Northern Ireland’s Lee Johnston set the fastest Superbike lap time on the Honda Racing Fireblade on the opening day of practice at the 2018 Vauxhall International North West 200.

The diminutive Fermanagh man was almost 2.7 seconds faster than the rest of the field, with Michael Dunlop second fastest on the Tyco BMW.

Johnston, who has joined Ian Hutchinson in the team in a new-look line-up for 2018, said: “Everything felt good with the bike and so do I. We still have to make changes, lots of changes, and we have very little data from last year so there is plenty of work to do with the bike. But I feel good in myself on the Honda.”

A shower of rain before the start of the Superbike session, plus a red flag when Dutch rider Johan Fredriks’ crashed at University corner, played havoc with the Superbike qualifying session.

Ballymoney man Dunlop had a strong first day on the Tyco BMW as he was second quickest ahead of Yorkshire’s James Cowton on the McAdoo Kawasaki.

BSB star Glenn Irwin, last year’s feature Superbike race winner, set the fourth fastest time on the PBM Ducati. However, the Carrickfergus man, who is competing only in the Superbike class, was far from happy after managing only three laps in total.

Irwin said: “I would have been better off going to the BSB test at Snetterton.”

James Hillier (Quattro Plant Kawasaki) and Conor Cummins (Padgett’s Honda) completed the top six.

Many of the Superbike riders were just beginning their fastest laps when the session was stopped, catching out 21-time winner Alastair Seeley, Dan Kneen, Peter Hickman, Dean Harrison and Michael Rutter.

Hickman said: “There was a damp start to the Superbike session so we took our time getting going and by the time we were up to speed the red flag came out.”

Lee Johnston’s Honda team-mate, Ian Hutchinson, finished 12th fastest in the Superbike class as he makes his return from a long injury lay-off.

Seeley also struggled in the earlier Supersport session before bouncing back to top the timesheets on his Tyco BMW in the Superstock category.

Michael Rutter was second fastest on the Bathams BMW in the damp session with Dan Kneen (Tyco BMW) and Michael Dunlop (MD Racing BMW) third and fourth to make it a good day at the office for Tyco boss Philip Neill.

The Dunlop brothers, Michael (MD Racing Honda) and William (Caffrey Yamaha), dominated Supersport qualifying, finishing first and second.

James Hillier (Quattro Plant Kawasaki was third ahead of Johnston on the Padgett’s Honda and last year’s 600cc winner Martin Jessopp (Riders Motorcycles Triumph). Tobermore’s Adam McLean, who finished fourth in last year’s Saturday Supersport race was sixth quickest on the McAdoo Kawasaki.

Ex-GP rider Jeremy McWilliams, a double North West 200 winner, is making his return to the seaside races this year after sitting out the 2017 event. However, the 54-year-old failed to qualify on Ryan Farquhar’s KMR Kawasaki due to machine problems.

Derek McGee, also riding a KMR Kawasaki, topped the time sheets from Martin Jessopp (Riders Motorcycles Kawasaki) and Adam McLean.

Final qualifying resumes on Thursday before the first three races in the Supersport, Superstock and Supertwins classes later in the evening.