It's official, the Kiwi motorcycle road-racing season is off to a flying start. There was a huge buzz in the air as the popular annual Suzuki Series got under way at the undulating Hampton Downs race circuit near Meremere at the weekend, but there is no time for riders to catch their breath with round two set for Manfeild this coming weekend.
If the handlebar-tangling action at Hampton Downs is any indicator, it is sure to be a sizzling hot summer of racing ahead.
This three-round Suzuki Series threatens to rival the New Zealand Superbike Championships in terms of rider numbers and prestige. This competition is traditionally the first real chance for national championship hopefuls to put to the test all their pre-season fine-tuning, gym training and on-track practice sessions before the nationals proper begin in January.
The third and final round of the Suzuki Series is the legendary Boxing Day public street race on Wanganui's famous Cemetery Circuit.
The four-round national championship series follows immediately afterwards, so the Suzuki Series is the perfect time for national title hopefuls to be finding their pace.
Christchurch's Dennis Charlett (Suzuki GSX-R1000) is the defending Suzuki Series champion in the premier formula one class and he knows he has his work cut out again this season, with fellow Suzuki riders Sloan "Choppa" Frost, from Wellington, Taupo's Scott Moir and Te Awamutu's David Hall among those who threaten to take the Suzuki Series' formula one trophy for themselves.
Hamilton's Nick Cole, in particular, and New Plymouth's Hayden Fitzgerald are also contenders in the formula one class.
Feilding's Craig Shirriffs and James Smith of Christchurch are also extremely quick, but these men have opted not to contest the Wanganui street race, making it virtually impossible for them to win the series.
Frost celebrated the most formula one wins in the Suzuki Series last season, but was denied outright victory by an unfortunate crash at Hampton Downs.
He is determined not to settle for the overall runner-up spot again this time around.
"I won three of the six formula one races last year but crashed while leading one of the races at Hampton Downs," said the 32-year-old.
"That one DNF last year cost me a lot and I just have to be a little more consistent," said Frost, who finished the day runner-up to Kawasaki ace Cole at Hampton Downs on Saturday.
"But, if I can knock half a second off my times, I think I can win the Suzuki Series."
However, Frost will first have to fend off the threat presented by Cole, who won the day at Hampton Downs with 1-2 results, putting Cole three points ahead of Frost (who managed 3-1 results) as they head to Manfeild, and 11 points ahead of defending champion Charlett (who finished 2-6 on Saturday).
With more than $36,000 in prize money, the Suzuki Series attracts the cream of New Zealand's road-race talent, but also lures a blend of international stars, although Britain's Isle of Man legend Guy Martin (Suzuki GSX-R1000) will arrive to contest only the street races at Wanganui on Boxing Day.
The Australians have arrived in force this season, with Chris Seaton, Craig Trinder, Linden Magee and father and daughter pair Phil and Sophie Lovett leading the charge.
Popular German racer Thomas Kreutz, his friend from Dresden, Steve Mizera, and Britain's Malachi Mitchell-Thomas add European flavour to the mix.
A record number of sidecar entries lined up at Hampton Downs and the spectacle of the F1 sidecar rigs swapping paint will again have the crowd on their feet at Manfeild and, no doubt, on Wanganui's streets too.
Racing at Manfeild this weekend should again be fierce in the F2 600cc, F3 sportbikes, post classics, Bears (non-Japanese bikes), and Super moto classes, with huge entries in all categories.