Laverty or Rea? The duel begins
After a stunning opening test at Phillip Island with new team Voltcom Crescent Suzuki, Toomebridge exile Eugene Laverty, is ready to become a World Superbike Championship challenger as soon as round one this weekend at the famous Southern Hemisphere venue.
Laverty finished runner-up in last season's WSB championship with the out-and-out factory effort of Italian giants Aprilia. Many thought the Monaco-based Ulsterman's decision to move onto the ageing and somewhat unfancied GSX-R1000 Suzuki, was a massive gamble, but is he proving otherwise?
Since working his way through two European tests and this week's pre-event run out at Phillip Island, Laverty has already declared the UK team's Suzuki chassis, the best he's ever ridden around the Victoria circuit.
He surprisingly topped the timesheets on day one; then finished the two-day test just 3/10ths of a second behind reigning world champion and bitter rival Tom Sykes on the factory Kawasaki.
Laverty's team-mate, reigning British Superbike champ Alex Lowes – a rookie in this season's WSB championship – was possibly the most impressive rider on track, taking third place over the two days on the second Voltcom Suzuki. But the benchmark of Laverty's performances among local fans will be how he fares against Northern Ireland rival Jonathan Rea (right).
The Ballyclare man, who now resides in the Isle of Man, enters his sixth full season in World Superbike with the Dutch based Ten Kate squad – currently branded Pata Honda.
Rea's whole career has been spent with the Japanese giants on the tarmac – both in British championship and now on the global stage – and while many believe he should have taken up previous offers from the likes of BMW, Ducati (in MotoGP) and even Suzuki, he remains an HRC man through-and-through.
Sadly, Honda's main focus with the production based Fireblade no longer seems to include lifting the WSB title, with HRC more intent on ring-fencing Rea for their Suzuka 24-Hour race effort each season. And the promise of a move to MotoGP seems nothing more than a pipe dream these days, despite acquitting himself well as a stand-in for Casey Stoner at Misano and Aragon back in 2012.
The bottom line is the affable Ulsterman's talent has never been in question. But when you compare his 15 podiums accumulated from the past three seasons aboard the Honda, against Laverty's one year effort of 19 on the Aprilia, then it doesn't take an expert to work out that a title bid in 2014 is somewhat of a monumental task; especially on a machine that quite frankly just isn't good enough to allow JR to challenge at the sharp end on a regular basis.
The 'best Irish rider' debate that gets thrown up regularly in many a late night pub conversation could well be answered this season.
It's very difficult to compare apples and oranges as they say, but I feel the rivalry between the pair will be intensify this season, despite poker faces being guaranteed on grids from Australia through to Europe, and the obvious question side-stepped in a raft of media interviews.
It's a difficult enough task beating your team-mate at that level, but local pride is always at stake.
Let's hope they get to dispute the 'who is best' debate not just on track this term, but also get to chink more than the odd bottle of bubbly on the podium.
Beginning of course, this Sunday at Phillip Island.