Belfast Telegraph

Why this year's North West was the best in 18 years, explains race chief Whyte

By Jim Gracey

This year's Vauxhall International North West 200, by comment consent the best in living memory, showcased the famous road race in all its glory.

Certainly, the sun-kissed meeting held against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlantic ocean was by far the best under Event Director Mervyn Whyte’s 18 years as the man in charge.

Mervyn himself went further by declaring it the most seamless and enjoyable in his 38 years involvement overall.

“We had barely a hitch over the two days of racing,” said Mervyn. “Everything just fell into place — the weather, the crowds, the organisation and, of course, the racing.

“We’ve had criticism in the past over stoppages and delays and circumstances beyond our control. So credit where is due to all who made this year’s event so memorable... our local Causeway Coast and Glens council whose contribution  was immense, our sponsors, management team, volunteers and especially the riders.

“The feedback from all quarters has been so positive and encouraging and I cannot recall ever seeing bigger crowds on the circuit and particularly the coast road in my 38 years. We look forward to welcoming them back for our 90trh anniversary next year”

Those shirt-sleeved crowds were clearly swelled by glorious sunshine on Thursday and again on Saturday and after several years of  changeable and sometimes downright weather, it was long overdue, creating perfect racing conditions around the 8.9-mile Triangle course.

For once, the weather gods smiled on Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting occasion, save for a strong wind on Saturday that caused competitors some issues along the technical Coast Road section in particular.

As the fans soaked up the rays, the action on track proved every bit as hot as the world’s best road racers and some of the biggest names from the British championship put on a memorable spectacle of heart-pumping mass start racing.

Carrickfergus duo Glenn Irwin and Alastair Seeley covered themselves in glory as they won five of the eight races staged.

British Superbike star Irwin announced himself on the North West stage in swashbuckling fashion just over a year ago, edging out Seeley to steal the limelight with a supreme victory in the feature Superbike race.

Prior to his fairy tale 2017 triumph, Irwin had only previously raced at the event once before, competing in the Supersport class for the Gearlink Kawasaki team in 2015.

Even then, it was apparent the 28-year-old was a special talent as he took the fight to all-time record holder Seeley, finishing as the runner-up in the second Supersport race after retiring from the opener when he was right in contention.

It was a magnificent debut, one that marked Irwin out as a future winner at the North West.

His move into British Superbikes the following year with Paul Bird’s Be Wiser Ducati team meant Irwin sat out the 2016 meeting, but he made amends in the best way possible 12 months later by toasting a famous win in the blue riband showpiece.

Saturday’s big Superbike races had been billed as a three-way showdown involving Irwin, Seeley and outright lap record holder Michael Dunlop, but in truth Irwin won at a canter. His utter dominance was such that he led all 14 laps on the booming Ducati V-twin.

Dunlop, to his credit, refused to throw in the towel in the headline race as he doggedly chased after the red blur of Irwin on his Tyco BMW.

The Ballymoney man has not had much time on the S1000RR, but his battling performance in his final race on the machine prior to the Isle of Man TT will stand him in good stead as the two-week island festival looms.

Unquestionably, Saturday belonged to Irwin, who made the premier class his own as he won the two most coveted trophies up for grabs.

The North West’s new favourite son, who grew up watching the event as his champion dad, Alan, raced there, loves everything about the place, but Irwin has big ambitions and perhaps his future career may dictate that he does not become an ever-present on the grid in Portrush.

Should that be the case, the Carrick man has certainly given us some magnificent moments to savour, but hopefully Irwin will return to defend his titles once more in 2019.

His friend and rival, Alastair Seeley, may not have been able to muster a challenge on the Tyco BMW in the Superbike races, but the 38-year-old delivers the goods time and time again.

He followed up his four wins last year with a hat-trick, winning both Supersport events and Saturday’s Superstock race.

Seeley also set a scorching new lap record on the EHA Racing Yamaha on his way to victory in the second Supersport race, claiming an unprecedented 12th success in the class.

With a staggering 24 victories under his belt, Seeley has nothing left to prove at the North West, yet he continues to chalk up the wins.

The two-time British champion has won a race on the North Coast every year since his breakthrough triumph in 2008, underlining his status as the master of the Triangle.

New kid on the block Irwin may be grabbing the lion’s share of the limelight, but Seeley has been a wonderful ambassador for the North West 200 over the years. Both riders are a credit to their sport.

Belfast Telegraph

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