Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say.
For fans of international motorcycle road racing, that is most certainly the case as the North West 200 gets into gear over the Triangle circuit this week for the first time since 2019.
Two years of inactivity because of the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly served to whet the appetite for what promises to be some thrilling high-speed action on the north coast with some of the world’s best two-wheel exponents parading their skills on some of the most exotic machinery.
The organising Coleraine club has assembled a fantastic array of talent for the long-awaited return of their event, so we thought it a good idea to assess some of the likely winners and podium finishers on Thursday and Saturday.
Where else to start but with the man who has taken victory in the last four Superbike races over the 8.9-mile circuit and currently sits second in the British Superbike standings thanks in large part to a hat-trick of victories at the opening round at Silverstone.
Although the most recent edition of the Honda Fireblade may be making its debut on the roads, the Carrickfergus rider has invaluable experience of competing on the bike on British short circuits since 2020.
The 32-year-old will take in the Superbike and Superstock events and will aim to make further progress towards his goal of surpassing the record of nine Superbike wins held by the late Joey Dunlop and Michael Rutter.
Best NW finish: Four wins Fastest lap: 122.809mph
Alastair Seeley has established himself as the ‘man to beat’ at the North West for much of his career as he racked up a record 24 wins across the Superbike, Superstock and Supersport classes on a variety of machinery.
Now 42 years old, Seeley will be keen to add to his tally and make amends for an unaccustomed blank year with regard to race wins in 2019 aboard his fleet of IFS Yamahas in the same three categories.
Renowned for his racecraft and mastery of the coast road section, the former British Superstock and Supersport champion has started the defence of his Ulster Superbike and Supersport titles in emphatic fashion, winning each of the 11 individual race he has competed in.
Best NW finish: Record 24 wins Fastest lap: 122.898mph
The return of double British Superbike champion Josh Brookes to the meeting for the first time since 2014 represents a major coup for the organisers.
The Australian made his bow in 2013 and his road racing experience also includes several appearances at the Isle of Man TT.
Brookes will be aboard the PBM Ducati V4 Panigale which he campaigns in the BSB series in the two Superbike races.
Best NW finish: Second in 2014 Superbike race two Fastest lap: 122.958mph
Another of the leading Northern Ireland contenders, Michael Dunlop’s lap of 123.207mph in 2016 remains the fastest ever recorded in a race around the Triangle circuit.
The 33-year-old’s last win came on his way to Superbikes success six years ago so he will be keen to increase that tally when he takes in the Superbike class on his and the Superstock and Supersport races on a Honda and Yamaha respectively.
During the two-year hiatus in international road racing, the Ballymoney 19-times TT winner has raced on a variety of machines at Daytona in 2021, British short circuits, Irish short circuits and the Armoy Irish national road race.
Best NW finish: Five wins Fastest lap:
The Hampshire rider was named man-of-the-meeting in recognition of his consistent results at the last running of the North West in 2019, including a victory in the second Superstock race.
In addition to his maiden win, the 37-year-old has secured five second places and three third positions at the event over the years.
Hillier will ride BMWs for the Rich Energy OMG Yamaha racing team in the 1000cc classes and a Yamaha in the Supersports.
Best NW finish: One win Fastest lap: 121.732mph
Peter Hickman, lap record holder at the Isle of Man TT and Ulster Grand Prix circuits, has taken two triumphs at the North West, both in the Superstock class.
The Lincolnshire rider will be keen to add a Superbike win to his CV on the FHO BMW on which he competes regularly in the British Superbike Championship.
The 35-year-old may have to sit out the two Supersport races as his Triumph does not comply with the event’s regulations for the class.
Best NW finish: Two wins Fastest lap: 122.65mph
Ian Hutchinson returns to the TAS Racing fold for the 2022 road racing season in the distinctive red and white colours of sponsors Milwaukee for the Superbike and Superstock outings.
The Yorkshireman will also participate in the Supersport races on a Yamaha in the livery of the Portadown-based Boyce Precision Engineering by Russell Racing.
The 16-time TT winner has been preparing for his roads campaign by racing in the British Superstock series.
Best NW finish: Three wins Fastest lap: 122.702mph
The Bradford rider will hope to add a North West 200 race win to an already impressive road racing CV, having occupied the central spot on the rostrum at the TT three times, including in the 2019 Senior TT.
With his Kawasaki team re-named as DAO Racing, Harrison should be in contention for wins in every class on his fleet of machines.
