Kyle White: Disaster averted on arduous day at North West 200

Saturday’s 90th anniversary North West 200 did not produce a spectacle befitting of the proud milestone, but neither could the first major international road race of the year be described as a total damp squib.

North West 200 Event Director Mervyn Whyte with James Hillier (left) and Lee Johnston on Saturday.

PFollowing a week of glorious sunny weather on the North Coast, heavy rain and grey skies greeted the thousands of fans who turned out to watch the best line-up of riders and machinery you will see at any road race this year.

It was a shock to the system, for although some showers had been predicted in the forecast for Saturday, the extent of the heavy rain was a complete surprise.

There was no let-up throughout the morning and the trend for the day was set when a delay ensued after Daley Mathison crashed at Black Hill on the warm-up lap for the first Supersport race.

Spain's Victor Lopez was one of three fallers at the Black Hill section of the course on Saturday.

When the race got underway at 11.10am after the track had been cleared, another red flag incident occurred as David Murphy came off, also at Black Hill.

A number of the leading riders reported that section of the course as being especially treacherous, with James Hillier surviving a huge moment on the opening lap on his Quattro Plant Kawasaki, which was witnessed by 24-time winner Alastair Seeley, who was tucked in behind the Hampshire man on his EHA Racing Yamaha.

Seeley said: “If Hillier had gone down then it could have had a whole domino effect, which is not what we want. It wasn’t so bad at the start of the race and when we got to Black Hill, James was leading and just as he crested the top of the rise, the rear stepped out and I thought he was going down.

“When I saw the moment he had I knew something wasn’t right at that area, although I didn’t have quite as bad a moment as James had. Some of the other guys said they had moments as well once we got stopped on that second lap,” he added.

The clean-up operation at Black Hill, where riders reported the road surface to be extremely slick.

“We’re already looking for traction with wet tyres on a wet road, so when something else adds to that then it’s not ideal.”

Race chief Mervyn Whyte was accompanied by Hillier and Thursday’s race winner, Lee Johnston, to inspect the area where the riders were reporting problems. The road was cleaned three times in total on Saturday.

As this was taking place, the Fire Service and NIE Engineers were called to reports of a smoking power cable at Heatherlea Avenue near York corner in Portstewart.

It turned out that an earlier incident in Portrush, when a helicopter collided with power lines – rendering over 1,200 homes without electricity – caused a surge, which led to the problem in Portstewart. This caused a further delay as the problems continued to mount up. You couldn’t make it up.

The riders eventually formed up on the grid again for the Supersport race on wet roads and the race got underway at 1.50pm, although a number of top names decided to sit it out, including Johnston, Dean Harrison, Hillier, Michael Dunlop and Ian Hutchinson.

Seeley was leading on the approach to University when his Yamaha suffered an apparent engine failure, dropping oil onto the track. The red flags came out again when Spain’s Victor Lopez came off at Black Hill.

At this point, the prospects of any racing being successfully completed seemed bleak at best, yet Whyte steadfastly ploughed on, dealing with each setback as it arose.

The turning point in the day came when the Supersport race was finally run over the full six-lap distance, with Davey Todd clinching his maiden victory on the Milenco by Padgett’s Honda after a thrilling three-way dice with Mullingar man Derek McGee and Todd’s team-mate, Conor Cummins.

The ball was now rolling and although the schedule was around five hours behind, the organisers pressed ahead and sent out the Superbike machines, announcing that the race would be held over the shortened distance of four laps.

Three-time winner Glenn Irwin, who had vowed not to race earlier in the day, had a change of heart and lined up on pole on his Quattro Plant Kawasaki.

He was glad he did. Despite predominantly wet roads and cold temperatures, Irwin, his team-mate Hillier and Conor Cummins on the Padgett’s Honda engaged in an epic scrap, which went right down to the wire.

On a gripping last lap, it was Irwin who forged ahead at Juniper chicane to snatch victory from his team-mate and he went on to wrap up his fourth straight win in the showpiece class.

Hillier and Cummins played their part in an excellent race, while Derek Sheils finished fourth to secure a fantastic result for Dungannon man John Burrows’ team on his Suzuki, crossing the line ahead of Seeley on the PBM Ducati.

A little piece of history was also made as Irwin became Kawasaki’s first Superbike winner at the North West 200 since Mick Grant in 1977.

There was some momentum to proceedings now and Whyte wasted no time in running the Supertwin race, which was won by Jeremy McWilliams for the third time. He held off Christian Elkin for the win and it was clear to see how much the result meant to the former Grand Prix winner afterwards, who was rewarded for his decision to race on after he contemplated withdrawing from the event after a crash in Thursday’s race.

The Superstock race also threw up another maiden winner in Hillier, who had been so close to a first win around the ‘Triangle’ in the earlier Superbike event.

He simply disappeared into the distance and although sensational newcomer Richard Cooper and Supersport winner Davey Todd closed the gap on the final lap, Hillier was a convincing winner, much to the delight of Quattro Plant Kawasaki team boss Jack Valentine.

Cooper marked himself out as a future winner as he pipped Todd for the runner-up spot on the Buildbase Suzuki and he will be a major contender if he returns to the North West in 2020.

After the uncertainty over whether or not any races would go ahead, four of the five scheduled events were now completed and with the 9pm extension to the Road Closing Order activated, competitors were sent on a sighting lap ahead of the main NW200 Superbike race, which was announced as a four-lap event.

With the rain arriving more persistently by now, several riders voiced their concerns when they returned and shortly afterward 7.10pm came confirmation that the finale was cancelled.

Whyte said: “We didn’t have much luck during the early part of the day when we faced very challenging conditions but the teams, competitors and fans all stayed with us and we turned things around.

“We have decided in the interests of safety to bring the proceedings to a close now because the conditions have deteriorated once again. It is disappointing but I want to pay tribute to everyone who has supported us today and braved the weather to cheer on the riders as they put on a fantastic spectacle.”

The anniversary meeting was in stark contrast to last year’s epic North West 200, which was held in dry and sunny weather.

Yet, on a day like Saturday, Whyte and his management team are at the mercy of the weather and all the related problems that come with it.

He deserves credit for persevering rather than throwing in the towel and the most important thing of all is that Whyte got away with it. No riders were seriously injured on Saturday and they will all be back next year to do it again.

We mustn’t forget either the fantastic qualifying sessions last week, particularly on Thursday when Irwin, Harrison and Seeley all dipped under Michael Dunlop’s 2016 lap record in the final Superbike practice.

Fans witnessed three brilliant races on Thursday evening, with Lee Johnston sealing a dramatic victory in the first Supersport race, while Italy’s Stefano Bonetti was an endearing winner of the Supertwin opener.

The world’s fastest road racer, Peter Hickman, didn’t feature much on Saturday, but the Smiths BMW rider claimed his second NW200 win in the first Superstock race on an exhilarating day.

Saturday’s Superbike races had all the makings of being something really special, but those expectations were wiped out by the rain. Under the circumstances, the main race programme was as good as it could have been and with everyone home safe, it was the best anyone could have hoped for.