Lee Johnston is aiming to get off to a roaring start at the North West 200 in this evening’s opening Supersport showdown.
The Fermanagh man, now based in Huddersfield, won the corresponding race in dramatic circumstances in 2019 after a last-lap with battle fellow Northern Ireland rider Alastair Seeley, who crashed out at Juniper Hill chicane moments after taking the lead from Johnston.
Surprisingly, it was Johnston’s first success in the Supersport class, with his previous wins around the 8.9-mile ‘Triangle’ course coming courtesy of a double in the Supertwin races in 2014 and a Superstock victory the following year.
The 33-year-old has been riding high in the British Supersport Championship and is currently second in the standings behind Jack Kennedy after the first two rounds, with Johnston claiming three runner-up finishes and a third place from the first four races of the season at Silverstone and Oulton Park.
On Tuesday, he underlined his current hot form by recording the fastest lap in the first Supersport qualifying session on his Ashcourt Racing Yamaha R6 at 114.132mph.
Johnston, though, is taking nothing for granted and is the first to point out that ‘ten other riders’ could potentially come out on top tonight.
He has also been dealing with a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which is an inflammatory disease that affects the joins and bones, and admits he doesn’t know how the physical strain of competing in so many races at the North West will affect him.
“I feel not bad at the minute and a big thanks to the doctors because we got the medication sorted out, and we do quite a lot of blood tests to keep on top of it,” Johnston said.
“This will be the biggest test because all I’ve ever done is two or three days riding at a British championship round – I’ve never done a week’s riding before since I’ve had this.
“It’s to do with fluid on the spine, which leaves you not free to move and that fatigues you as well. We’ve got plenty of medication with us to keep topped up so we’ll see how we go,” he added.
“We’ve had some decent results in the British championship but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy – there’s ten other riders out there who could win.”
His challengers include Michael Dunlop, who was second quickest on Tuesday on his MD Racing Yamaha, plus 12-time Supersport race winner Seeley (IFS Yamaha), Davey Todd (Milenco by Padgett’s Honda), Dean Harrison (DAO Racing Kawasaki), James Hillier (OMG Yamaha), Conor Cummins (Milenco by Padgett’s Honda) and Ian Hutchinson (BPE/Russell Racing Yamaha).
Jeremy McWilliams is an interesting addition to the class on the Burrows Engineering/RK Racing Yamaha, while Adam McLean (McAdoo Kawasaki) and Paul Jordan (PreZ Yamaha) will be hoping to ruffle the feathers of the expected frontrunners.
In the opening Supertwin race, Nottingham’s Richard Cooper is bidding to deliver a coveted victory for Northern Ireland’s J McC Roofing team on a Kawasaki built by Ryan Farquhar.
Cooper is a newcomer to the Supertwin category but immediately impressed on Tuesday, claiming provisional pole.
“I’m only riding a Supertwin because someone with Ryan’s knowledge has built it,” he said.
“We’ve got a target to achieve, so let’s see what we can do for the J McC team and KMR.”
Cooper’s chief opposition is likely to come from three-time winner McWilliams on the IFS/Bayview Paton, Michael Dunlop (McAdoo Kawasaki), Michael Rutter (ILR/Coverdale Paton), Adam McLean (McAdoo Kawasaki), Jamie Coward (KTS Kawasaki), Christian Elkin (Dynocentre NI Kawasaki) and Irish national road racing regulars Michael Sweeney (KBS Kawasaki) and Jordan (PreZ Kawasaki).
Johnston and Peter Hickman are among those riders on the new Aprilia RS660 machines, which did not appear to be a match for their Kawasaki or Paton rivals in opening practice.