North West 200: Six reasons to look forward to the 90th anniversary event

Alastair Seeley leads Peter Hickman in a thrilling Superstock race 2 in 2018
Alastair Seeley edged out Peter Hickman in a thrilling Superstock race two in 2018
North West 200 international road races
Dates: Tuesday 14 May-Saturday 18 May Venue: Triangle Circuit, Portstewart, Coleraine, Portrush
Coverage: All practices and races live on the BBC Sport website and BBC Radio Ulster; Highlights on BBC One NI Friday 17 May, Sunday 19 May and Monday 20 May

The North West 200 international's 90th anniversary road race runs from 14-18 May over the Triangle circuit - and BBC Sport NI looks at six talking points.

1. More NI success for the home fans to lap up?

With Alastair Seeley, Glenn Irwin, Michael Dunlop and Lee Johnston among those on the grid, few would bet against it.

Seeley has won at least one race at every North West since 2008 and with the aid of three trebles and a four-timer in recent years his record tally of victories now stands at 24, half of those coming in the Supersport class.

For the Superbike races, Seeley has joined forces with the Be Wiser Ducati team, which helped fellow Carrickfergus man Irwin win the last three 'big bike' races held over the Triangle circuit, although a lack of track time in testing may prove to be a drawback.

The 39-year-old rides a Yamaha in the Supersports but sits out the Superstocks - so has four chances to increase his tally.

Irwin rides for Quattro Plant Kawasaki and will hope to put his early-season struggles in British Superbikes behind him by putting a few over on his rivals.

Last year's double Superbike winner goes in six races this time round but with the competition as hot as it has been in recent years, the challenge of matching - or beating - Phillip McCallen's 27-year-old record of five wins at one meeting is likely to prove elusive.

Dunlop will aim to add to his five wins and Johnston his tally of three victories, with the former still holding the course lap record from 2016 - 123.207mph on a BMW.

And what chance a win for 55-year-old Jeremy McWilliams in the Supertwins? The evergreen former Grand Prix rider is as determined as ever and has a new KMR Kawasaki at his disposal.

Glenn Irwin
Glenn Irwin has won the last three Superbike races to be staged over the Triangle circuit

2. If you're English and your surname begins with 'H', it helps...

Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison, James Hillier, Ian Hutchinson... you see where I'm going with this one.

Hickman, the 2018 Senior TT winner, Isle of Man Mountain Course lap record holder and twice British Superbike series top-six finisher, broke his North West wins duck in the Superstock category last year and should be a contender in every class he competes in again this year with Smith's Racing.

Harrison is beginning his fourth season with the Silicone Engineering Kawasaki team and despite being on the podium three times over the Triangle and seriously 'upping his game' last season, he has yet to uncork the victor's champagne.

Hillier makes it an incredible 11 years with his Bournemouth Kawasaki outfit and with four second places and two thirds to his name at the event so far, the top step of the podium may be a natural progression for the Hampshire man.

Hutchinson's efforts were hampered last year as he continued his recovery from injury and he did well just to be on the grid at all. Could a comeback win against the odds be on the cards for the 'Bingley Bullet'? He's done it before more than once...

If you're a fan of the English riders, you'll have Gary Johnson, Michael Rutter and Davey Todd to cheer for too. Fair enough, their surnames don't begin with 'H' but we'll sneak them into this section anyhow.

3. Pure road racers v Short circuit specialists

Chicanes - and a fair few of them. They're one of the main reasons the Triangle circuit has rightly or wrongly been regarded more and more as a track which suits short circuit exponents in recent years.

The success enjoyed by Irwin, Seeley and Hickman in recent years lends some credence to this theory but there are still plenty of features of the North West course which make it a familiar challenge for your traditional road racer.

Michael Dunlop and others have proved more than capable of flying the flag for those who regularly ply their trade 'between the hedges' and like most circuits there is something of the 'horses for courses' element to becoming a successful North West 200 competitor.

With Hickman, Johnston, Rutter, Harrison, Manxman Conor Cummins, Seeley and Hillier all plying their trade to a greater or lesser extent in both tarmac disciplines this season, there is probably less of a clear dividing line than there used to be between road racers and short circuit specialists.

4. If you're a manufacturer it matters...

It's all about building brand recognition and selling bikes - that's the reality behind motorcycle racing for the manufacturers - especially at road race events such as the North West. It may be sport for the rest of us, but for them it's mainly about business.

After all, motorcyclists ride their bikes on public roads, not on purpose-built tracks, so reliability and surviving the rigours of a road race can provide a unique selling point and an effective road test for the various marques and their potential customers.

Having tasted success for the first time in 2010, German manufacturer BMW has held the upper hand over recent years - winning 11 of the past 15 1000cc races taking in Superbikes and Superstocks - but with their overall tally of 13, they have a long way to go to catch Honda, who boast a record 95 wins.

Kawasaki have been well to the fore too in recent years - but are without a win in the blue riband Superbike class since 1977 - while Irwin's 'big bike' exploits have seen the iconic Italian Ducati brand receive some very welcome publicity.

All three manufacturers have new machines to showcase this year - plus you have Michael Rutter riding the exotic MotoGP-based RCV Honda and John McGuinness aboard the Aprilia-powered Norton.

With Yamaha, Triumph, Suzuki and Paton all well represented too, it promises to be another exciting battle for bragging rights among the bike builders - plus a treat for the eyes and ears of the thousands of fans.

Richard Cooper
Richard Cooper won the Sunflower Trophy for the first time in October

5. What chance a debutant or overseas winner?

Well, not much if the record books are anything to go by. Only 26 newcomers have ever won on their North West debut while just three riders from outside Great Britain and Ireland have recorded victories - all three of those from New Zealand.

Bruce Anstey fits into both categories. The popular Kiwi won on his first appearance in 2002 and only former British champion Christian Elkin has repeated the feat since.

Regular British Superbike competitor Richard Cooper comes with a big reputation, a long-standing pedigree and some pretty useful Suzuki machinery to boot so he can't be ruled out to make a big impact on his bow - although a win seems unlikely.

Carl Phillips, another ex-BSB rider, is a notable newcomer in the Supertwins class and he could also ruffle a few feathers among the established stars.

If you're looking for an overseas challenger, Australian David Johnson should make some waves on the north coast as part of the official Honda Racing set-up.

6. It's what makes the North West 200 special...

Ask different people and you'll get different answers. The close racing, the slipstreaming, the festival seaside atmosphere, the high speeds of up to 200mph...

It's also the first international road race of the year, has the majestic Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop and you see riders racing on the roads who don't take in the TT or Ulster Grand Prix.

Those are just a few... you may have your own.