Local stars will clash with the cream of international road racers at the Relentless North West 200 today, with Carrickfergus rider Alastair Seeley tipped as a potential multiple winner.
Ulster competitors like Seeley, Ryan Farquhar and Michael and William Dunlop will pit their skills against top flight opponents Michael Rutter, Martin Jessopp, Gary Johnson, Gary Mason and Guy Martin from Britain.
Antipodeans Bruce Anstey and Cameron Donald plus a number of riders from USA, France, Italy, Switzerland and Hungary will also be added to the mix.
Seeley tops the lists on his Relentless Suzuki by TAS in Supersport and Superstock with the Street Sweep Kawasaki of Michael Dunlop breathing down his neck in the latter and Gary Johnson sandwiched between the pair in Supersport.
Superbike, the ‘Blue Riband’ class that is a must win at some stage for the top riders, sees 12-time North West 200 winner Rutter somewhat surprisingly on pole
position as the twin-cylinder Rapid Solicitors Bathams Ducati, despite bristling with modern racing technology, supposedly does not have the overall grunt of the four-cylinder machines of his main opponents.
Even more incredible then that second on the grid is Rutter’s team mate Martin Jessopp from Yeovil, his previous road racing form never putting him this high up the grid.
Seeley had a dire final qualifying — “niggling problems forcing me in and out of the pits and getting no flying laps in” — and starts from seventh on the grid, but cannot be discounted, being a double winner at the meeting last year.
Michael Dunlop starts from the final front row slot in third position, hoping to emulate his late father Robert who won five North West 200 Superbike races in his career, the last in 1994.
Certainly on the Paul Bird Motorsport Street Sweep Kawasaki, Dunlop has the speed to match the best, but stability seems to have been an issue throughout practice although it would not be surprising to see Dunlop and Seeley contest superbike race wins today.
Both also have huge chances of success in the highly competitive Supersport and Superstock races where William Dunlop, Anstey, Martin, Donald, Johnson and Farquhar should all be in contention for podium places.
In 1995 Phillip McCallen won an unprecedented five races in one day at the North West 200 and some pundits have tipped Seeley to equal that feat today and undoubtedly the diminutive 31-year-old has the talent and machinery to reach that target, but it would require luck to be on his side as well.
Certainly the tens of thousands of fans lining the spectacular 8.9 mile circuit are in for a day of high-speed thrills, weather permitting, and it could be one of those years when the local riders put one over on the visitors with Seeley leading the charge.