Dunlop has a target on his back at Cookstown
The long wait is over for fans - the 2018 Irish road race season kicks off today and tomorrow with the KDM Hire Cookstown 100 taking place around the 2.1-mile Orritor Circuit.
Heading a star-studded entry is current outright lap record holder Michael Dunlop, who is making his debut on the Tyco BMW. The nine-time winner at Cookstown will also have his first outing on the MD Racing Supersport Honda in tonight's invitation Supersport race.
The list of riders lining up in opposition to Dunlop should guarantee top-quality action tonight and tomorrow.
The 2017 Man of the Meeting and triple Irish road race champion Derek McGee, feature race winner for the last two years Derek Sheils, 14-time winner at Orritor William Dunlop, Adam McLean, Paul Jordan, Michael Sweeney and cross-channel duo James Cowton and Dan Cooper are all well capable of battling for podiums.
With the depth of competition, Michael Dunlop's absolute lap record of one minute, 22.641 seconds - set five years ago - could well be in jeopardy should weather permit, not least from his elder brother William, who won five Supersport races on the trot between 2015 and 2017, before his run was broken last year in the second 600cc race by McLean.
Castleblayney 25-year-old Joseph Loughlin - double Support Irish champion last year - tackles the national classes this season and his progress will be watched with interest.
Another worth keeping a close eye on will be current British Supermoto Championship leader Davey Todd, who is John Burrows' latest recruit to his Cookstown BE Team and has been a revelation since making his Irish debut at Skerries last July. He is a newcomer at Cookstown.
Other notable debutants include two Manx Grand Prix winners in Darren Cooper and Dan Sayle - a multi-TT sidecar winning passenger, now Moto3 Honda mounted - and Daniel Meetam (third in the New Zealand Superbike Championship) riding for local sponsor Billy McKinstry.
An international contingent that should certainly add spice to the meeting will be headed by the return of popular Czech Republic duo Michal Dokoupil and Veronika Hankocyova with competitors from France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand and Canada set to taste Irish road racing action.
However, missing from the action is Guy Martin, a past winner at Cookstown, who has withdrawn from the meeting as he encountered gearbox difficulties with his BSA Rocket 3 and was unable to source spares in time.
Such is the nature of the Orritor Circuit that 'A' and 'B' races will see a packed programme of some 19 races.
Roads close today at 12pm ahead of 16 timed practice sessions and three races, Open 'B', Senior Support 'B' and the invitation Supersport race - with the Dunlops going head-to-head with McGee, Sheils, McLean, Jordan and Cowton, all looking for their first road success of 2018.
Roads close tomorrow at 10am with the first race for Open Championship 'A' machines and that much-awaited debut of Michael Dunlop on the Tyco BMW the first race of the day.
Of course, race meetings of this nature cost a lot of money, close to £100,000 for this event, so organisers ask all spectators/fans to purchase a race programme as a contribution towards those costs.
• It has been confirmed by the North Armagh Club that William Dunlop is to compete at the Tandragee 100 on Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 on Tim Martin's Temple Golf Club & Caffery International Yamahas in the two Superbike and Supersport races.
Dunlop is a nine-time winner around the Co Armagh course, a real challenge to competitors and an ideal opportunity to set up machines for the up and coming international events.