Former World Superbike Championship runner-up Eugene Laverty is the first to acknowledge that he faces a stiff task if he’s to halt fellow countryman Jonathan Rea in 2017.
Already a double WSBK champion, Kawasaki hero Rea is targeting an unprecedented third consecutive title success this season on the KRT Ninja ZX-10RR.
The 30-year-old from Ballyclare has been a revelation on the ‘green meanie’ since he joined Kawasaki for 2015, dominating the championship and following up again in style last year to make it two-in-a-row.
Rea sets the benchmark for championship glory and heads into the opening round at Phillip Island in Australia next weekend with a target on his back as the 30-year-old attempts to make a winning start to the defence of his crown.
After two seasons in the MotoGP class, Laverty returns to World Superbikes on a factory-supported Aprilia in the Milwaukee colours under the Shaun Muir Racing banner.
Rea’s rivals will be queuing up to end his two years of Superbike supremacy and Laverty is as hungry as anyone to wrestle the title away from his formidable counterpart.
“I’m under no illusions and I don’t expect to go in and knock him off his mantle straight away because Johnny is going to be the toughest guy to beat,” Laverty told the News Letter. “On the track, Johnny is just another rival but it’s clear away from the track we understand the weight of it.
“Having both of us from somewhere as small as Northern Ireland at the top level of the sport is fantastic for everybody back home to be able to watch us and support us.”
The Toome man almost won the title for the Italian manufacturer in 2013, narrowly losing out to Yorkshireman Tom Sykes, who remains a key opponent as Rea’s team-mate in the official Kawasaki squad.
Laverty has some catching up to do in the wake of his absence from the class in 2015 and 2016, but the experienced 30-year-old has made sound progress in pre-season testing on the RSV4, finishing up second fastest at Portimao in Spain.
And the unassuming Northern Ireland rider is quietly optimistic he can make a flying start at Phillip Island, where won on his Crescent Suzuki debut in 2014.
“I’m feeling confident for round one at Phillip Island; we have a good base to work from and the team is working really well together. It’s one of my favourite tracks to ride, and with another test there I think we’re in a good position to really move forward,” he said.
“It was a very productive two days [testing at Portimao], much better than Jerez, and we made big breakthroughs to resolve the chatter I was having. I was able to do a lot of laps and really get it feeling like my bike again. I feel like I can race with it now and I felt comfortable on the race and qualifying tyres.”
A final two-day test will be held at Phillip Island prior to the first race of 2017 next Saturday, which is scheduled to take place at 4am UK time. Race two will be held at the same time next Sunday.