The home of between the hedges, real road racing on closed public roads is Northern Ireland and this week the 86th North West 200 gets underway amid forecasts of a mini heatwave. And about time too!
The North West is the first International road race of the year and Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event. Every year, it draws a crowd of around 80 -100,000 to the 8.9 mile triangular circuit linking Colraine, Portrush and Portstewart. With between 50,000 – 75,000 fans on race day alone, (depending on weather!), it’s a unique event that attracts visitors from all over the world and an estimated global viewing audience of around two million.
But just what makes it one of the great motorcycling spectacles in the world and a “must see” for any motorsport fan? Here’s five reasons why you must go to see the North West 200.
Outright top Speed
Whilst it’s not the world’s fastest road race in terms of average speed – that accolade is reserved for Ireland’s other International - the Ulster GP, bikes at the NW200 hit the highest outright speeds on closed public roads. The long straights make for some hair raising maximum speeds well in excess of 200 mph. In 2012, Martin Jessopp’s Ducati was clocked in practice at 208 mph – still the fastest recorded top speed at the 8.9 mile ‘triangle.’
The pace of the race dictates that the helicopter is required to film most of it – along with some 30 static cameras around the course and a further thirty on board the bikes themselves.
Over the years, several chicanes have been added to reduce speeds – the first in 1983 at Juniper Hill and the most recent in 2010 at Mathers Cross. Some of the riders aren’t great fans of the chicanes…..(one Lincolnshire rider in particular!) but it’s the same for everyone and most have accepted that even if they don’t like them, they’re a necessary evil as bike speeds and power have increased markedly over the years.
Full Race Day
Although the Isle of Man TT is still largely universally regarded as the Holy Grail of road races on account of its highly demanding 37.7 mile course, racing at the NW200 is concentrated into a short time period: one evening consisting of three races followed by the main race day (Saturday) with five races. Fans therefore see a lot of racing in a concentrated time period. Also, the North West 200 is a race start – as is the Ulster GP. Bikes now set off in two waves along the coast road to the York Corner hairpin then out into the country.
Motorcycle racing fans are used to seeing a certain amount of slipstreaming at GP circuits but it’s small beer when compared to the drafting that takes place at the North West. On the superfast straights, riders can make up six or seven places by the time they complete the end of the two main straights. The action is shoulder to shoulder at times with bikes touching 200 mph just feet apart from each other.
Although there are some slipstreaming opportunities at the Dundrod Circuit (Ulster GP) it’s not on the same scale as the North West. There’s really no other circuit that affords the same degree of sling-shotting.
As anyone who’s been over to the NW200 will tell you, the Irish hospitality and banter (aka the ‘craic’) is legendary. Understandably, the indigenous fans are passionate and knowledgeable about their road racing and will be keen to share that interest with those showing a similar inclination. There are some great watering holes nearby and you’ll even see some of the racers frequenting a few of the better known 'hostelries.' John McGuinness is a big fan of a pint in the Anchor in Portstewart. Michael Rutter likes his beer too - once the racing’s attended to and also rates the Anchor for atmosphere. Other top scooping venues include Kellys and the Harbour Bar in Portrush, Joey’s Bar in Ballymoney and the York Hotel in Portstewart.
Scenery / location
Ireland’s rugged North coast is scenically stunning and there’s much to see and do before or after the motorcycle racing. The immediate area of the Causeway Coastal Route is within easy striking distance of the NW200 and is packed full of great tourist attractions including the world famous Giant’s Causeway – one of the natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The area is also home to Ireland’s oldest distillery – the world famous Bushmills, so make sure that you’ve dropped the bike off if you’re up for a guided tour! The surrounding countryside is magnificent to explore with no lack of great places to stop off for vitals and refreshments.
2016 NW200 races: Thursday May 12 (evening) and Saturday May 14.
Photo: courtesy of TAS Racing / Tyco BMW