Now a regular in the British Superbike Championship, the 33-year-old is one of three riders who dipped under the existing lap record benchmark in final qualifying for the North West in 2019 – Irwin and Seeley the others.
Best NW finish: Two second places Fastest lap: 122.234mph
John McGuinness is best known for his TT exploits as a 23-time winner but has also enjoyed success over the Portstewart-Portrush-Coleraine Triangle, the last of his six victories to date coming in 2012.
The Morecambe rider recently celebrated his 50th birthday and has renewed his hugely productive partnership with Honda Racing for this year’s roads events.
McGuinness has now fully recovered from his major crash in practice for the 2017 North West in which he suffered a leg fracture and four broken vertebrae.
Best NW finish: Six wins Fastest lap: 122.02mph
During international road racing’s fallow period, Lee Johnston has had plenty of track time competing in the British Supersport Championship, in which he finished third last year.
The Fermanagh native has started 2022 strongly too, taking four podium finishes from four starts in the first two rounds of the same series in the colours of the Ashcourt Racing team which he also manages.
The 33-year-old’s primary focus is on roads competition though where he will bid to do more winning in his preferred Supersport and Supertwin categories.
Best NW finish: Four wins Fastest lap: 122.281mph
Michael Rutter’s pedigree around the Triangle circuit is unquestioned with a tally of 14 wins stretching over a period of 20 years.
Like McGuinness, the Midlands rider has just turned 50 but is as keen as ever to enjoy success on his Bathams BMWs in the Superbikes and Superstocks.
A record nine-time Macau Grand Prix winner and with seven TT successes to his name, Rutter manages his own team and is concentrating his efforts on his road race exploits this season.
Best NW finish: 14 wins Fastest lap: 122.162mph
Another rider making up the large English challenge and part of the Yorkshire contingent, Davey Todd will hope for a repeat of his Supersport success in 2019, achieved in wet conditions on a Padgett’s Honda.
The 26-year-old competes in the same colours in the three four-stroke classes at both the North West and TT this time round.
Todd has been warming up for the road race season by competing in the British 1000cc Superstock season, with a best result of third at Oulton Park among three top-six finishes.
Best NW finish: One win Fastest lap: 121.163mph
Conor Cummins continues his enduring association with Milenco by Padgett’s Racing for a fifth season.
The Manxman excelled in the damp conditions which prevailed on race-day Saturday three years ago, securing two third places to take his overall total of rostrum results to five.
The 35-year-old former Ulster Grand Prix lap record holder is another who has used the British Superbike championship as preparation for his roads campaign.
Best NW finish: Two second places Fastest lap: 122.208mph
Richard Cooper, the leading newcomer in 2019, will hope to go one better this year than in his debut outing when he finished a very impressive second in one of the two Superstock races.
The 39-year-old, who has spent the last two years recovering from a compound fracture of his leg, will compete on a pair of Buildbase Suzukis in the Superbike and Superstock events.
The double British Superstock champion will also ride a Supertwin Kawasaki ER6 prepared by Ryan Farquhar.
Best NW finish: Second Fastest lap: 120.659mph
The evergreen ex-Moto GP competitor has opted to target another Supertwins success at the ripe old age of 58, as well as racing in the Supersports on a Yamaha.
The Glengormley racer’s previous three Twins wins came aboard one of Ryan Farquhar’s KMR Racing Kawasakis.
McWilliams has also picked up four second places and two thirds since taking up the challenge of competing at the Triangle.
Best NW finish: Three wins Fastest lap: 119.185mph
The best of the rest…..
Such is the quality and depth of the field at this year’s North West, several other riders could well be in the mix for top honours.
The last of Lincolnshire rider Gary Johnson’s three podiums to date came in 2014 so the two-time Supersport TT winner will hope to rediscover that kind of form when he lines up on the grid this year.
The most notable of this year’s newcomers is multiple British Superbike race winner James Ellison, who has finished in the top three overall in the BSB series on three occasions, as well as competing in MotoGP, World Supersport and World Endurance.
Adam McLean has twice previously finished fourth at the North West and will aim for a first podium as he takes to the course on his fleet of McAdoo Racing Kawasakis.
Paul Jordan is another Northern Ireland rider who will look for encouraging results ahead of his appearance at the TT for Prez Racing, with Christian Elkin, Jamie Coward, Stefano Bonetti and Joey Thompson among the other possible podium finishers.