'Wee Wizard' out to weave his magic and smash more records at NW200
This week's 2017 Vauxhall International North West 200 will have the best line-up of any road race in the world across all eight races.
Event Director Mervyn Whyte has pulled off a massive coup in securing the exciting services of Glenn Irwin and the PBM Motorsport Ducati for 2017. The BSB star will be tested to the limit by North West regulars Ian Hutchinson, John McGuinness, Michael Rutter, Bruce Anstey, Peter Hickman and outright lap record holder, Michael Dunlop.
Irwin's presence may have generated most of the excitement in the build-up to the north coast races this year but the man with the biggest target on his back will be another Carrickfergus native, Alastair Seeley.
The 37-year-old became the most successful rider ever around the 8.9-mile Triangle circuit 12 months ago when he claimed a Supersport race double on the Gearlink ZX600RR Kawasaki. Those victories moved him on to 17 wins, two ahead of the late, great Robert Dunlop's tally.
Seeley will be mounted on the same green and orange-liveried Kawasakis for the 600cc races this week and he has reunited with former employers Philip and Hector Neill to ride Tyco BMW S1000RRs in the Superbike and Superstock events.
Since taking his first win at Portrush in 2008, the diminutive Ulsterman has been a thorn in the side of road racing's establishment.
His North West success has now elevated the 'Wee Wizard' to a very special place in the sport's Hall of Fame, but Seeley says he isn't finished yet.
"I would like to break Phillip McCallen's North West podium record," he said.
"Phillip has 28 and I'm on 27. If those podiums come with wins then that's even sweeter because then we are extending the win record and my target now is 20."
Bet McLean, the bookmakers who sponsor both Seeley and the North West 200, have been giving odds of 10-1 on a Seeley hat-trick this week. With the pedigree of machinery he has, there are very few pundits who would want to suggest that either of his new record targets are unattainable on Thursday and Saturday.
Seeley has made no secret of the fact that he has been a reluctant road racer. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Dundrod 150 in 2003, the North West is the only between the hedges event Seeley competes in.
"I always wanted to pursue circuit racing, to do the British Championship or maybe go World Championship racing," Seeley said.
"As a boy dreaming, you want to be a Grand Prix rider or World champion. I never really turned away from that. I didn't want to win TTs or road races, for me it was always about circuits."
Seeley admits his chosen route has probably reduced his popularity in this fiercely road race-orientated part of the world.
"I probably would have had more of a following in Ireland if I had been doing the Tandragees and the Cookstowns," he said.
"You are a local hero if you are more successful at the road racing but it's always been my choice to do just the North West. I'm a short circuit rider who just does the one."
It's a route, though, that has brought Seeley plenty of success.
He was the 2009 British Superstock champion and the 600cc title winner two years later, both on Relentless Suzukis. His stocker title was rewarded with a BSB ride with the squad in 2010 and his sixth-place finish in the series was his best result from three seasons of racing in the premier BSB class.
Seeley brought that pace to the roads when he made his North West debut in 2004. After his maiden win in 2008, the victories came regularly as he honed his racecraft by watching track specialists Rutter and Steve Plater.
"I studied and studied and watched onboard footage and learned from some of the masters," he said.
"Michael Rutter would probably have been 'Mr North West' back in those days, leading races by massive margins before Steve Plater came along.
"Plater made some great passes and in some new places so I learned from him too. It was like the pupil learning from the master but then when it gets to the point where the pupil starts teaching the master a lesson, it's not so nice!"
The North West has always attracted BSB racers who find it easier to learn than the long and complex TT circuit. With its chicanes and long straights, the Triangle circuit has come to be viewed as a kind of hybrid track that combines the characteristics of both a road and short circuit. Seeley feels this suits his style and his smaller stature.
"The nature of the track suits the short circuit men because it doesn't seem to take too long to learn," he explained.
"I probably don't have the leverage or size to be a top BSB rider but at the North West you have long straights where you get a bit of a breather!"
In 2015, Guy Martin criticised the NW200 chicanes, saying they had altered the pure road racing nature of the course. The most successful NW200 rider of all time has learned to use these features to his advantage.
"The chicanes are what they are," Seeley said.
"The thing that makes them tricky is that you are coming from such high speed down to a very slow speed. The skill is in where you find your braking markers. You have to lay down your markers well in practice and qualifying and not overstep the mark."
It is this skill more than any other that has been responsible for so many of his victories. He sucks his rivals into a false sense of security, braking early on the opening laps before making an inch-perfect last-lap plunge as the others hurtle down the slip road.
For all the talk of chicanes, though, Seeley says the rises and sweeps of the Coast Road section remain the vital part of the North West circuit. It is here that races are won or lost and the Carrick rider is not shy when it comes to showing his short circuit pedigree when going for victory. In 2012 he made a controversial late dive under William Dunlop at the stone wall lined Church Bend.
"If a pass presents itself then it has to be taken," Seeley said bluntly.
"We are not out there playing chess, we are out to race. I am not going to wait until the other rider indicates to go on ahead, I'm just going to go for the pass. It's natural for me."
Being in the lead as the pack leaves Portrush is what it is all about for the man who has proven his huge hunger for North West success.
"You are driving hard up to Black Hill from Church, staying clear of the houses and big kerbs and dodging the manholes," Seeley explained.
"Black Hill is where all the photographers go for the big wheelie shots but I try to keep the wheel down and power over the top for the run along to Juniper.
"Juniper is all about the brakes and this is where the race is won or lost on the last lap.
"I use practice and qualifying to work out my braking markers but I am not going to tell you how I choose my line because that is the vital part and I don't want all my rivals to know! If you can get it all inch perfect, with your nose in front, then you should be home and dry and on your way to the chequered flag."