By Barry Russell
While the British Superbike paddock was bracing itself for a wet, chilly season opener at Brands Hatch, the championship's most successful rider, Ryuichi Kiyonari, got his preparations underway for the Petronas Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) in last week's official test at Sepang.
The three-time BSB champion headed east after the 2011 season to lead Team MUSASHi Boon Siew Honda Malaysia's campaign in the ARRC's flagship Supersport 600 class.
Over the last few seasons the series has become the most important in Asia, with racing as closely competitive as any seen in world supersport or the top national supersport championships.
As evidence of the level in the series, the previous weekend had seen Yamaha Thailand's two previous ARRC Supersport champions, Decha and Chalermpol, take a one-two in the All Japan series opener.
The Sepang test was no walk in the park for Kiyonari as he and his mechanics worked hard to get the Supersport machine set-up. He finished the test seventh on the timesheets.
“I am always ready to race,” said Kiyonari. “But this year, there is a change in my situation. I have spent the last 10 years on Superbikes. Getting used to the character of the 600cc machine will take a bit of adjustment.”
Reigning champion, former World Superbike and World Supersport rider, Katsuaki Fujiwara, set the fastest time in the test for Kawasaki, followed by Kiyonari's team-mate and 2011 Suzuka 4-hour endurance champion Azlan Shah.
Kiyonari's move is seen as part of a long-term plan by Honda to establish a grip on the ARRC Supersport series, which, prior to Fujiwara's win in 2011, had been taken in the previous three years by Yamaha Thailand.
As well as strengthening the Malaysia's Boon Siew team, Thailand's national franchisee, AP Honda, are joining the party by fielding a two man team comprising Ratthapong Wilairot (Ratthapark's younger brother) and 'Tingnote' Thitipong Warakorn, who won the Thailand superbike championship for Petronas Yamaha in 2010 before switching to Honda with Panadda Racing in 2011.