Glenn Irwin led the way as three riders unofficially broke the existing lap record in qualifying for the North West 200, laying the platform for what could be a record-breaking day on the roads of Northern Ireland.
Dean Harrison looked to have done enough to take pole position for this week’s two superbike events when he smashed the three-year lap record with a time of 4:21.973, only for Irwin to go even faster on the Quattro Plant Wicked Coatings Kawasaki with a time of 4:21.767.
The pair will be joined on the front row by record NW200 race-winner Alastair Seeley, who became the third man to go under Michael Dunlop’s existing record of 4:22.095, though they will need to replicate the feat in Thursday or Saturday’s races in order for set an official lap record.
Behind them, Dunlop leads the second row on the Tyco BMW ahead of Milenco by Padgetts Motorcycles Honda rider Conor Cummins and Lee Johnston on the Ashcourt Racing BMW. The rest of the top 10 is rounded out by Michael Rutter, Richard Cooper, Ian Hutchinson and James Hillier.
But for Peter Hickman, the session turned into a nightmare as he spent most of Thursday’s superbike qualifying in the pits due to problems with his Smith’s Racing BMW and had to rely on his lap time on Tuesday, with Hutchinson’s late lap time relegating ‘Hicky’ out of the top 10.
The returning John McGuinness was another to struggle, as he retired his Norton during the session to finish 22nd and miss out on the first wave of riders that will take off in the lead group in both races.
Irwin has been struggling this season to get to grips with his ZX-10RR this season, but things appeared to click for the Northern Irishman on Thursday.
Hickman got the day off to a flier as he set the pace in superstock qualifying in the morning with his time of 4:23.604 at an impressive 122.502mph average clocked just 1.64s off the existing superstock lap record, qualifying just ahead of fellow British Superbike star Irwin by a gap of 1.640s. The pair will be joined on the front row by Irwin’s Kawasaki teammate Hillier, with Dunlop, Johnston and Harrison nestled in on the second row.
One notable name missing from the superstock category this year is that of local favourite Seeley, but he was back at the front of the supersport class to take pole by the slimmest of margins ahead of Johnston, with the former’s existing time from Tuesday just enough to hold off his fellow Northern Irishman by 0.005s.
However, after a day of clean running on Tuesday, both the superstock and supersport qualifying sessions were red flagged, with Craig Neve escaping injury after colliding with hay bales that obstructed the track at the Magherabouy Chicane and Steven Horne taken to hospital with minor injuries following an off on the Link Road.
A third red flag of the day came at the end of the supersport session as David Johnson suffered a crash – also at the Magherabouy Chicane. The Australian was taken to hospital as a precaution, though Honda Racing confirmed he was up on his feet and talking.
It has once again proven a challenging week for Honda, with Ian Hutchinson disqualified from Tuesday’s superstock session for a fuel irregularity, but despite the 16-time Isle of Man TT winner came good towards the end of the day to put the Fireblade inside the top 10 for all three main classes.
Jamie Coward will head the supertwin class alongside Rutter and Derek McGee, with Irwin also contending in the 650cc class.
Thursday evening’s action begins with the first supersport and superstock races (both six laps) before rounding out with the four-lap supertwin event.