Michael Laverty vows to shine under pressure at British Superbike Championship
This season's British Superbike Championship is reaching the business end of proceedings and, ahead of this weekend's triple-header at Oulton Park in Cheshire, Michael Laverty carries the biggest hopes of title delight for Northern Ireland.
Laverty's season has been tumultuous to say the least aboard the Moneymore-based Tyco BMW, and while the affable Ulsterman - now based in Wales - isn't ready to give up the fight, his focus must remain solely on making this weekend's top six cut-off in the world's toughest domestic series. It will be no walk in the park.
Currently fourth in the standings, the Toome rider, who has won two races this season in amongst a number of major blips, explained: "I will not hide the fact that there is big pressure on this weekend. Yes we deserve to be in the Showdown top six, but luck has not always been on our side and we don't have a big cushion over the guys below me. We really can't afford a bad weekend."
Laverty bookended the opening 12 races of the season with wins - on the opening day at Silverstone and a superbly executed top step at Thruxton in round six.
His 45-point haul at Thruxton looked to be the tonic he needed to revive his flagging Championship effort, but the month of August was a major setback.
Picking up only two points at Brands Hatch wasn't helped by an engine failure in race two. Then, at Cadwell Park's sinuous and quite frankly dangerously narrow Lincolnshire venue, the former British Supersport champion just didn't get out of the blocks.
Tenth and 12th-placed finishes don't win Championships, and it has put Laverty in a precarious position.
"I only have a seven-point cushion to sixth so this weekend is no formality, but I want to be riding for wins, not just for consistent results," said Laverty.
On his up and down form, he said: "It's hard to pinpoint. In the early rounds we were possibly in the wrong place at the wrong time, then we had a great weekend at Thruxton and have been in the doldrums since then. We know what happened at Brands Hatch and for me at Cadwell we were two days behind and we chased the set-up.
"It's just circumstance, but I know we have a good strong package. It's hard to explain to people why you end up finishing 10th without sounding like you are making excuses."
With the all-important Showdown rounds including Donington as well as Assen in the Netherlands, and concluding at Brands Hatch, Laverty said of his chances: "We are still fourth in the Championship and third on podium credits. Yes we are 30 behind Shakey (Shane Byrne - Championship leader) but anything can happen.
"I still believe I'm a Championship challenger on the Tyco BMW and I know I can win at Donington in the first Showdown round.
"I know the strengths of the BMW package and we can win races at the final three rounds and challenge Byrne, Leon Haslam and Jason O'Halloran.
"It's strange but when you qualify for the top six places the pressure is off a little and you can hang it out. But first of all we need to make that top six this weekend at Oulton. I'm confident we can deliver."
Laverty's countryman Glenn Irwin, as a series rookie, is under no pressure at Oulton Park.
But the Carrickfergus ace is currently loving life in the BeWiser PBM Ducati team, as team-mate to four-time BSB champion Byrne, and could spring a surprise on his more experienced rivals.
Having taken a debut BSB podium at Thruxton, coincidentally on the same day that Laverty took his superbly executed top step, it all went pear-shaped at Brands and Cadwell - but the former double Irish Supersport champion has shown tremendous promise.
Fourth place at Brands Hatch in race two was backed up with gutsy performances at Cadwell Park, which, in short, sorts the men from the boys. Irwin came from outside the top 10 in both races to claim fifth and seventh-placed finishes.
His current chances of a Showdown spot are slim, being 52 points behind sixth-placed man James Ellison on the JG Speedfit Kawasaki. But it will not stop the Ulsterman with the ever-present grin doing his utmost to give a few of the favourites a sleepless night on Saturday after the opening race of three.
Record-breaking Vauxhall International North West 200 winner Alastair Seeley - who recently announced he too would be joining the growing new dad's club in the BSB paddock next year - is not a Championship contender, but will be looking to end on a high.
Riding the RAF Reserves BMW didn't quite give the 17-time NW200 winner the wings he needed this year on his return to the premier British Superbike class, but he's no slouch at Oulton and will be hungry to prove his class.
Practice and qualifying get under way tomorrow and Saturday and are followed by the opening race at 4pm. The final two BSB races to settle the Showdown top six take place on Sunday at 1.35pm and 4.35pm.