There’s just something special about race day at the North West 200.
The rain that filled the air on Thursday has long cleared as the sun glistens down on the north coast and you can feel the anticipation on the grid as the bikes are wheeled to their positions.
The grid is a hive of activity with family, friends, team and sponsors before the call to ‘clear the grid please’ rings out. Suddenly the riders are the focus with a couple of mechanics by their side.
There’s a buzz, a nervous tension as the riders make their way for a warm-up lap and roll their way back to the start line.
There’s a look to the lights as the engine notes rise, a unison of revving engines before what feels like an age as the lights go from red to black.
Suddenly, the chorus of noise rises once more as the swarm of modern day gladiators launch their way along the iconic coast-line run to Portstewart.
It has been a long three years but the North West 200 is back.
Patience pays off for Saturday sun
It’s no secret that road racing had been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic as the sport almost ground to a halt in 2020.
The national road races have kept momentum going, but the lack of the international road racing circuit has left a gaping hole in the motorsport calendar.
It was only natural there was some nervous tension before practice on Tuesday, but once the engines fired up and the riders hit the 8.7 mile Triangle Circuit it felt like we had never been away.
After a largely dry Thursday practice the rain returned for the evening’s racing and there was almost an audible gasp of ‘here we go again’. It wouldn’t be the North West 200 without it.
Alastair Seeley battled past Davey Todd in the Supersport opener before the Wee Wizard made it 26 victories in a wet Superstock race. However, as the light faded and the rain continued to pour down, there were split opinions up and down the grid as to whether postponing the Supertwin race was the correct call.
However, the decision was vindicated when everyone rocked up on Saturday and the sun was already splitting the clouds.
The day was smooth, and the patience shown by organisers and fans was rewarded with six action-packed races that ran without interruption.
Fan favourite Glenn Irwin brought his usual joy and party mood to his home race and there was more history as lap records were broken in almost every race.
Seeley made it a hat-trick with another stupendous Superstock ride when experienced heads around him faltered, and victories for Lee Johnston and Richard Cooper’s popular double (more on that to come) only added to the feel-good atmosphere on the north coast.
It was almost a perfect day. However as the Superbikes were wheeled onto the grid news starting spreading that Dunlop had advised their riders to withdraw on safety grounds.
Images appeared on social media of shredded rubber from the Superstock race as temperatures soared and it left a depleted grid to the blue-ribband race as the likes of Todd, Michael Dunlop and Hickman were forced to watch from the sidelines.
The safety of riders had to be a priority and although in one sense it was an anti-climactic end to a superb day of racing, it allowed Cooper and Irwin and soak up the atmosphere after their storming rides earlier in the day.
The crowd weren’t left disappointed when Irwin crossed the line with a comfortable margin over the Suzuki rider and unleashed his trademark burnout, before taking endless photos with the fans.
However, there was controversy to come as Cooper was excluded long after the chequered flag and the fans had filtered out into the surrounding countryside.
It was over a faring bracket that, on paper, had little effect on performance. It was a sour end to two dominant rides by Cooper, who you cannot help but feel sorry for, and it is not the way Yves Pierre Bian or Joe Loughlin – promoted to the top step – would have wanted to claim their maiden international road race victories.
Hard to pick the star of the show
It says a lot about the depth of quality in the field that it’s hard to pick a rider of the meeting. Irwin’s Superbike double, and his unprecedented six in a row in the class, will undoubtedly get the headlines.
Seeley, who officially claimed the award for the week, showed his class to claim a hat-trick and edge closer to the ‘magical 34’.
While his Superstock victory on Thursday was a procession for some it was possibly the ride of the meeting as he danced his way around the puddles in a wet-racing masterclass.
Then you have Cooper, who looked like he had claimed his maiden North West 200 victory in Saturday’s opening race before doubling up later in the day.
The disqualifications feel harsh and his name has been erased from the record books when he was more than deserving of standing on the top step.
However, for many the star was Todd, who was left wondering how he didn’t win a race despite consistently being at the front.
His comeback ride in the Superstock race – where he was 11th after a trip into a ditch and charged back into second before eventually pulling over – was one for the ages.
Todd did leave with silverware and was second on three occasions, and it’s clear Clive Padgetts has a star on his hands. His day will come.
While the North West 200 has to wait another year for action, all eyes will move to the Isle of Man TT which also returns for the first time since 2019.
After a record-breaking week in Northern Ireland, everyone is hoping for another fast and safe event in the world’s biggest road race.
The North West, and riders will openly admit this, is not universally everyone’s favourite event in the shadow of the TT.
However, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after a long three years, it certainly did feel good to be back.