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North West 200: Aces in pack all revved up, fans in for a treat as big guns set sights on glory

By Paul Lindsay

The wait is finally over. The 2015 Vauxhall International North West 200 will fire into life this morning with the opening practice sessions of this year's event and never before has there been such a comprehensive list of potential winners and podium finishers.

The build-up has been littered with press coverage of Tyco BMW's Alastair Seeley, who is just three wins shy of equalling Robert Dunlop's all-time record of 15 North West 200 victories, and the ever-present rivalry between William and Michael Dunlop - both winners last year - has generated even more allure and anticipation.

They are three men who may well make up more than one front row, but who else has the machinery and determination to steal in and create their own headlines on Thursday and Saturday when the race action gets under way?

Of this year's competitors, 43-year-old veteran Michael Rutter has the most victories with 13 top steps to his name.

The Midlands ace has been coming to the North West 200 since 1992 and just like Seeley - who is nipping at his heels with those 12 triumphs - Rutter will be BMW S1000RR mounted in the Superbike and Superstock races, albeit in Rico Penzkofer's Penz13.com squad.

Rutter's last Superbike victory came at the 2008 event, but the evergreen British Superbike star did win a Superstock race in 2012 and should never be discounted with his immense knowledge of the circuit.

Another task he has on his hands this week is mentoring his new team-mates in the Supersport class at the Triangle. Rutter will ride a Gearlink Kawasaki in the 600cc races alongside leading British Supersport contenders Ben Wilson and local lad Glenn Irwin.

Irwin has already made his intentions clear for this week, with podium action on his mind, despite it being his debut year at the North Coast. Having Rutter in the same stable, as well as tapping into his father Alan's vast NW200 knowledge, could well fast-track the Carrickfergus man to a middleweight podium.

Irwin will also ride Robbie Sylvester's VRS Kawasaki in the Supertwin races, which I believe will give him a more realistic chance of clinching silverware.

Local team Mar-Train Racing didn't let the grass grow under their feet when double TT winner Gary Johnson became available for the Supersport class, and alongside Dean Harrison, the Yamaha mounted duo could cause a major threat to the class favourites this week.

Johnson will ride a factory-backed GB Moto ZX10R in the Superbike class and Harrison the Yamaha UK supported Mar-Train Racing YZF-R1.

TT Legend John McGuinness is making his 25th appearance at the North West and, like Rutter, the smooth and classy factory Honda rider is well capable of out-gunning the big favourites with the experience he has gleaned during that quarter-century - now that he's back to full fitness.

Bruce Anstey will also be seeking to extend his remarkable record of having finished on the podium at every North West he has participated in. This year marks his 13th successive trip to the event and he rides the Valvoline by Padgetts' Fireblade.

Fermanagh's Lee Johnston was a double winner in the Supertwins class at last year's North West, but he won't line up on the little bikes this year, preferring to concentrate on mounting a strong challenge in the Superbike races on yet another BMW with the East Coast Racing/Burdens squad.

There are plenty of others to consider, such as five-in-a-week TT winner Ian Hutchinson, who is finally back to full fitness.

With the support of the PBM Kawasaki team, he will be quietly confident of adding to that Supersport win from 2010.

Despite the long list of potential winners, the undoubted fans' favourite is Guy Martin, and what a fitting victory it would be for the Lincolnshire man if he could win at what is quite possibly his last ever North West 200 on the Tyco BMW machinery.

Today's schedule: Roads close from 9.15am-2.45pm. Practice approx. 9.45am-2.15pm

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