Derek Sheils is chasing a third successive Superbike double at the KDM Hire Cookstown 100 this weekend.
The Dublin rider is unbeaten on John Burrows’ Suzuki GSX-R1000 in the big-bike class around the Orritor circuit over the past two years, winning the Open and feature Superbike events in 2016 and 2017.
Sheils, though, will face a stiffer challenge in County Tyrone when outright lap record holder Michael Dunlop makes his racing debut on the Tyco BMW Superbike at the opening Irish national road race of the season.
Dunlop last raced at Cookstown in 2015, when he finished as the runner-up on the Milwaukee Yamaha in the Open race behind Tyco BMW’s Guy Martin.
The Ballymoney man was also locked in battle with old adversary Martin in the headline race when he slid off the R1, escaping unharmed.
Sheils has been the dominant force at Cookstown in Dunlop’s absence and the 35-year-old is determined to add to his winning streak on Saturday.
“There’s a number of lads on the grid that believe they can win the race but there can only be one winner and we’ll give it our best shot,” he said.
“My lap times have been coming down since Michael was last there but he does have a good record around Cookstown too. We’ll just have to suck it and see and we’ll know more on Friday evening after practice.
“Hopefully the weather will stay dry because it’s not ideal racing at Cookstown in the wet, as you are hard on the brakes in a few places and you’re pushing the front.
“We’ve changed a couple of things with the Suzuki this year and we’ve a new engine in, which is putting out a bit more power on the dyno than what we’ve had in previous years,” he added.
“Hopefully that will make a little bit of a difference and there are a couple of other changes, but nothing major.
“The bike is good, it has a strong chassis and handles well, and that’s what you need really because you’re not really using a lot of top-end speed, except on the main straight; if you can get it around the corners and get it squirted out, then you’re in with a good shot really.”
Sheils will also ride an ex-William Dunlop Yamaha R6 in the Supersport class.
The entry includes last year’s man of the meeting, Derek McGee, plus William Dunlop on the Temple Golf Club Yamaha machines and new McAdoo Racing signing Adam McLean.
Tobermore rider McLean was victorious in the Supersport class last year at Cookstown and is eager to challenge for more honours at his home event.
“It’s my home race and also the home race for McAdoo Racing, so hopefully we can push for some good results,” he said.
“It will be a learning year for me on the ZX-10 and the main classes for me will be the Supersport and Supertwins.”
Saltburn’s Davey Todd (Cookstown B.E. Racing) and New Zealand’s Daniel Mettam (McKinstry Racing) are among the top newcomers.
Manxman Dan Sayle is also set to ride at Cookstown for the first time along with Darren Cooper, who won last year’s Supertwin race at the Manx Grand Prix.
The line-up also includes Michael Sweeney, Davy Morgan, Paul Jordan, Shaun Anderson and Joe Loughlin, while Maria Costello leads the female charge.
Guy Martin, who was due to compete on his BSA Rocket 3 in the Classic race, was a late withdrawal from the event after encountering gearbox issues with the machine.
Roads close for practice on Friday at 12 noon and at 10am on Saturday for racing.