The North West 200 in Northern Ireland finally returned on Tuesday after a three year lay-off due to covid. For those watching at the circuit and online around the world, it proved to be worth the wait.
The Superbikes had the fans on their feet as the fight for provisional pole went right down to the wire.
Our own Josh Brookes stuck his PBM MCE Ducati on top, lapping at 193 km/h to pip local hero Michael Dunlop by 0.173 of a second on the final lap of the session.
This is where it gets interesting. Dunlop had been due to race that Ducati up until a few weeks ago when the Ballymoney racer sensationally announced that the deal was off. That left the 19 times TT winner with no superbike in the lead up to the major road races.
However, as everything was in place for the Ducati team to travel to Northern Ireland for the event, Brookes (who races for PBM in BSB) stepped in to take over the ride. The 2x British champion hadn’t competed at the ‘North West’ since 2014 before this morning, but had bullishly declared during the build-up that he had ‘high expectations’.
On Monday, just 24 hours before the start of qualifying, Dunlop made yet another sensational announcement. The Ballymoney racer broke the news that he had secured the services of HAWK Suzuki and would in fact be competing in the superbike classes after all.
“It’s been one of those situations where I have to go back to someone I can trust“, he said. Dunlop has previously raced for Hawk with great success.
The whole situation added spice to the occasion and watching the pair fight it out at the top of the time-sheets leant an unexpected, yet welcome twist. Two riders of that calibre, at the top of their game, racing on public roads at that speed is a sight to behold; never mind the backdrop of a juicy grudge match. The double-header Superbike races on Saturday are not to be missed, when the battle between PBM MCE Ducati and Dunlop will be fought on principle as a matter of pride.
“As soon as we went out in the practice proper for the Superbikes I could ride my own way, get a feeling for the bike and lean it over in the turns. Luckily the sun was out and we had the track completely dry so once I got into my own rhythm the track just came back to me.”
However, it’s unlikely Dunlop and Brookes will have it all their own way. The North West 200 is famous for large groups of riders slipstreaming on the long straights, disputing the lead right until the end of a race.A quick scan at the timesheets reveals an all-star cast, with many riders capable of winning.
In particular, Brookes’ BSB rivals; Glenn Irwin and Peter Hickman are sure to be in the mix despite not quite being on the pace in the early hours of this morning. Michael Dunlop’s teammate, Richard Cooper, Milenco Honda’s Davey Todd and 24-time winner, Alastair Seeley will also be involved on Saturday.
Most of Brookes’ rivals will have a lot more track time ahead of racing getting underway with most riding multiple classes, and in the case of Dunlop, all four classes, while Brookes is only riding in Superbike.
Superbike First Qualifying
Josh BROOKES Ducati – MCE Ducati Racing 4:29.000 120.045mph
Michael DUNLOP Suzuki – Hawk Racing 4:29.173 119.967mph
Davey TODD Honda – Milenco by Padgett’s Motorcycles 4:29.891 119.648mph
Alastair SEELEY Yamaha – IFS 4:29.909 119.640mph
Glenn IRWIN Honda – Honda Racing Uk 4:31.145 119.095mph
James HILLIER Yamaha – RICH Energy OMG Racing 4:31.815 118.801mph
Richard COOPER Suzuki – Hawk Racing 4:32.485 118.509mph
Conor CUMMINS Honda – Milenco by Padgett’s Motorcycles 4:32.858 118.347mph
Michael RUTTER BMW – Bathams Racing 4:33.403 118.111mph
Peter HICKMAN BMW – FHO Racing 4:34.002 117.853mph
Before that Superbike session, the Supersport bikes were on track. Ashcourt racing’s Lee Johnston bagged provisional pole ahead of Dunlop on his MD racing Yamaha and DAO Kawasaki’s Dean Harrison.
2019 winner Davey Todd was in 4th ahead of Seeley and Adam McLean. Supersport, as always, is a class in which any number of riders has a chance of winning.
