Superbike champion Jonathan Rea eyes long World reign
Reigning World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea will kick off his title defence this weekend as the opening round of the 2016 season - at Phillip Island in Australia - gets under way with race one on Saturday (4am UK time).
The Isle of Man-based Ulsterman took a fairytale debut win for Kawasaki at Phillip Island during his record-breaking season just 12 months ago - which coincidentally was also his first career success at the Aussie venue - but said a pragmatic approach to the opening two rounds as defending champion is very important.
After two days of testing at Phillip Island, which saw the Ballyclare lad post the second fastest time overall - just two tenths of a second behind KRT team-mate and bitter rival Tom Sykes - he was in optimistic mood.
"The target is to be on the podium in both races, but it's equally as important just to get points on the board at the fly-away races and be healthy coming back into Europe," he explained, referring to round one Down Under and round two in Thailand on March 12-13.
Having spent what seems like a shortened winter break perfecting the set-up on the Kawasaki Racing Team's all-new ZX-10R, which certain corners of the press had both Rea and Sykes struggling to fine tune, he simply said: "As my Dad always told me, 'When the flag drops… the taking stops'."
To a degree, that comment was shrewdly directed at his team-mate Sykes, who has openly stated that he felt a 'Team 65' developed at KRT last season, causing unnecessary division within the factory Kawasaki set-up.
It's a well-known fact that there's no love lost between the pair, with 2013 champion Sykes still smarting at Kawasaki for bringing Rea into the KRT set-up, which undoubtedly put his nose out of joint at the beginning of last season.
Speaking of his team-mate, Rea said astutely: "The relationship between Tom and I is fine.
"It is as good as it can be between two very driven, competitive team-mates.
"I want to remain respectful to Tom because he is a top rider. Yes I'm reading a lot of stuff and he is maybe running his mouth off a little bit after last season, but I'm just happy to continue concentrating on what I'm doing."
The rule changes in World Superbike for 2016 will now see the races split over two days - on Saturday and Sunday - as opposed to having both on Sunday, which has been implemented to increase spectator attendances.
This certainly plays into the hands of those teams who can perfect a set-up nice and early, with Friday's two one-hour sessions becoming more important than ever.
Discussing the changes, Rea added: "It will be very exciting this year as we go straight into it on a Saturday.
"Race one will be a learning curve for a lot of us this year, so it's even more important to be prepared.
"But on that front I have a crew who I feel very confident in and who I believe can plan the weekend for me."
Rea is bidding to become the first rider to successfully defend the World Superbike Championship since fellow Brit Carl Fogarty in 1999, and with the coveted No.1 plate proudly displayed on his KRT machinery, it really could be a memorable season for the Ulsterman and his huge fan base.