The first International road race of 2013, the Vauxhall North West 200 on May 18, promises to be the scene of a series of fascinating duels between the heavyweights of the pure road racing world.
Milwaukee Yamaha mounted William Dunlop will be locked in sibling rivalry with his younger brother Michael for the first time in their now factory supported careers. In turn 24 year old Michael will find himself pitched against the elder statesmen of the sport, Honda TT Legends teammates John McGuinness and Michael Rutter.
Having made his ‘between the hedges’ debut at Portrush last year, ex-Grand Prix hero Jeremy McWilliams will be seeking his maiden win in the Supertwins class on the Vauxhall KMR Kawasaki against young guns such as Jamie Hamilton and James Hillier.
Engrossing as these conflicts may be, perhaps the most intense rivalry will be fought out between two very different Gaels. Gear Link Kawasaki’s Alastair Seeley and Mar-Train Yamaha’s Stuart Easton will transfer their paint-swapping battles in the British Supersport championship from the BSB short circuit scene to the 8.9 mile kerb and wall lined Triangle course in Northern Ireland.
Brave Scot Easton will be making a return to the Irish roads following his horrendous 150mph practice crash at the North West in 2011 when he collided with MSS Kawasaki teammate Gary Mason’s ZX10. Now completely recovered from his injuries, the 29 year old has dropped down to the 600cc class in which he is locked at the top of the rankings with Seeley after three rounds of the British championship.
Although he declares that ‘he couldn’t be happier’ competing in a championship in which he says he is ‘very happy with the bike and the team’, Easton has always nurtured a deep desire to emulate his fellow Hawick men Jimmy Guthrie and Steve Hislop, both of whom excelled on the closed public roads circuits.
‘When we switch to the roads it is a different discipline.’ he explains. ‘I will take it as it comes and see how things unfold in practice on Tuesday and Thursday. I won’t be giving it any big talk by saying that I will win but I’ve as much chance as anyone else and we’ll have a good dig at it.’
Having stated publicly last year that he would try to equal Phillip McCallen’s 1992 record of five wins in a single day at the North West, Alastair Seeley is equally cautious about the ‘big talk’. Having won ‘only’ three races last year, the Carrickfergus man says he is in ‘stealth mode’ this season.
‘I’m not going to predict any wins this year.’ he reflects. ‘If you say that you are going to do this or that and you don’t win then people only remember what you didn’t do rather than what you achieved’.
Nonetheless the ‘Wee Wizard’ remains confident that he can add to his impressive tally of 8 North West victories.
‘My main goal for 2013 is podium results in all the classes.’ he says with a wry smile. ‘With two podiums at Brands and two more at Thruxton we have had a strong start to the championship and shown that the Kawasaki can work with the Yamaha, which everyone says is a missile. Which ever bike I have ridden in the British championship in previous years has always been the bike I feel most comfortable on when I get to the North West and that will be the Supersport bike this year.’
The 33 year old former British Superstock and Supersport champion also feels that the pre-NW Oulton Park BSB meeting provides the perfect BSB track for helping to get the bike set up for the bumps of the North West.
‘Oulton throws up a lot of features that make it not that much different from a road course.’ he explains. ‘Cambered corners, off camber bends and the rising and falling contours are all very similar and help us to get a direction with our set-up.’
After their head-to-head tussle in the British championship races at Oulton both Seeley and Easton will board the ferry to Belfast knowing that their fiercest track opponent will also be their Number One roads rival at Portrush, even if they are slightly reluctant to admit it.
‘There could be the potential for it.’ is Stuart’s cautious reply when asked if the two Supersport races will be Seeley v Easton ding dongs.
‘If I do my job right it could happen but to be fair Alastair is the man to beat at the North West nowadays and he should have it covered. But that also means that the pressure is on him rather than me. After all, I’m just making my comeback.’
Seeley’s reluctance to enter into pre-race hype would seem to indicate that Easton is hitting a nail on the head here. Having been stung by the smirks after he failed in his much vaunted attempt to win a handful last year, the dimunitive Gear Link rider is much more circumspect in his pronouncements and more complimentary towards his opponents for fear of adding to the pressure.
When pressed on the challenge from his Scottish rival, Seeley gives little away.
‘Who ever does well at the British championship round just before the North West always carries that confidence to the North West.’ he offers as a general guide to form. ‘Stuart will be strong at the North West. He carries a lot of corner speed and he is very smooth. His style is a lot like Hizzy’s and he doesn’t make many mistakes.
The Supersport races will probably be down to a last lap move, with maybe ten people capable of winning on the Coast road.’
It was Seeley who denied Easton his maiden NW win back in 2010 when he put a determined move on the Swan Yamaha mounted Scot at Church Bend on the final lap to snatch victory in the feature Superbike race.
Seeley has always been a hustler, never afraid to stick a wheel in where others err in the name of caution and it is clear that he fancies his chances if it comes down to a win-it-or-bin-it last lap scrap at Juniper chicane.
‘No matter what happens going in I would like to think that I would be in front when we are coming out the other side.’ he says with that same wry smile on his face.
His Scottish rival makes it equally clear that he isn’t intending his North West comeback will simply be about making up the numbers.
‘If I end up spraying champagne I would be happy enough and if I could win a 600 race I would be really happy.’ Easton says. ‘But if I don’t manage either of those I will be disappointed.’
Although all eyes will be on the Easton-Seeley Supersport tussle the duo will also go head to head in the Superbike class with both riders fielding bikes specially built for the sea side race.
‘When I was considering the contracts that I was offered during the winter I wanted one that would give me good bikes for the North West.’ Seeley explained. ‘I have a Nick Morgan-built MSS Kawasaki ZX10 for both Superbike races.’
Easton’s Northern Ireland-based Mar-Train team have produced a superbike-spec R1 for the baby faced Scot but neither Seeley nor him has enjoyed much track time on their new machines.
‘I have ridden the R1 once at Kirkistown two weeks ago.’ Stuart explained. ‘We didn’t get much more than some fuelling issues and the riding position sorted but the bike felt good and I will test it again this week.’
‘I suppose it is fair to say that the R1 hasn’t done that much on the roads but there is no doubting it’s pedigree on the circuits and it will be very fast.’ he says. ‘
Seeley makes no bones about wanting to win the feature Superbike race for the third time in a row despite having had just two days of testing at Thruxton on the ZX10.
‘It felt pretty good and it didn’t do anything that I didn’t like.’ was his succinct assessment of his new mount. Seeley will also have one more run out before the opening practice session on May 14 but he is confident that the Kawasaki will be up to the task.
‘It is pretty much the same spec as the bike that Michael Rutter rode at the North West last year and I only finished a little bit in front of him.’ he says emphatically.
‘But I suppose I won’t really know how good it is until I go down through Station and along the Coast road.’
Seeley will also have a Superstock-spec ZX10 which will give him starts in six races in total but with two of those races being run on Thursday evening the 2012 treble winner will not have the opportunity to chase McCallen’s five-timer.