By Billy Weir

THIS year’s Junction One International North-West ‘200’ is on tune to benefit from a whopping 25% prize fund increase to 175,000.

The 2005 event was officially launched in Belfast today (Tuesday) and is already shaping up to be one of the most eagerly anticipated events on this season’s racing calendar.

As well as the cool 175,000 prize fund, an additional 2,000 cash prize and Newcomers Trophy will be presented to the rookie rider who achieves the best overall performance on the day.

Last year, the organising Coleraine and District Motor Club celebrated a major coup in securing a date for the meeting just one week after the British Superbike Championship round at Mondello Park, near Dublin.

The North-West will be held on Saturday, May 21, with practice on Tuesday, May 17 and Thursday, May 19.

Mervyn Whyte, NW200 Clerk of Course, said the date of the race would be a great benefit to both riders and teams.

"The new arrangements are a bonus for both fans and riders who can take part in two top class events in the space of eight days," he said.

"And we hope to attract a greater number of world class competitors due to the superb timing. Already team managers at Honda and Suzuki have said they are delighted with the new schedule."

Mervyn revealed that the Coleraine Club had been actively working towards signing top riders from Europe and reported "excellent feedback."

He explained: "We’re particularly pleased to welcome Macau GP contender and BMW Boxer Cup rider Markus Barth from Munich to our launch to day and hope to see him on the circuit on May 21.

"The Club has been targeting a range of European riders and so far the feedback has been excellent."

One of the highlight of the event this year will be the re-launch of the 250cc race after a five-year absence.

The last 250cc race was won by John McGuinness from Morecambe and no doubt the TT winner will be keen to secure a two-stroke ride for the race in May.

The organisers plan to run the 250cc race concurrently with the 125cc/400cc class. Prizemoney will be awarded separately with 10,000 up for grabs in the 250cc race.

The popular Production Race has been replaced and will now feature Superstock machines in a six-lap race. Both Superbike Races will also be run over six laps.

Practice sessions will benefit from an additional hour to allow more time for newcomers to familiarise themselves with the circuit.

Roads will now close at 5pm on Tuesday 17 and Thursday, May 19.

"Competitors will be accompanied by two experienced riders helping them become familiar with the course at a slower than normal speed," said the Clerk of Course.

"The extra hour will offer more practice time and alleviate major safety concerns relating to newcomers practice."

Looking ahead to the future of the event, Mervyn revealed that a five-year development plan was in place to safeguard the meeting in the coming years.

"Our 2005-2010 strategy document has been a real team effort with vital support and contributions from the NI Events Company and Coleraine Borough Council," he said.

"The strategy outlines our long-term vision and our resolve to become self-sustainable, yet retain our distinctive qualities which have made the North-West a revered part of Northern Ireland life and sport."

A large number of paddock and course improvements are planned this year and the Club is reviewing all spectator facilities and grandstands.

The promoters continue to examine ways of improving course safety and a range of risk assessments have already been carried out.

A new permanent chicane costing in the region of 10,000 will be built at Magherabuoy with the aim of slowing the riders down on the approach to Portrush. The concept has already had the blessing of top riders Michael Rutter, Ryan Farquhar and John McGuinness.

Although the event is some four months away, newly elected Race Secretary John Milliken says he has already received enquiries from top UK teams and a number of European competitors.

A host of factory-backed riders will be on the grid at the North-West, with Enniskillen man Richard Britton joining Ian Lougher in the official Honda Team.

TAS Suzuki will be back with local ace Adrian Archibald from Ballymoney and wily New Zealander Bruce Anstey.

Kawasaki will be represented at the Triangle meeting by Ryan Farquhar in the MSS squad, while Dubliner Martin Finnegan will be a real prospect on the Vitrans Honda.

John McGuinness will return to the event with backing from Yamaha UK, while last year’s star Michael Rutter says he wants to better his 201mph speed trap time in ’05.