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North West 200: Irwin may be man to break Wee Wizard’s spell

By Phillip McCallen

This year’s North West 200 could be the story of The Sorcerer and his Apprentice, or, to be more precise, the Wee Wizard and his heir apparent.

Looking at the stellar line-up of riders on the grid and how they fared with their new teams and machines in Tuesday’s first practice, you could hedge your bets and say any one of 10 riders could stand on the podium after tonight’s three races and again on Saturday Race Day when we have a further five races.

The Dunlops, Ian Hutchinson, John McGuinness, Bruce Anstey, Peter Hickman, Michael Rutter and Guy Martin... all the usual suspects will be battling for the top step.

But when it comes down to the fine margins by which the close races are decided, I feel two riders, in particular, have that extra edge, namely veteran North West campaigner and record wins holder Alastair Seeley and his young, emerging rival Glenn Irwin.

I see the two big Superbike races being a straight fight between these two virtual neighbours from the town of Carrickfergus.

Two years ago, in this column at the North West, I flagged up Irwin as one to watch. His raw talent was apparent then as he competed in his first North West in the Supertwin and Supersport races with Gearlink Kawasaki with no great expectation. Yet he still ran Seeley close, claiming a podium finish in the Supersport.

He didn’t compete last year due to his British Superbike commitments but this year he is here to win.

He goes out with the benefit of two more years experience and the best of factory machinery with Paul Bird’s official British Superbike Ducati team, and that’s a big plus in his favour.

Glenn came into the North West on the back of a second-place finish in the British Superbikes at Oulton Park last weekend which was perfect preparation as Oulton is like a road race track with all its ups and downs and twists and turns.

Glenn will definitely stand on the North West podium this year — the question is where?

He has racing in his DNA from his dad, Alan, himself a multiple champion and former Grand Prix rider, while his two brothers are also following in his tyre tracks.

We will be charting this lad’s rise for many years to come but does he have enough in the tank to break the Wee Wizard’s spell?

Alastair is the now undisputed King of the North West after surpassing the late, great Robert Dunlop last year, moving onto 17 wins, two ahead of Robert’s long-standing record.

At 37, he has the experience and the Tyco BMW bike to show all his rivals the way home. Unlike a lot of riders on unfamiliar machines, Alastair has the advantage of having raced these bikes here before and he has won a race at least once in each of the last 10 years here.

That kind of know-how counts for a lot in the duel he will face with young Irwin and the others.

Alastair’s Tyco team-mate, the old warhorse Ian Hutchinson, had a brilliantly successful Ulster Grand Prix last August on the same bike and will also be in the mix.

But I see the Superbikes as, essentially, a Seeley-Irwin contest. Don’t be surprised if it ends up honours even.

I will deal with Michael Dunlop’s challenge on his new Suzuki GSXR1000 in more depth tomorrow, suffice to say he can never be ruled out of any race, anywhere, but especially here.

A lot of interest has also been centred on the John McGuinness-Guy Martin combination on the new Honda Fireblade SP2s.

The big technological change in these bikes is that they now employ what is known as ‘fly by wire’ electronics, also used on aeroplanes, whereby the throttle cable has been replaced by an electronic signal — and that needs to be absolutely bulletproof.

It’s a big ask for the riders to get to grips with the technology from a standing start. They’ll have been testing beforehand but Tuesday was their first time on the road and they will need time to master the change.

McGuinness, of course, has North West wins to his name but Martin has yet to taste success here and I don’t think that’s about to change.

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