Fermanagh man Lee Johnston clinched his first Supersport victory at the North West 200 in dramatic fashion on Thursday evening as Alastair Seeley crashed out on the final lap.
Johnston (Ashcourt Yamaha), Seeley (EHA Yamaha), Dean Harrison (Silicone Kawasaki), James Hillier (Quattro Plant Kawasaki) and Paul Jordan (Logan Yamaha) were involved in a thrilling five-way scrap in the spring sunshine around the 8.9-mile course.
The lead changed hands throughout, with Johnston and Seeley enjoying the lion’s share at the head of the pack.
Magherafelt man Jordan was riding a fantastic race as he held a watching brief in fifth place, but there was bitter disappointment for the Ulsterman when he was forced out at Mill Road roundabout on the penultimate lap.
Michael Dunlop, who had dropped off the leading group on his MD Racing Honda, was promoted to fifth place.
As the leading quartet battled it out, Johnston led over the line at the start of the sixth and final lap from Seeley, Harrison and Hillier.
Carrick man Seeley, a 12-time winner in the class, was ahead at Ballysally roundabout but Johnston had edged back into the lead by the time they reached Metropole in Portrush, with Hillier and Harrison in close company.
Seeley began to line up his move on the Coast Road and drew alongside Johnston as they braked for Juniper Hill chicane, but the 39-year-old went in slightly hot and ran wide onto the grass, crashing out of contention.
Johnston held on to win by 0.7s from Harrison, with Hillier rounding out the top three.
“It’s so hard racing with Alastair because you never know what he’s doing, if he’s sandbagging or what, and I’m so comfortable riding with Dean and James around the TT and everything,” Johnston said.
“I was having a little look to see who was there and I knew nobody was going to be making any lunges and we could actually go for a good race, so all credit to the Ashcourt Racing team because they have put in a massive effort. This is a new bike built for the roads with a new motor so I had to win it really.
“(Alastair) ran in a bit hot but I didn’t know he had gone down until the end. I was so miserable earlier because I had a bad qualifying on the Superbike so it’s good to get a win.”
Harrison was more than satisfied with second place behind his good friend Johnston as he builds towards the Isle of Man TT.
“It was brilliant race and we were passing each other with the slipstream. I hope Alastair is okay because you never want to see anyone go down but he looked okay.
“It probably doesn’t quite have the legs on the Yamahas but to get this on the podium I’m over the moon, especially in second place.”
Dunlop was next, 25.3 seconds behind the winner, with Jamie Coward snatching a fine fifth place on the Prez Racing Yamaha ahead of Honda Racing’s Ian Hutchinson.
Davey Todd (Milenco by Padgett’s Honda) and Gary Johnson (RAF Reserves Triumph) were the top eight.
Peter Hickman was a retirement on his Trooper Beer Triumph on lap one.
In the Supertwin race, Italy’s Stefano Bonetti clinched his first win by only half-a-second from Jamie Coward.
Jeremy McWilliams crashed out at Mather's chicane while fellow KMR Kawasaki rider Derek McGee was a retirement after a near-miss at Quarry hill, where he struck the kerb.
Bonetti won the race on the Paton to become Italy's first NW200 winner, with Michael Rutter making it onto the rostrum in third on the Bathams/KMR Kawasaki.
Newcomer James Chawke was an eye-catching fourth on his Paton ahead of Horst Saiger, who was also riding one of the Italian machines.
Lisburn’s Carl Phillips, making his road racing debut, was ninth on the ILR/Mark Coverdale Paton.