Jonathan Rea ready to throw down gauntlet
Ulsterman Jonathan Rea was afforded membership to an elite club of just four riders when he clinched back-to-back World Superbike titles last year.
But with all the counters rolled back to zero ahead of the first two races of the 2017 campaign this weekend in Australia, the 30-year-old is now aiming to become the first rider in history to win three World Superbike crowns on the spin, and all with his Kawasaki Racing Team.
And Rea, who has recorded a phenomenal 46 podiums from his 52 races to date with Kawasaki, has already laid down a marker by topping this week's timesheets in the final pre-season outing at Phillip Island, with the real work getting under way with race one on Saturday morning.
"Now we have picked the bike we will use for the race weekend and put the package together, I can say that we have had such a good off-season. I feel I have done a really good job with my personal condition and I have managed to stay healthy so far," said Rea, who did kick back for a couple of weeks after his second title success, packing on a few extra kilos by eating what he wanted and having a few well deserved beers and nights out with friends and family.
Now back in the groove after four days of testing in Spain and this final two-day stint Down Under in preparation for round one at Phillip Island this weekend, he said: "Every winter test we've done, we have been working step by step. So during this time, it was not about re-inventing the wheel.
"Already the ZX-10RR has given us some more potential. We were already at a high level. This winter was about building the package, building momentum and confidence. Now I feel like I have it, so I just hope we can stay safe and bag some big points at the start of the new season."
Rea's immediate goal is to remain in World Superbike and become a three-time champion, with Carl Fogarty's stand-alone record of four career WSB crowns an obvious future target, as he told me not long after becoming a double title holder last year.
Rea is quietly confident of adding a third title in 2017 - and why wouldn't he be? - but he also understands that the level of competition is set to be even stronger this campaign.
Ducati-mounted Welshman Chaz Davies will undoubtedly be his biggest rival, with Rea's Kawasaki team-mate and former champion Tom Sykes always ready to challenge for top spot.
And when prodigal sons Marco Melandri (Ducati) and Ulsterman Eugene Laverty at Milwaukee Aprilia are factored in, Rea knows full well that the grid will be packed with a plethora of riders with hankering aspirations of title success.
"We can really only worry about ourselves," he added. "We know how to win a Championship having done it twice now, and we will continue with the step by step philosophy that we've applied from the very start."