Northern Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event, the North West 200, roared back last weekend following a three year absence and for a change, it was Ray Bans and factor 40 on the “Portrush Riviera” for Saturday's main race day, not capes and wellies!
With the sun Gods smiling all day, the huge crowds packing the grandstands and lining road sides were treated to a thrilling six race programme – extended by the addition of the Supertwins 1 race carried over from Thursday evening's original schedule. Main race day ran like clockwork and without serious incident from 10.00 in the morning until Glen Irwin picked up his sixth consecutive Superbike win around the Triangle shortly before 4.00 pm. Hats off to Mervyn White and his whole NW200 team who have put in a power of work to stage the event following the three year lay-off.
There were a couple of "offs" but no serious incidents to any rider over the course of the event and everyone who's planning to race on the Rock can now progress to the Isle of Man TT injury free.
John McGuinness on Honda Racing's Fireblade
The meeting wasn't without controversy however - encountering issues beyond the control of the organisers. Disintegrating tyres and a Supertwins fairing bracket deemed to have been a “technical infringement” left a slightly bitter after taste. The bike had passed scrutineering all week - so what went wrong? It was a disaster for the rider Richard Cooper who was disqualified and stripped of two faultless Supertwins wins, not to mention the bike builder and relevant race sponsors. More needs to emerge regarding both debacles so we’ll see what develops.
Our Red Riders – John McGuinness, Lee Johnson, Dean Harrison and Conor Cummins all turned in stalwart performances with Lee receiving our own “Red Torpedo Man of the Meeting” - (we’re sure the other guys will understand!) for lifting his fifth NW200 title in Saturday’s Supersport 2 race and bagging three other podiums. But more of that later.
Thursday evening’s racing
With track temperature at a lowly 11 degrees, Thursday evening's race programme was reduced to two races both run in very tricky, typical “North West weather.” Conditions were cold, wet and blustery with very poor visibility from the spray. There were also patches of standing water. First up was the Supersport 1 race with Deano taking fifth spot on the grid and Lee seventh. The race got underway with North West specialist Alastair Seeley and Milenco Padgett’s Davey Todd battling it out at the sharp end and Jeremy McWilliams in hot pursuit. Seeley was leading when the red flag came out and the race was then restarted as a shortened four lapper. Several riders elected to sit out the restart including Lee – who had decided to wait for the good weather arriving on Saturday.
Of our riders, it was Milenco Padgett’s Conor Cummins who had a strong opening night. The big Manxman hasn’t exactly had an ideal build-up to the 2022 season: he broke a collarbone in a Motocross training accident in Spain and bashed himself up when he came off his Superstocker at Oulton Park a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, he opened his account with a strong 5th place in Supersport 1 finishing behind Seeley, (1st) Todd, (2nd) McWilliams, (3rd) and Adam McLean (4th). Dean Harrison was in 6th behind Conor.
With Lee and John taking the decision to sit it out, (along with Dunlop, Sweeney, Irwin, Rutter and many others) Conor went one place better in the Superstock race fighting his way through the pack from 18th on the grid to finish fourth. It was a heroic effort given the visibility problems from the amount of spray being kicked up. He also set the second fastest lap of the race. Dean was lying fifth in the early stages but he pulled in on the second lap. Seeley took the flag to lift his second win of the night and 26th NW200, with Todd in 2nd, and Cooper 3rd.
Conor Cummins Padgett's Superstock Fireblade
On Saturday’s main race day all four of our guys put in good strong rides which bodes well for the TT. In Supertwins, Lee was out on the new Ashcort Racing Aprilia 660 which looked the part. This bike delivers almost c100bhp straight out of the box (untuned), but it was well down on top end speed in comparison to some of the others’ machines. Class changes have now allowed machines of up to 700cc in Supertwins so hopefully a few tweaks can be made to the Aprilia before the TT? But what the bike lacked in sheer speed and grunt, Lee made up for with some demon late braking and he rode brilliantly to post two strong finishes – a third and a fourth - adjusted later on following Richard Cooper’s fairing "Bracket Gate” disqualification to 2nd and 3rd. Big shout out also for Paul Jordan who moved up to 2nd in Supertwins 1.
Lee Johnston cranking over the Ashcourt Supertwin Aprilia
Lee also had an excellent race on the Ashcourt BMW in Superstock 2 finishing runner up behind Ally Seeley (27th win) and John had a great run on the stock Fireblade to finish 5th. Unfortunately, it was a DNF for Conor on the Padgetts Fireblade. Team mate Davey Todd's front tyre had shredded so perhaps it was a tyre issue for Conor as well?
Dean lifted a podium finish (3rd) in Superstock 2 behind Seeley (1st) and Lee (2nd) and narrowly missed out on another podium in the second Supersport race finishing 4th. However, the two Superbike races were hugely frustrating for the 2019 Senior TT winner with a DNF in race 1 (tyres?) and a no start in race 2 because of the Dunlop (tyre) issue along with a whole raft of other top riders that included Hickman, Todd, Dunlop, Rutter, Cummins……..the list goes on.
Dean Harrison DAO Racing Kawasaki ZX-10RR
Having finished 11th in Superbike 1, John’s next outing was on his Stocker and he rode a really solid race to finish in 5th. He followed that in a depleted Superbike 2 race with another 5th place.
McPint on Honda Racing's Fireblade
Our 2022 NW200 race of the Meeting
In ideal conditions and with a track temperature of 27 degrees and rising at race start – (more than twice what it was on Thursday evening), Lee took the honours in what was arguably the race of the meeting - (Supersport 2) - in a scintillating, nail biting, head-to-head shoot out with Milenco Padgett's Davey Todd.
The Padgett’s crew have built an absolute weapon of a CBR600RR for Todd. Clocking 180 mph through the speed trap between Black Bridge and University Corner, his Honda was consistently around 7 mph faster compared to Lee’s R6. 180 mph.....for a Supersport machine!
Well ahead of the rest of the field, the two exchanged places on multiple occasions. Todd was invariably able to pull out a lead on the long straights. However, with all his British Championship experience facing multiple BSS winner Jack Kennedy on a regular basis, Lee's late braking was unreal. He was consistently able to out brake Todd and reel him back in at the chicanes. With Todd making a slight mistake on the last lap, Lee was able to time his final out braking manoeuvre at the Juniper Chicane to perfection to take the win and his fifth NW200 by just 0.079 secs!
Lee Johnston Ashcourt Racing Yamaha R6
Todd, who has been going great guns lying 4th in the British Superstock Championship had the consolation of setting a new Supersport lap record of 4.33.577. He deserves special mention as he had an outstanding North West racking up a total of four 2nd place finishes: both Supersport races, Superstock 1 and Superbike 1 – where he finished only 0.253 seconds behind Glen Irwin. He was the only guy to really push Irwin all weekend. He was also closing in on Ally Seeley in Superstock 2 when his front tyre started to shred destroying his front mudguard and ending his race. And of course, he was one of the Dunlop shod riders prevented from going out in the final SBK race.
Next stop - Isle of Man TT.
📸 Diego Mola