North West 200: Five things fans of the international road race must wait until 2021 to find out

By Richard PetrieBBC Sport NI
Glenn Irwin
Glenn Irwin has become a regular on the top step of the Superbike podium at the North West 200

Like many major sporting events, this year's North West 200 has fallen victim of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning road race fans must wait another 12 months for their annual fix of high-speed action around the Portstewart-Coleraine-Portrush Triangle circuit.

The enforced lay-off gives us time to reflect on what might have been at this year's event - and what we may expect when the action between the hedges resumes at the first big international meet of the year in 2021.

Here are five things we must wait to find out.

Can Glenn Irwin extend his Superbike winning streak?

There is no doubt that the British Superbike rider from Carrickfergus has become the undisputed king of the glamour 'big bike' class, having won the last four Superbike races around the Triangle circuit.

Irwin saw off rival Alastair Seeley in a thrilling battle in 2017, prompting memorable scenes of wild jubilation as he celebrated in front of the grandstands around the start-finish area, throwing gloves, knee pads and pretty much everything else into the crowd.

Twelve months later Irwin piloted his Ducati to two more comfortable victories and last year added to his tally when he edged out Kawasaki team-mate James Hillier on wet roads to win the only Superbike race to be held at the event.

That success saw Irwin break the Japanese manufacturer's long Superbike barren spell over the nine-mile course - Mick Grant having given Kawasaki its last win in that category back in 1977.

With the likes of Seeley, Peter Hickman, Michael Dunlop and Dean Harrison all very capable of challenging for wins however, Irwin will not be resting on his hard-earned laurels or taking anything for granted next time he takes to the grid.

Irwin believes his next challenge now is to chase down the record for the most Superbike wins at the North West 200 - Joey Dunlop and Michael Rutter both hold that record with nine apiece.

Can Alastair Seeley return to winning ways?

Alastair Seeley
Seeley holds a record 24 wins around the Triangle circuit

The consistent nature of Alastair Seeley's performances at the North West over the past decade and beyond are well documented.

But last year marked a sharp reversal of fortune as the ex-double British short circuit champion failed to register a win, or incredibly even a podium - having previously finished in the top three in at least one race every year from 2007 to 2018.

The 40-year-old's remarkable rewriting of the record books had seen him win at least one race win at 11 consecutive North Wests from 2008 to 2018 and a minimum of one Supersport race each year from 2010 to 2018.

Seeley's wins have come in the colours of four different manufacturers - Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha and BMW - and with a record 24 triumphs to his name, he will be keen to re-establish himself as the dominant force at the event.

Wet weather on race Saturday meant the Carrick native missed out on the opportunity to use the PBM Ducati he had at his disposal for 2019 to maximum effect.

But he has the security of having a deal in place to continue with with the Bournemouth Kawasaki squad for 2021 and is just as hungry for wins as ever.

Will Michael Dunlop's course lap record be broken?

Michael Dunlop
Michael Dunlop set the lap record for the Triangle circuit in 2016

With all the success enjoyed by Glenn Irwin and Alastair Seeley in recent years many people may be unaware that it is in fact Michael Dunlop who holds the lap record for the Triangle circuit - a benchmark dating back to 2016.

The lap records for each of the other three classes have long since been smashed since Dunlop lapped the North West 200 course at 123.207mph, four minutes 22.095 seconds, on his BMW four years ago.

Even fewer people may be aware that the second ever fastest lap stands to Australian former British Superbike series winner Josh Brookes - an average speed of 122.958 set in 2014.

Had the weather been better for race Saturday last year Dunlop's record looked like it would come under serious threat as Irwin, Dean Harrison and Seeley all unofficially bettered the lap record in final qualifying on Thursday.

All three will be keen to turn that practice form into race results next time they take to the track.

British Superbike star Hickman would no doubt like to add the North West fastest lap to the absolute course records he holds for both the Isle of Man TT and Ulster Grand Prix meetings at 135.542mph and a world record 136.415 respectively.

Will there be more first-time winners?

James Hillier
James Hillier was a Superstock winner at the 2019 North West 200

The fact that the last three North West 200 meetings have yielded seven first-time winners may come as something of a surprise.

In 2017 Glenn Irwin and Martin Jessopp took maiden wins, while a year later Hickman secured his first success at the event in the Superstock class, with the late James Cowton winning a Supertwins outing.

Last year Stefano Bonetti became the first Italian winner at the North West in the Supertwins class, while James Hillier was a Superstock victor and Davey Todd triumphed in testing conditions in the Supersports.

In addition, Richard Cooper went close to becoming the first rider since 2007 to win on their maiden appearance when he finished runner-up in Saturday's Superstock class. He went on to claim a second British title in that category later in the season.

Cooper also achieved the notable landmark of becoming the first newcomer to lap at over 120mph and it would take a brave man to bet against him standing on the top step of the podium in the near future.

Ex-MotoGP rider James Ellison's first appearance on the north coast has been delayed by the postponement of the 2020 races while other names to look out for as potential first-time winners in the next few years include three-time TT winner Harrison, Jamie Coward, David Johnson, Conor Cummins, Adam McLean and Paul Jordan.

Lee Johnston's Supersport win in 2019 bridged a four-year gap since his victory in the Superstocks but he awaits a Superbike win.

Can the established 'old guard' still contend for honours?

Michael Rutter
Nine of Michael Rutter's 14 North West 200 wins have come in the Superbike class

With the next action over the Triangle circuit not happening until 2021 it will be a case of 'another year older' for seasoned campaigners such as 14-time winner Michael Rutter, John McGuinness and Jeremy McWilliams.

Despite reaching the veteran stage in road racing terms, Rutter has continued to challenge for the major honours in recent years with the backing of his own team, which he also manages.

A ninth win at the Macau Grand Prix last November provided further evidence that there may still be more to come in terms of race wins for the now 48-year-old Midlands rider.

Just two days older than Rutter, McGuinness is also in the twilight of his career but has not competed at the sharp end of a major event since suffering extensive injuries in a crash at the 2017 North West, from which he has now recovered.

The 23-time TT winner will likely hope to retain his ride with the Bournemouth Kawasaki outfit for next year.

Ex-250 Dutch Grand Prix winner Jeremy McWilliams's productive partnership with Ryan Farquhar's KMR Kawasaki team continued in 2019 when he clinched a record third North West Supertwins success.

Now 56, it remains to be seen whether the Glengormley man will still be part of the field when the meeting rolls round again in May 2021.

Ian Hutchinson has struggled to recapture his best form since suffering his latest bout of serious injury in a crash in the 2017 Senior TT but given the Yorkshireman's renowned resilience and 'bouncebackability', plus a deal to ride for TAS Racing in the bag, he can never be written off.

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