North West 200: Johnston sets Super pace to leave rivals trailing
Lee Johnston set the fastest Superbike lap time on the Honda Racing Fireblade during the opening day of practice at the 2018 Vauxhall International North West 200 and then got back down to work.
The diminutive Fermanagh racer was almost 2.7 seconds faster than the rest of the field but still wasn’t altogether happy and he and his team will be burning the midnight oil in preparation for tomorrow’s race day.
“Everything felt good with the bike and so do I,” the 29-year-old smiled after his first outing at a race meeting on the CBR1000RR.
“We still have to make changes, lots of changes, and we have very little data from last year so there is plenty of work to do with the bike. But I feel good in myself on the Honda.”
A shower of rain before the start of the Superbike session, plus a red flag when Dutch rider Johan Fredriks crashed at University, played havoc with the Superbike qualifying session.
Ballymoney’s Michael Dunlop finished second quickest on the Tyco BMW with James Cowton third on the McAdoo Kawasaki.
Last year’s feature Superbike race winner, Glenn Irwin, set the fourth fastest time on the PBM Ducati. But the Carrickfergus man, who has all of his North West eggs in just one basket in the Superbike class, was far from happy after managing just three laps on the Ducati Panigale before the red flag incident stopped play.
James Hillier (Quattro Plant Kawasaki) and Conor Cummins (Padgett’s Honda) completed the top six.
Many of the Superbike riders were just beginning their fastest laps when the session was stopped, catching out 21 times winner Alastair Seeley, Dan Kneen, Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison and Michael Rutter. Hickman’s issues were typical.
“There was a damp start to the Superbike session so we took our time getting going and by the time we were up to speed the red flag came out,” BSB star Hickman said.
Harrison faced similar problems.
“We did a lap and then stopped to adjust the chain,” the Bradford rider explained.
“When we went out again the session was stopped.”
Seeley also struggled in the Supersport session before bouncing back to top the timesheets on his Tyco BMW in the Superstock category.
Fourteen-time North West winner Michael Rutter was second fastest on the Bathams BMW in the damp session with Kneen (Tyco BMW) and Michael Dunlop (MD Racing BMW) third and fourth to make it a good day at the office for Tyco boss Philip Neill.
“It was a difficult day for the organisers who did the best they could in the circumstances,” Neill said.
“We are happy with the team’s performances today.”
Johnston’s Honda team-mate Ian Hutchinson is having his first roads outing at the North West since breaking his left leg in a crash during last year’s Senior TT.
“I am glad to get today out of the way and I felt comfortable on the bike,” the 38-year-old said after outings on the Superbike and Superstock machines.
He eventually finished 11th fastest during Superbike qualifying.
The Dunlop brothers, Michael (MD Racing Honda) and William (Caffrey Yamaha), dominated Supersport qualifying, finishing first and second.
James Hillier (Quattro Plant Kawasaki) was third ahead of Johnston on the Padgett’s Honda and last year’s 600cc winner Martin Jessopp (Riders Motorcycles Triumph).
Tobermore’s Adam McLean, who finished fourth in last year’s Saturday Supersport race, was sixth quickest on the McAdoo Kawasaki.
And 54-year-old Jeremy McWilliams, a double North West 200 winner, is making his return after sitting out last year’s event.
Machine problems saw the former MotoGP star fail to qualify his Ryan Farquhar prepared KMR Kawasaki in the Supertwins session.
Derek McGee topped the timesheets on a similar KMR machine before another of Farquhar’s riders, Darren James, crashed out to bring the session to a premature close.
Jessopp (Riders Motorcycles Kawasaki) was second quickest and McLean third on the McAdoo Kawasaki.
Final qualifying resumes tomorrow with roads closing at 9.15am and the action beginning at 10 am. Three races in the Supersport, Superstock and Supertwins classes will be run tomorrow evening.
Fredriks was treated at the scene for ankle injuries by the MCUI medical team before being airlifted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast by the NI Air Ambulance.
James sustained hand injuries in his crash and was taken by ambulance to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine.