Michael Dunlop shrugged off the drama surrounding his split from Paul Bird’s MCE Ducati team as he came out with all guns blazing in opening practice at the North West 200.
The Ballymoney man secured a late deal with Stuart and Steve Hicken’s Hawk Racing squad to ride a Suzuki GSXR-1000RR in the Superbike class and Dunlop wasted no time in serving a timely reminder of his prowess around the 8.9-mile Triangle course.
Three years have passed since Irish motorcycling’s flagship event was last held, but it felt as if the NW200 had never been away as the sport’s top names made the most of the mostly fine but blustery conditions — interspersed with some heavy showers — to post some impressive lap speeds. While it was Australian rider Josh Brookes who sealed provisional pole on the MCE Ducati, Dunlop was only 0.173s behind in second spot on the Superbike time sheets on his newly-acquired Suzuki.
Ironically, double British Superbike champion Brookes is only competing at the North West this week after the opportunity arose following Dunlop’s decision to quit Bird’s team.
His performance after an eight-year absence from the north coast meeting was also highly impressive, with 39-year-old Brookes’ 120.045mph lap the fastest speed overall.
Dunlop, though, gave his many home supporters plenty of reason for optimism ahead of tomorrow evening’s first races, with the 33-year-old setting the pace in the Superstock class on his MD Racing Honda.
He also finished second quickest in the Supersport session behind fellow Northern Ireland rider and British Supersport high-flier Lee Johnston.
“The North West is only up the road for me and it’s always been a home race for us,” said an upbeat Dunlop, who posted his fastest lap at 119.967mph on the Hawk Suzuki.
“I’m glad to be back and hopefully we can put on a show.
“My own 600 is going well and the ’stocker is new this year, but it’s going to be interesting because it’s the first international road race for three years and there’s going to be a lot of hype for Thursday’s races.
“I’d like to think we can have a go, there’s no reason why we can’t.
“With the Superbike, it’s definitely going to be a challenge, but we were always going to be on the back foot. Steve (Hicken, Hawk Racing team principal) has said he will give me 110 per cent and all I can do is come out rocking and give Steve my 100 per cent as well.”
Behind pacesetters Brookes and Dunlop, Davey Todd had a strong day as the Milenco by Padgett’s Honda rider slotted into third on the Superbike leader-board ahead of 24-time winner Alastair Seeley (IFS Yamaha), with the top four covered by only nine-tenths-of-a-second.
Pre-race favourite and Honda Racing UK rider Glenn Irwin was fifth quickest. The Carrickfergus man has won the past four Superbike races at the North West and is riding the new Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade at the event for the first time.
Hampshire’s James Hillier, the man of the meeting in 2019, was sixth on the Rich Energy OMG Yamaha.
Fermanagh’s Johnston lived up to expectations by topping the times in the Supersport class on his Ashcourt Racing Yamaha.
Johnston was 1.2s faster than Dunlop, recording his best lap at 114.132mph.
Bradford’s Dean Harrison was third quickest on the DAO Racing Kawasaki ahead of Todd, Seeley — a 12-time winner in the class – and Tobermore’s Adam McLean on the McAdoo Kawasaki.
Johnston was a Supersport winner in 2019 and he hopes that he can carry his excellent form in the British Supersport championship into tomorrow’s race.
“The British championship has been going well and it’s nice to surprise a few people with the pace we have, but there are 10 other people here who could win,” said Johnston, who is based in Huddersfield.
“If we can carry that over to here then we should be in with a chance.”