Rea in pole as hat-trick bid gathers pace
Reigning World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea, going for his third successive title, is aiming to extend his lead in Thailand during round two of the 2017 SBK series at the Chang International Circuit today.
But like the rest of world motorsport, the Ulsterman will be offering his heartfelt sympathies to the greatest of them all, John Surtees, who sadly passed away yesterday at the age of 83.
Surtees is the only man to have won world championships at the very highest level on two wheels and four.
He reigned victorious in the 500cc Grand Prix Motorcycle World Championship on four occasions - 1956, '58, '59 and '60 - and was uniquely crowned Formula 1 World champion just four years later in 1964.
Rea arrives in Thailand off the back of a double race win at the opening round in Australia a fortnight ago, and having won three of only four World Superbike races to be held on the new 4.554-mile Chang circuit, the Kawasaki star will again start favourite in today's opening SBK race of the weekend.
Explaining his strategy in free practice, that saw him top the early timesheets, Rea said: "We focused on a race simulation at the start and then at the end I just waited to set a time until the last laps.
"We do not have a massive allocation of my favourite front tyres, but all in all, we are pretty okay."
Riding in 34 degrees heat is as much a mechanical challenge as it is physical for the riders and teams, but Rea's team-mate Tom Sykes and Aruba.it Ducati's Chaz Davies kept him on his toes in the early sessions in second and third place respectively.
Marco Melandri on the second factory Ducati, Yamaha-mounted Englishman Alex Lowes and Spaniard Xavi Fores filled out the remaining top six places in free practice, with Rea's fellow Ulsterman Eugene Laverty battling to 10th place, which affords him an automatic spot in the all-important Superpole 2 qualifying session.
Upbeat Laverty said of his factory-supported Milwaukee Aprilia: "We're into Superpole 2, so we're going in the right direction.
"It's a new track that I've had to learn, but after today I'm optimistic we can move forward in the opening race," commented Laverty, who was competing in MotoGP up until last season.
The opening SBK race from Thailand takes place this morning at the Chang International Circuit from 9.00am GMT.
Race two is tomorrow also at 9.00am.