Veteran Michael Rutter sets the pace to fire warning to his North West 200 rivals
Michael Rutter was the man who shone brightest on a sun-kissed start to this year's Vauxhall International North West 200.
The veteran campaigner, who has tasted victory no fewer than 13 times around the Triangle circuit, posted early warning of his intent to try and add to that tally.
In brilliant sunshine, the 42-year-old from Shropshire was the man on form, topping the Superbike time sheets and notching up second fastest in both the Superstock and Supersport classes.
"I've a stable of new machines to dial in this year and I'm well pleased with how things have gone," said the Englishman afterwards.
"Of course there are a lot of fast riders snapping at my heels and this was only the first practice session, but to be out of the blocks so quickly is a real confidence boost ahead of Thursday's qualifying and races."
In the Superbikes, Rutter took his Bathams Ales BMW around the 8.97mile Triangle at a speed of 121.106mph, a second and a half faster than Alastair Seeley having his first outing on the Mar-Train Kawasaki.
Guy Martin was third fastest, with one and a quarter seconds to spare over new team-mate at Tyco Suzuki, William Dunlop.
The Ballymoney ace was fastest through the speed trap at 181mph, with Martin Jessopp and Josh Brookes, on only his second North West appearance, completing the top six -- although the Australian BSB competitor's session came to an early end, running out of fuel at Metropole Corner.
Michael Dunlop's much awaited factory BMW appearance resulted in eighth position with a lap at 118.316mph, six seconds off the pace of Rutter's BMW.
John McGuinness, still recovering from a nasty pre-season wrist injury, was 11th fastest two places ahead of new Honda Racing team-mate Conor Cummins with Stuart Easton (PBM Kawasaki) back in 17th and Dan Kneen, a winner at Cookstown and Tandragee, 18th.
Cummins was listed as a non-qualifier after having problems with his Jackson Honda while Keith Amor, making a return to racing this season, finished in 15th position having suffered clutch problems.
In the Supertwin session it was a SGS KMR Kawasaki 1-2-3 with returnees Amor and Ryan Farquhar at the head of affairs and young recruit Conor Behan was third fastest with half a second separating the three of them.
Amor unofficially broke the 2013 lap record set by James Hillier, who had an off yesterday — although uninjured — with his speed of 106.597mph.
Last year's race winner Jeremy McWilliams was five seconds off the leading pace, finishing down in seventh position.
Surprise of the day came from Austrian Horst Saiger, who topped the leaderboard in the Superstock session on his Kawasaki, a tenth of a second faster than the BMW of Rutter with a similar liveried BMW of his team-mate Stephen Thompson a further tenth back in third.
Less than two seconds covered the top six competitors in this class with Jessopp, Simon Andrews and 'General' Lee Johnston fourth, fifth and sixth.
The final practice session of the day was red flagged in the closing moments because of a crash at Primrose Corner involving French rider Franck Petricola.
The 31-year-old, a newcomer riding for the Ice Valley team, was the only competitor involved in the incident.
After being treated at the scene by the race doctors, he was transferred by helicopter to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.
Last night, doctors confirmed that Petricola was in a serious but stable condition in the hospital's intensive care unit but that his injuries were non-life threatening.
Practice continues this morning with roads closing at 9.15am and re-opening no later than 2.45pm before closing again between 5.15pm and 9pm for the first three races for Supersport, Supertwin and Superstock machines.