Ton-up Jonny revs up for flying start
The 2013 motorcycle racing season officially gets underway this weekend with the opening round of the World Superbike Championship, at Phillip Island in Australia – with local hopes firmly pinned on the shoulders of Ulstermen Jonathan Rea (Pata Honda) and Eugene Laverty (Aprilia Racing).
Rea, who has remained loyal to Honda in various teams since taking to the tarmac back in 2003, enters his fifth season of World Superbike competition with the Dutch based Ten Kate outfit.
He will make his 100th World Superbike start at Phillip Island on Sunday but the burning question is: can he be a genuine title contender on a machine that many consider to be second rate against the might of BMW, Aprilia and, in recent seasons, Kawasaki?
JR has 10 career World Superbike victories from his 27 podiums to date, but since taking the runners-up spot in the World Supersport class in 2008, it's been a tough battle to keep the temperamental Honda Fireblade in and around the top six – despite some heroic performances.
With more input from HRC, and undoubtedly his strongest team-mate to date in fellow British rider Leon Haslam, I can see the newly branded Pata Honda team making significant progress this season.
But without letting my heart rule my head, I feel an end of season top four position is possibly the best we should expect from Rea on the Honda – with the obligatory two or three top steps.
Eugene Laverty (right) on the other hand, is on the championship winning Aprilia RSV4 Factory machine – taken to the title last year by Max Biaggi – and will be expected to challenge for the title by both his team and the series pundits.
Laverty had internal problems last year having to deal with a team and bike that was built purposely around the little Italian.
But with Biaggi now soaking up the sun and counting his retirement fund in Monaco – where Laverty is also now resident – it should hopefully give the quietly spoken Toomebridge man a chance to really shine.
With former GP ace Sylvain Guintoli his new team-mate, the Aprilia Racing Team should be challenging for podiums on a regular basis.
But with only six podiums and one win last season, Eugene will need to come out of the blocks firing on all cylinders if his intention is to seriously challenge Marco Melandri (BMW), Tom Sykes (Kawasaki) and Carlos Checa (Ducati) for the title.
My dark horse in the pack is Welshman Chaz Davies on the BMW. He's a smart rider with a strong racing brain and the BMW package could assist him in becoming the top British Isles rider at the end of the season.
There is additional local interest in the World Supersport class this season with Dubliner Jack Kennedy joining the Russian based RivaMoto Honda team. The 25-year-old will be under the watchful eye of team manager and former Grand Prix ace Jeremy McWilliams, from Glengormley.
Sunday's World Superbike races will be live on Eurosport with race one commencing at 1.00am (BST) the second 22-lap race at 4.30am, so set the alarm clocks!