Supersport First Qualifying
Lee JOHNSTON, Yamaha – Ashcourt Racing 4:42.935 114.132mph
Michael DUNLOP, Yamaha – MD Racing 4:44.155 113.642mph
Dean HARRISON, Kawasaki – DAO Racing 4:44.938 113.330mph
Davey TODD, Honda – Milenco by Padgett’s Motorcycles 4:45.547 113.088mph
Alastair SEELEY, Yamaha – IFS 4:45.966 112.923mph
Adam McLEAN, Kawasaki – McAdoo Kawasaki Racing 4:46.029 112.898mph
Jeremy McWILLIAMS, Yamaha – Burrows by RK Racing 4:47.417 112.352mph
Conor CUMMINS, Honda – Milenco by Padgett’s Motorcycles 4:48.284 112.015mph
Ian HUTCHINSON, Yamaha – BPE by Russell Racing 4:48.577 111.901mph
Joe LOUGHLIN, Yamaha – Team ILR / Mark Coverdale 4:48.706 111.851mph
In the superstocks; Dunlop, this time Honda mounted, managed to secure the top spot ahead of Michael Rutter on the Batham’s BMW.
Rutter celebrated his 50th birthday in April yet shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Behind Rutter was ex-British superstock champion Richard Cooper on a Hawk Suzuki. The diminutive Nottingham rider only made his debut at the previous running of the event, in 2019, and could be a dark horse to take home some silverware this week.
Superstock First Qualifying
Michael DUNLOP Honda – MD Racing 4:35.056 117.402
Michael RUTTER BMW – Bathams Racing 4:36.814 116.656
Richard COOPER Suzuki – Hawk Racing 4:40.134 115.273
Dom HERBERTSON BMW – GB Racing 4:40.974 114.929
Ian HUTCHINSON BMW – Milwaukee BMW Motorrad 4:41.880 114.559
James HILLIER Yamaha – RICH Energy OMG Racing 4:43.050 114.086
Craig NEVE BMW – CN Racing 4:43.442 113.928
John McGUINNESS Honda – Honda Racing UK 4:45.330 113.174
Alastair SEELEY Yamaha – IFS 4:45.732 113.015
Peter HICKMAN BMW – FHO Racing 4:46.090 112.874
Richard Cooper clocked the fastest time in the Supertwins session on a JMCC Roofing Kawasaki.
The Twins always throw up some wild cards and this morning was no different. Pierre-Yves Bian had the crowd frantically checking their programmes to see who was onboard the number 199 Paton when he slotted-in behind Cooper in 2nd position.
The session was held in mix conditions after some heavy rain drifted in from the adjacent Atlantic Ocean and left the circuit wet and greasy. It will be interesting to see if the little-known French man can repeat this kind of form in the next session.
Supetwins First Qualifying
Richard COOPER Kawasaki – JMcC Roofing 5:14.212 102.771mph
Pierre Yves BIAN Paton – VAS Engine Racing 5:18.256 101.465mph
Jeremy McWILLIAMS Paton – IFS / Bayview Hotel 5:19.801 100.975mph
Michael RUTTER Paton – Team ILR / Mark Coverdale 5:21.387 100.477mph
Joe LOUGHLIN Paton – Team ILR / Mark Coverdale 5:21.717 100.374mph
Christian ELKIN Kawasaki – Dynocentre NI 5:24.060 99.648mph
Peter HICKMAN Aprilia – PHR Performance 5:25.304 99.267mph
Jamie COWARD Kawasaki – KTS Racing by Steadplan 5:26.970 98.761mph
Lee JOHNSTON Aprilia – Ashcourt Racing 5:28.769 98.221mph
Craig NEVE Kawasaki – RB Engineering 5:29.535 97.993mph
58-year-old ex-MotoGP star, Jeremy McWilliams was 3rd, also on a Paton. Few would bet against the number 99 adding another famous win to his glittering list of achievements.
Final qualifying takes place on Thursday, followed by Supertwins, Supersport and Superstock races starting at 4am Australian Eastern Time on Friday. A full programme of races, including the blue-ribbon Superbike races follows on Saturday. You can watch all sessions and races live online on the BBC IPlayer, which is free to air.
MCNEWS.COM.AU is a specialist on-line resource that provides motorcycle news for motorcyclists. MCNews covers all areas of interest for the motorcycling public including news, reviews and comprehensive racing coverage.