Ulsterman out to add to his record World title haul
World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea is facing a fresh set of challenges in 2020 as he prepares to bid for a sixth successive crown at Phillip Island in Australia next weekend.
The Kawasaki star has dominated the championship since his maiden title success in 2015, although Spaniard Alvaro Bautista's sustained assault on his throne last year presented Rea with his toughest season to date.
Ex-MotoGP rider Bautista has left the factory Ducati team to head up a new HRC project on the brand new Honda Fireblade along with Briton Leon Haslam, who was Rea's KRT team-mate in 2019.
Bautista showed what he is capable of last year when he won the first 11 races in a row to seriously threaten Rea's unbroken run of championship triumphs.
Whether former 125cc world champion Bautista can muster a similar challenge this year on the new Honda remains to be seen, but the Ducati V4 will almost certainly be an even stronger package following a year of development.
Bautista has been replaced in the Italian team by British Superbike champion Scott Redding - himself a former MotoGP rider - who is being hyped as a major contender for the title.
Redding proved many of his critics wrong when he won the BSB title last year for Paul Bird's Ducati team and he has been similarly impressive during winter testing on the factory bike.
Rea, though, knows better than anyone that all the pre-season bluster counts for nothing and says the real picture will only become clear after the first few rounds of the championship unfold.
"I think there's a lot of unknown quantities this year, with a lot of people moving manufacturers," Rea said.
"More than ever, consistency is going to be a vital asset in 2020. I'll just continue to focus on myself, and after the first four or five rounds everyone will eventually find their place.
"I had to come from behind to win the 2019 championship, and that was a valuable lesson in just focusing on my own form and not worrying about everyone else. We have to wait and see, you always have to see how racing goes."
World Superbike rookie Redding has the utmost respect for Rea's achievements but has made it clear he only has one target in mind in his maiden year in the championship.
"The guy has so many titles, with the same bike, same colours, same team, it's kind of on repetition: when you get good at something, why change a winning package?" Redding said.
"He is the guy to beat and he has won many championships, I have great respect for him for that but I do want to try to beat him this year."
Honda and Ducati aren't the only teams vying for the top spot this year though, with the Pata Yamaha squad boasting a strong line-up with new signing Toprak Razgatlioglu joining Michael van der Mark, while former champion Tom Sykes and Northern Ireland's Eugene Laverty are aiming to be in the mix for the factory BMW Motorrad team.
Rea's new teammate Alex Lowes also cannot be dismissed lightly as the season ahead appears to be one of the most unpredictable yet in Superbikes.
The one certainty is that Rea will take all the beating as he bids to win the world title for an incredible sixth successive season, starting off at Phillip Island.
"Of course I'd love to leave Phillip Island with three race wins, but it's a 39-race championship and it's more important that I leave Australia healthy and with a platform for the rest of the year," Rea said.
"You have to see how the chips fall in those first races and understand where the challenge is coming from but the target is to win another championship for the team, Kawasaki and myself," he added.
A final pre-season test will take place tomorrow and on Tuesday at Phillip Island, with free practice getting underway on Friday.
The opening race is scheduled for 4am UK time on Saturday with the Superpole race at 1am on Sunday, followed by race two at 4am.