Preview: What is the North West 200 motorcycle road race?

Since 1929, an 8.970-mile stretch of road running from the picturesque seaside town of Portstewart, through Colerain and Portrush has played host to the heroism and insanity of motorcycle road racing. Known as the North West 200 - because the race was originally run over 200 miles and had been intended to be staged somewhere further away from Ireland's north coast - it has become Northern Ireland's biggest annual sporting event

Preview: What is the North West 200 motorcycle road race?

The NW200 also signals the beginning of the international road racing season. While an important event in its own right, it traditionally acts as a warm-up for those heading to the Isle of Man TT just a week later.

Where the NW200 differs from the TT is in its race format. While the TT is a time trial race, the NW200 has mass-starts; essentially, it's short-circuit racing given the Spinal Tap treatment and turned up to 11.

Across two days of racing, two Superbike, two Superstock, two Supersport and two Supertwin races will be held.

While success is sought after, for many the NW200 represents a first chance to put their machinery and their bodies through the rigours of road racing in preparation for the TT. Given the nature of the Triangle circuit, track time here is no substitute for mountain miles, but it still has its uses.

"There's not many fast turns or fast changes of direction like on the Island," four-time NW200 podium finisher James Hillier told Autosport. "In terms of set-up, high-speed stability it is good and brain speed is probably good, and then high-speed braking down to a stop is quite good.

"But there's not many places on the Isle of Man where you actually brake like that. So, again, the terrain is actually quite different to what we will be racing on at the Island. It's a little bit smoke and mirrors, but certainly high-speed stability, brain speed is the key there at the North West."

For the world's second-fastest road racer Dean Harrison, the NW200 is all about the refinement of a machine for the TT.

"Stability. Bike stability. It's speed of the bike, stability, that's it really. You treat it like any other race. While you're there, you just learn other things about the bike," the Silicone Engineering rider, who has three podiums to his credit at the event, adds. "That's where you start to refine stuff, at the first major road race."

Both Harrison and Hillier [Bournemouth Kawasaki] have yet to notch up victories at the NW200, but will come into this year's event as two of the favourites for success aboard their new Kawasaki ZX-10RRs in the big bike class.

Harrison's main road rival Peter Hickman won his first NW200 race last year in the Superstock class, and stands as the fastest road racer in history after his earth-shattering 135.452mph lap in last year's Senior TT. However, Hickman does come into the first international road race of 2019 on the back foot.

His Smiths Racing team took late delivery of the brand-new BMW S1000RR in the pre-season, and missed all of the official British Superbike tests as a result. Hickman has enjoyed solid form on the BMW in BSB, but the NW200 will be its first test on the roads. His best chance of success coming into the event, therefore, is in Supersport.

Receiving some more support from Triumph this year, Hickman will be one of the men to watch in the ultra-competitive class on his Trooper Beer-backed machine. He will have to dig deep to topple Alastair Seeley, though, who has won 12 of the last 15 SSP races and is a frontrunner in the British Supersport series.

The late Robert Dunlop's record of 15 wins was matched by Seeley in 2015, with the 'Wee Wizard' extending that tally to 24 last year. Now firmly the reference on the Triangle, Seeley faces a new challenge in '19 with a switch to the Paul Bird Ducati team in the Superbike class. Taking the reins of the Panigale V4 R - dominant thus far in World Superbikes in the hands of MotoGP convert Alvaro Bautista - Seeley will be aiming to halt the run of three successive SBK wins for arch rival Glen Irwin, who has switched from PBM to the Bournemouth Kawasaki squad for '19.

Seeley has had little track time on the V4 R, while Irwin's transition from the old V2 Ducati to the ZX-10RR has proven tough in BSB. Given the pair have traded barbs in the press, a duel between them on the Triangle is a mouthwatering prospect.

In 1991, Robert Dunlop and Trevor Nation swept to big bike wins aboard JPS-liveried RCW588 Norton's. Almost 30 years later, Norton makes its return to the NW200 as a works team with six-time winner John McGuinness. The TT legend's last visit in 2017 ended in disaster, when a mechanical issue led him to crashing his Honda at over 100mph. Suffering a badly broken right leg, he would be out of action for over a year, eventually making a winning return at the Classic TT last August.

His race debut on the SG8 Superbike was only secured at the 11th hour, when Norton reverted to its 1000cc V4 after the new 1200cc motor it wanted to use was deemed illegal. McGuinness will also make his lightweight class debut on Norton's Superlight machine, and will face stiff competition from the likes of Michael Dunlop on the Paton, star of the Irish national scene Derek McGee and 14-time winner Michael Rutter, who was victorious in the class last year.

A step into the unknown for both MCGuiness and Norton, the NW200 will offer a crucial glimpse at where the fully-recovered McGuinness sits in the pecking order heading to the TT.

The same could be said of Honda's Ian Hutchinson. Hutchinson did contest last year's NW200, but was miles off the pace as he continued to recover from a second broken left leg he suffered at the TT in 2017. The Fireblade SP2's full potential is yet to be realised on the roads, but Hutchinson is beginning to resemble the three-time NW200 race winner he was prior to his injury after an extensive testing programme on his Honda SBK and SSP machinery.

Dunlop faces a tough NW200 in more ways than one. The Tyco BMW rider's situation in terms of track time on the new S1000RR mirrors that of Hickman's, and he was dealt another setback courtesy of a minor wrist injury sustained in a crash during a test at Kirkistown recently. The NW200 will also be his first race outing since the death of his older brother William, who died during practice for the Skerries 100. In 2008, Dunlop famously stormed to his maiden NW200 victory in the 250cc race just two days after his father Robert was killed during practice. Dunlop is familiar to racing in the wake of tragedy, but it seemingly only makes him an even stronger force.

The NW200 for some will act as a warm-up for the TT. For others, it's an important quest to test the limits of their broken bodies. And for a few, it's a time for settling scores. The scene of some breathtaking action for the last 89 years, the NW200's 90th running is shaping up to be perhaps its finest chapter.

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Author Lewis Duncan
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