It's still only the dawn of Olympic qualification year, but all eyes will be on the New Zealand Laser nationals this weekend in what will mark the beginning of an intense battle over the next 12 months for the sole spot in London 2012.

More than 160 sailors will take to the water when the regatta kick off in Torbay tomorrow, but much of the interest will centre around the open fleet, with a visiting Australian squad of Olympic hopefuls adding spice to the battle.

Seasoned observers agree that the Laser class in New Zealand is the most competitive it has been in years.

Old hands such as Andrew Murdoch, a three-time world championship medallist, and Mike Bullot are being challenged by a trio of young guns keen to take their spots.

The rising tide was best illustrated at the 2010 world championships, where the five Kiwis all finished in the top 25.

At the world championships in Great Britain last year, Murdoch finished third. Josh Junior, 20, was sixth, Bullot, 26, came in 13th, Andy Maloney, 20, was 16th and Sam Meech, 19, was 25th.

It all means that Murdoch, who has set the pace in the Laser fleet for the past five years, will come under huge pressure over the next year to maintain his number one billing and secure his second consecutive Olympic berth.

But the 28-year-old, who finished fifth in Beijing, doesn't see the extra competition as a threat.

"Probably a few years ago I would have said yes, but I've kind of gotten used to it, and it's great to have that competition pushing me and making me better," he said. "Plus I'd rather be in that position than chasing, that's for sure."

Not only will the national title be on the line this weekend, the regatta also forms part of the selection process for the world championships in Perth at the end of the year.

Three places are likely to be determined from the nationals, but New Zealand could still have up to six sailors competing at the world championships, as other countries often don't have the talent to fill all the spots available to them.

So while it is likely all five of the New Zealand Laser squad will be in Perth, Murdoch is keen to seal his ticket this weekend.

Murdoch is expecting some stiff opposition from the strong Australian contingent.

After competing in a test event in Perth in December, Murdoch has spent the past month training and getting his fitness up for what will be a demanding year. But he feels slightly underdone heading in to the nationals.

"This is the first event in a busy year, so I'm obviously not wanting to be overcooked going in to it. It's not necessarily the absolute pinnacle event of the year, but it is an important step and there's things that I want to be getting out of the regatta."

Early next month Murdoch will compete in the Sail Auckland regatta - one of the biggest events on the local sailing calendar - before getting stuck in to another big block of training with the national squad as they gear up for a busy programme over the European summer.

He kicks off his European campaign in April with the Princess Sofia regatta in Spain, followed by French Olympic Sailing week. The first major event will be the Sail for Gold regatta in June, which will be held at the 2012 Olympic venue in Weymouth.

But the big focus this year will be the world championships in Perth.

Perth is the first chance for New Zealand to qualify a boat for the Olympics, and something would have to go drastically wrong for them to miss out, with a top 30 finish guaranteeing a spot.

The real battle will take place after the worlds, when the Yachting NZ selectors decide who should be awarded that spot.

Murdoch is reluctant to say what the selection process entails, but said performing consistently over the year will certainly help. He believes a strong display in Torbay this weekend will set him up well.

In the Radial division, New Zealand's top women will compete with the upcoming youth sailors for supremacy.

Sara Winther, a bronze medallist at last year's pre-Olympic regatta, will face strong competition from New Zealand's representative at the last Olympics, Jo Aleh, who is taking a break from her current Olympic 470 campaign.

There is also an extremely strong squad of youth sailors seeking an opportunity to emulate the world championship success of the youth Radial sailors at the past two ISAF World Youth Championships.

New Zealand laser championships

* Tomorrow-Monday
* Torbay, Auckland