It had been a long time coming… But at 10:23 BST motorcycle racing bikes finally revved back into action on the Triangle circuit for the first time since 2019.
After that two-year absence because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s North West 200 has been even more keenly anticipated than usual and there was a tangible buzz in the paddock situated between the seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart as the seconds ticked away to the road closure time of 09:15 and the first of the practice sessions.
The crowds were not on the scale of the tens of thousands expected to lap up the action on Thursday and Saturday race days, but a sizeable number of spectators were in position from early morning to book their preferred vantage point behind the hedges, walls and fences around the nine-mile public roads circuit.
Periods of glorious sunshine were punctuated with intermittent showers and high winds but the rain, when it came, failed to dampen the spirits or curb the enthusiasm of the fans who had been deprived of their annual speed fix for too long.
The course, awash with the colour of sponsors’ branding, looked in mint condition and the ‘pop-up village’ which plays host to marquees, massive transporters, portacabins and awnings, in addition to the bikes themselves, gave ‘the pits’ all the look of a major motorsport event.
All this against the spectacular backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, the flags representing the nations of all the competing riders fluttering in the sea breeze above the grandstands which help create the sense of an amphitheatre fit to host the drama which will unfold on track over the coming days.
The organising Coleraine and District Motor Club has assembled a stellar line-up of machines and competitors for the return of one of Northern Ireland’s showpiece sporting events and the engines roared into life with the session for newcomers, complete with their mandatory orange bibs.
While the instantly recognisable big names may attract most of the headlines during race week, the riders who are new to the course and those further down the field each have their own personal hopes and ambitions to realise.
First up of the qualifying sessions for the specific classes was the Supersports and at the end of their practice period it was Fermanagh native Lee Johnston who led the way on his Ashcourt Racing Yamaha.
His average speed of 114.132mph was 1.2 seconds faster than fellow Northern Irishman Michael Dunlop, with Kawasaki-mounted Dean Harrison third.
Yorkshire rider Davey Todd, like Johnston a Supersport winner three years ago, occupied fourth position on the leaderboard, followed by record 24-time race winner Alastair Seeley and McAdoo Kawasaki’s Adam McLean.
Next up was the blue riband Superbike class and by the end of their session it was Australian double British Superbike champion Josh Brookes who set the provisional pole position speed at 120.045mph on his Ducati.
Dunlop was second fastest, followed by Todd, Seeley, four-time Superbike winner Glenn Irwin and James Hillier.
Richard Cooper, the fastest newcomer two years ago, led the Supertwins category at 101.465mph, followed by Frenchman Pierre Yves Bian, three-time winner Jeremy McWilliams and Michael Rutter.
The Superstock session began in changeable conditions but Dunlop ultimately recorded the fastest average lap speed when the track began to dry at 115.273mph, with Rutter and Cooper making up the top three places.
The second practice run is scheduled for Thursday morning and early afternoon, with racing on Thursday evening and Saturday.
Tuesday practice leaderboard
Superbikes – 1 Josh Brookes (Ducati) 120.045mph; 2 Michael Dunlop (Suzuki) 119.967; 3 Davey Todd (Honda) 119.648; 4 Alastair Seeley (Yamaha) 119.64; 5 Glenn Irwin (Honda) 119.095; 6 James Hillier (Yamaha) 118.081
Superstocks – 1 Michael Dunlop (Honda) 115.272mph; 2 Michael Rutter (BMW) 114.929; 3 Richard Cooper (Suzuki) 113.431; 4 Dominic Herbertson (Suzuki) 113.015; 5 Ian Hutchinson (BMW) 112.874; 6 James Hillier (Yamaha) 112.169.
Supersports – 1 Lee Johnston (Yamaha) 114.132mph; 2 Michael Dunlop (Yamaha) 113.642; 3 Dean Harrison (Kawasaki) 113.330; 4 Davey Todd (Honda) 113.088; 5 Alastair Seeley (Yamaha) 112.923; 6 Adam McLean (Kawasaki) 112.898.
Supertwins – 1 Richard Cooper (Kawasaki) 101.465mph; 2 Pierre Yves Bian (Paton) 101.086; 3 Jeremy McWilliams (Paton) 100.477; 4 Michael Rutter (Paton) 100.374; 5 Joe Loughlin (Paton) 98.419; 6 Christian Elkin (Kawasaki) 98.221