Jonathan Rea throws down gauntlet as he closes in on historic title victory
World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea set the pace in the opening two practice sessions at Magny-Cours in France ahead of today's qualifying and first race of the weekend, with the 30-year-old Ulsterman aiming to wrap up an historic third successive title.
One of only four riders to dip under the one minute 37 second bracket for the 2.756-mile French track, Rea and his Kawasaki Racing Team machine were almost half a second faster than the Yamaha of Michael van der Mark, with the Ducati duo of Marco Melandri and Chaz Davies third and fourth respectively.
Rea's team-mate and closest challenger for the title, Tom Sykes, was down in ninth on his return after missing both races in Portugal following a practice accident in which he damaged a finger and wrist.
In yesterday's opening session, Eugene Laverty lost the front end of his Milwaukee Aprilia at turn six, but was unhurt and finished eighth fastest, 0.663 seconds slower than Rea and a tenth of a second slower than team-mate Lorenzo Savadori in fifth.
Laverty said: "The first session wasn't good. It felt like the bike was always looking to crash and it did happen, but we understood the problem and made a big step forward in session two. I'm sure with a few tweaks we can be competitive in the races."
After practice, Rea said: "It felt super good out there. We put a good package together and we have a good idea which one of the Pirelli tyre options we hope to run in the race. I am feeling good for long distance or a one-lap attack, the only downside may be the weather."
Speaking about his championship position, Rea said: "It's exciting, the team have done such a tremendous job all season. There are six races to go and I have a big advantage. I could win it tomorrow, in Jerez or Qatar, but it would be nice to get it wrapped up as soon as possible.
"I have a good set-up for the dry and we know we are fast, but if it rains it is a lottery. It's not the be all and end all to win it tomorrow, it is just to get the job done wherever."
If the Ballyclare rider, now resident in Castletown on the Isle of Man, does win today's opening race, that will be his 50th World Superbike victory, which would put him within touching distance of Carl Fogarty's record of 59. If he were to continue into 2018 in the same vein of form, that record could be in jeopardy.
Rea said: "To win 50 races would be massive and if I do it in race one it would be lost in having also won the championship. I have great memories of watching the likes of Fogarty, James Toseland and Neil Hodgson - they were heroes to me, now I'm one of them. It's surreal.
"It has got to the stage where there are more Northern Ireland flags being waved at the race meetings, wherever they are, than other British riders' flags and that makes me so proud."
Rea has had a remarkable run of results since joining the Kawasaki Racing Team in 2015, including 34 race wins (11 this season to date), which have resulted in two World championships and helped Kawasaki to their first Manufacturers' titles and two team championships.