May 17, 2016

North West 200: Mixed emotions for Martin Jessopp after podiums and death of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas

THE North West 200 was something of a bittersweet event for Martin Jessopp in 2016.

After deciding to take part in all of the classes at the Northern Ireland road race, to come away with three podium finishes from a busy week was a great return.

However, the death of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas after a fatal crash overshadowed proceedings and brought home just how dangerous the sport can be.

"There was a look of talk about this new young rider," Jessopp said.

"Sure enough he was there battling with established North West riders right from the start. I managed to get past him and Jeremy Williams and then looked over my shoulder and they both weren't there.

"My gut feeling straight away was there had been a crash and then the red flags came out and your heart sinks. You know what's happened but you don't want to believe it.

"We know the rest and I just want to let his family, friends and his team know that we're all thinking about them.

"It was very close to home. I was battling with Malachi and then a couple of corners later he is not with us.

"It happens in our sport. Everyone is there and we all do it because it is dangerous. It is part of the buzz. If there was no danger there probably wouldn't be anyone there watching or racing.

"No one is putting a gun to our heads; we all want to do the sport we love. It's just unfortunate."

Things seemed so bright earlier in the week, though, and for Jessopp things started well immediately when he set the fastest speed trap on a Supertwin bike that is not only new for this season, but was not completed until eight hours before the first practice.

By the time race day came around the Yeovil rider was feeling confident and got things off to a great start in the opening Supersport event.

"I wouldn't class myself as much of a Supersport rider having ridden the big bikes for years," Jessopp continued.

"I wasn't expecting to be anywhere near the front but qualified in the front row and we had a real to and fro race and to cross the line third and be up on the podium in the first race I was over the moon.

"It was a big surprise for all of us."

However, race two – the Supertwin – sent out a warning sign to the dangers of the North West 200 as two riders were seriously injured in another crash.

"I've came under the railway bridge and there was smoke and bike parts everywhere and a couple of guys sliding up the road," Jessopp added.

"One of them was my close friend in the paddock, Dan Cooper, and he was up on the pavement. Ryan Farquhar had crashed there and Dan had nowhere to go and ran over him. But the good news is Ryan has been taken out of intensive care and is making steps in the right direction."

As a result of the incident racing was ended for the day and Superstock was pushed to the second race day – meaning with six races on the day and riders only allowed to take part in five maximum, Jessopp had to make the tough choice to drop one.

After securing another podium (second this time) in Supersport things started well once again, but shortly before Mitchell-Thomas' crash in Supertwin, Jessop had an incident of his own which made the decision of which race to drop for him.

"I went to do my warm-up lap with a new tyre and halfway round I got spat off the bike on a really fast highside coming out of one of the corners," he said.

"I came down heavy, hit the kerb and then went down the grass bank. It was a bit of a shock and it took the wind out of me. I composed myself after about a minute on the floor and realised nothing was broken, but the bike was pretty smashed up so that was the end for that bike.

"The next race around half an hour later was the Superbike. I did the warm-up lap but was struggling to move on the bike so we had to bring it in. You have to be on your game and 100 per cent fit to muscle them round."

With Jessopp due to be back in British Superbikes Championship action this weekend at Brands Hatch, there is concern that fitness could be an issue.

Yet the sad scenes seen at the North West 200 has not put him off road races, with the Isle of Man TT a little over a week away (May 28 to June 10).

"I'm working as hard as I can to be ready for the weekend. At the minute, though, I wouldn't be able to ride a Superbike. I'm pretty bashed up," Jessopp concluded.

"It was a freak accident when we had the problem. It didn't do anything to my confidence, in road races you can't have that worry because otherwise you wouldn't go out there.

"I would definitely do all the classes again. I'm doing them all at the TT."

Thanks to the Western Gazette for the use of this story.