The 2017 Vauxhall International North West 200 saw records broken and extended, new winners and what has been dubbed one of the most exciting races at the event ever.
Dry and sunny conditions greeted riders for Tuesday and Thursday’s practice sessions and they were able to complete a number of laps in preparation for the racing. Newcomers got the event underway with their practice session on Tuesday morning, giving riders such as Mark Purslow, Joey Thompson, and Neil Kernohan their first taste of the Triangle circuit.
In Tuesday practice Alistair Seeley topped the times in both the Superbike and Supersport classes – the Carrickfergus man aiming to extend his most wins record after surpassing Robert Dunlop’s win tally last year. Martin Jessopp was fastest in the Supertwin class while Michael Rutter led a tight Superstock class. Race organisers and sponsors were left with red faces when the Superstock session had to be red flagged after just a couple of minutes when the course car got stuck on the apex of the chicane at the end of the start finish straight.
On Thursday it was the same men fastest again this time with Seeley topping the Supersport and Superstock times while Rutter went fastest in the Superbike session. Jessopp continued as the fastest Supertwin rider. The Superbike session – the last of the practice sessions – was red flagged following an incident involving John McGuinness. He crashed at Primrose corner and was taken to hospital in Belfast. The Honda team reported that he had a compound fracture to his right lower leg, four broken vertebrae, and three broken back ribs. The team subsequently withdrew Guy Martin from the Superstock and Superbike races as they were unable to investigate the cause of McGuinness’ crash.
Conditions remained dry for Thursday racing and first on the race schedule was the first of two Supersport races. Seeley started from pole and was the man to beat having been fastest in both practice sessions. He failed to complete the first lap, however, pulling into the pits with a bike problem. It was Jessopp from the second row who went on to win after a race long battle with Ian Hutchinson. Both had spells at the front but it was Jessopp who went on to take the victory – his first ever win at the North West 200. James Hillier completed the podium finishers ahead of Dean Harrison and Lee Johnston.
Seeley did not face any problems in the Superstock class as he romped to a 12 second victory over Johnston. He didn’t have it all his own way, however, as Rutter led across the line on the second lap but the Bathams rider unfortunately retired from the race. Seeley and Johnston were joined on the podium by Harrison – his first rostrum result at the event. Hutchinson was fourth with Jessopp coming home in fifth place.
Like waiting for a bus, Jessopp found that after waiting for one North West 200 win that two come along at once. He started from pole position and crossed the line in the lead on every lap. Rutter – a last minute entry to the class on Ryan Farquhar’s KMR bike – was a close second just eight tenths back. Ivan Lintin was third ahead of Dan Cooper and Derek Sheils. Johnston had been considered a contender for the race win but struggled to get away for the warm-up lap and despite a push and getting away, he didn’t make the start. Jessopp also set a new lap record on his way to victory.
The weather was not as kind on Saturday and riders were faced with wet conditions. Up first on the schedule was the second Supersport race.
Riders were given two sighting laps before the race and it eventually got underway in damp conditions. The rain came on during the race and a number of riders raised their hands to get the race stopped at the end of lap 4 however it kept going for the full six. It was Seeley who won, four seconds clear of William and Michael Dunlop. It had been William who led across the line when the conditions deteriorated, but Michael Dunlop suggested after the race that his older brother’s face “didn’t fit the picture” which is why the race wasn’t stopped. Cookstown 100 race winner Adam McLean was an impressive fourth place – just a couple of seconds off a podium – with Hutchinson fifth.
There was a lengthy delay before the next race of the day due to the weather conditions. The Superbikes did get out for a sighting lap but it was red flagged due to oil on the track from Michael Dunlop’s Suzuki. With rain getting heavier it wasn’t until around 3pm in the afternoon when racing resumed. Seeley stormed to a dominant victory over Rutter and Johnston. He was 21 seconds clear by the end of the last lap with Rutter a comfortable seven seconds ahead of Johnston. Irwin was fourth in his first Superbike race appearance at the North West 200 while Peter Hickman finished fifth.
While Seeley extended his win record to 20, Rutter – the next most successful current rider – added another victory to his tally. He took a hard fought win in the Supertwin race after narrowly missing out to Jessopp on Thursday. Rutter led after every lap but could not shake off Cooper who finished just six tenths down. Jessopp finished the race in third place ahead of Michael Sweeney and Marty Lennon. It was a particularly special victory for Rutter as he won for Ryan Farquhar who was involved in a near fatal accident at the event last year. The win was Rutter’s 14th around the Triangle circuit putting him just one win off Robert Dunlop’s 15.
The second Superstock race proved to be yet another victory for Seeley, bringing his win record to 21. The race was red flagged on the fifth lap, leaving Seeley the winner as he crossed the line leading on the previous lap. He very narrowly beat Hutchinson – just two tenths separated the two riders. Rutter joined the pair on the podium with Johnston finishing fourth. The top four were separated by under a second while Hickman was just slightly further back in fifth. Riders were not impressed afterwards that the race had not been red flagged sooner – with a number raising their hands to indicate conditions were too difficult.
The Vauxhall North West 200 race – the feature race of the event – proved to be the most exciting of the day as three riders battled hard for the lead. It was a race long fight between Irwin, Seeley and Hutchinson. Irwin led across the line each time after perfectly timing his move onto the coast road each time. Seeley was able to take advantage through the long slipstreaming sections but Irwin was able to keep with him. Seeley was even onto the grass on the run to University at one stage but he lost nothing as he kept with the front two. Eventually the top three finished just seven tenths apart when Irwin pulled a well timed move on Seeley on the final lap. Hutchinson finished in second with Michael Dunlop fourth. Rutter completed a highly successful North West 200 for him in fifth place. There were huge cheers around the circuit when Irwin crossed the line to win on only his second appearance at the event. He previously raced at the North West 200 in 2015 on a Supersport but he broke down during the race while at the front.
Alistair Seeley’s win record around the North West 200 now stands at 21. Both he and Michael Rutter surpassed Philip McCallen’s podium record of 28. Seeley now has 32 North West 200 podiums while Rutter has 31. Riders will now head to the Isle of Man for TT fortnight (27th May – 9th June).