The 2018 New Zealand Superbike Championships kick off in Christchurch this weekend and so will begin the battle to find the nation's best motorcycle road racers across half a dozen separate bike categories.
The nationals kick off at Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Christchurch, on January 6-7, with rounds to follow at Timaru's Levels International Raceway on January 13-14 and at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park near Meremere on March 3-4, before wrapping up at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo on March 17-18.
Most eyes will no doubt focus on the premier superbikes class, where the winner of the recent Suzuki Series, Taupo's Scott Moir, could be favoured, especially with 2017 superbike champion Tony Rees, of Whakatane, sidelined with injury.
Other frontrunners are likely to include Wellington's 2016 national superbike champion Sloan Frost, Glen Eden's Daniel Mettam, Whakatane's rising star Mitchell Rees, Christchurch's Alastair Hoogenboezem, Invercargill's Jeremy Holmes, New Plymouth's Hayden Fitzgerald and Tauranga's Jay Lawrence, among others, but it will be equally intense in the other bike classes too.
Perhaps of prime interest will be to see if Christchurch's Dennis Charlett can succeed in his bid to clinch the Superlites (Formula Three) title.
If he can win this class he will be the first rider to become a New Zealand champion in all the various bike classes.
He was national Lightweights champion in 2016, superbike champion in 2014 and 600cc supersports champion in 2012, adding to his 600cc sports production, 125GP, 250cc production class titles before that. He won the 650 Pro Twins class last season and all that remains for him to be New Zealand's most successful all-around racer is to win the Superlites trophy.
But it won't be easy for the 49-year-old Kiwi legend, with 23-year-old Aucklander Nathanael Diprose a first-timer in the Superlites class but already a proven title contender.
Diprose dominated the F3 class in the Suzuki Series in December, winning five out of six races, fending off attacks from equally-talented riders Gavin Veltmeyer, of Auckland, Whanganui's Ashley Payne and Hamilton's Jacob Stroud, and any of these men are also capable of taking the national crown.
Both Charlett and Diprose will be campaigning similar machines – basically they will be on Suzuki GSX-R600 bikes, with one of the four cylinders closed off to make them 450cc triples – and so it will all come down to pure riding talent and perhaps just a little luck.
Canterbury's Charlett and Huia resident Diprose have not raced against one another before, so this weekend's first showdown in Christchurch could set the tone for the series.
"Dennis will be on his home turf and I'm not so familiar with the place, but I think I'll do okay," says Diprose.
"I haven't done much riding in the South Island before. I'll certainly be happier on the North Island tracks. I set a lap record at Taupo (during the Suzuki Series) and I always feel good at Hampton Downs too.
"I raced this same machines as a 600cc bike last season and so I do feel comfortable on it. I'm familiar with the suspension, brakes and handling ... it's just got a little less power now and that's not such a bad thing."
All the various other classes – 600cc supersport, supersport 300 (previously known as lightweight production), 650 pro twins, 250cc production, 125GP and 250 Mono and sidecars – are overflowing with talent and it is almost impossible to pick a winner and perhaps even less so in the newly-created GIXXER Cup class, reserved for riders aged between 14 and 21 and all on identical Suzuki GSX150F bikes.
Also included as support classes in 2018 will be Formula One (basically last season's superbike-spec bikes on harder-compound tyres), supersport 600 B, Superlite B, supersport 150 (at the Christchurch round only) and the Carl Cox Motorsport Hyosung Cup (at rounds three and four only).
The 2018 New Zealand Superbike Championships are supported by Honda Cars, providing safety/medical vehicles, Pirelli tyres, Corprint, CTAS and MX Timing and the inaugural GIXXER Cup is supported by Suzuki New Zealand.
Credit: Words and photo by Andy McGechan, www.BikesportNZ.com