Andy McGechan welcomes the return of the high-velocity Superbike series this weekend
Defending New Zealand superbike champion Robbie Bugden has stolen a march on his rivals this season and it will take a superhuman effort for any of the Kiwi contenders to catch and pass the likeable Australian.
Bugden (Suzuki GSX-R1000) is 24 points clear of his nearest rival, Feilding's Craig Shirriffs (Suzuki GSX-R1000), after three of five rounds and, with just 100 points still on offer and only four races remaining, the mathematics are chilling.
Even if Bugden is beaten into second place by Shirriffs in each of the remaining four races - two superbike class outings at Hampton Downs this weekend (March 16-17) and two more at Taupo on March 23-24 - the Brisbane man will still win the title by four points.
In the six superbike races run thus far - two each at Ruapuna, Levels and Teretonga - Bugden has won five of them, his only setback coming when Shirriffs snatched away a race win at round two in Timaru.
It's fair to say, with such a mathematical advantage, Bugden looks set to continue on and wrap up his fifth New Zealand superbike title.
But anything can happen in motorsport, a minor slip-up, a rare third-placing by Bugden, a flat tyre, fuel blockage or snapped chain, and an upset is on the cards.
Then there is the "spanner in the works" factor, with any of half a dozen riders capable of springing an upset win. Christchurch's Dennis Charlett (Suzuki GSX-R1000) is third, albeit a massive 39 points behind Shirriffs, and Hamilton's Nick Cole (Kawasaki ZX10R) is fourth, another seven points further back.
Meanwhile, in the fiercely fought 600cc Supersport class, Canterbury's John Ross (Suzuki GSX-R600) has stretched his advantage at the top of the standings.
Christchurch man Ross arrived at round three at Teretonga just five points in front of his nearest challengers for the title, Katikati's Rhys Holmes (Yamaha R6) and Christchurch's Jake Lewis (Yamaha R6), but ended the day 30 points clear at the top, ahead of new No2 rider Jaden Hassan (Yamaha R6).
Hassan, in pain after breaking a bone in his hand, finished third and second in the two 600 Supersport races at Teretonga to put his campaign back on track.
The 31-year-old Ross scored back-to-back wins at Teretonga to place himself in a commanding position for the championship.
But, even with such an advantage, Hassan remains a threat to Ross. "I hold the lap record at both these two North Island tracks," said Hassan. "Unfortunately John Ross can probably win the championship from here, even just by finishing second to me, if that's how it works out.
"Put it this way, I wouldn't wish ill-luck on anyone but, if I was to win every race from here on and he was to finish third or fourth a couple of times, I wouldn't be disappointed."
In the 125GP and 250cc Production classes, Australian teenagers Troy Guenther and Luke Burgess enjoy their leads, while Balclutha's Richard Newbery dominates the Superlite championship. Wellington's Hamish Murphy heads the Pro Twins 650 series, although Lower Hutt's Dean Bentley is catching up.