organisers,” admitted the Dungannon man. “The re-modelled corner would have been fine for the top 10 to 15 experienced guys, but for those with less experience it would have been really intimidating.
”Hopefully, it won’t cause too may problems.”
The stark facts are, though, that consecutive fatalities at Mather’s in 2008 and 2009, with the tragic and untimely deaths of Robert Dunlop and Mark Young, meant that action was required to improve this high-speed section of the circuit.
Funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, through Sport Northern Ireland and 2&4 Wheel Motorsport Group, the all-new ‘slowing down device’ along with radical improvements at Station Corner, another high-speed area of the circuit, will greatly improve safety at Ireland’s leading outdoor sporting event.
The new chicane is designed to reduce speeds at Mather’s Cross and the final lay-out included numerous consultations with experienced competitors.
It is located on the right-hand side as competitors approach Mather’s Cross and the area to the left has also been cleared, thus freeing the chicane of any |obstructions.
At Station Corner, the safety improvements will include, ‘piping’ a large drain and filling an 80-metre long void, with removable fencing also being installed along the full length of the corner.
Much of these improvements are thanks to local landowner Felix Mullan who has worked in conjunction with Mervyn and his team, not only improving the NW200 as a global sporting spectacle, but making it a safe one to boot.
NW200 Race Director Whyte expanded upon the reasons for the measures.
“These upgrades are part of the North West’s ongoing policy on safety improvement and we continually work hard, year on year, to make the course as safe as possible for competitors and spectators,” he explained.
“I believe these improvements are significant, we have had excellent feedback from both riders and team managers.
“We would like to thank and commend 2&4 Wheel Motorsport Group and its Chair Alan Drysdale
for their help and assistance and of course Sport Northern Ireland and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure who have provided the necessary funding for these safety initiatives.”
Eamonn McCartan, Chief Executive of Sport Northern Ireland, added: “Sport Northern ireland view the safety of participants and spectators at the NW 200 as of the utmost importance.
“While the event obviously centres on the racing, it is vital that measures are taken to improve the safety of all concerned.”