It is extremely tight at the top in many of the bike categories after two rounds in this year’s Suzuki International Series and that means the racing will go down to the wire at the final round in Whanganui on Boxing Day.

Racing was frenetic at the weekend’s second round of three in the series at Manfeild, on the outskirts of Feilding, with upsets and surprises at every turn as title contenders stepped up the pace and this caused plenty of reshuffling in the series points.

The key now will be how the main players handle the entirely different scenario of street racing on Boxing Day. 

The third and final round of this popular annual series will once more send the riders tearing around the famous Cemetery Circuit, this traditional post-Christmas spectacular on Whanganui’s closed-off public streets on December 26, sure once again to be a sensational crowd-pleaser.

However, this year’s edition could be even more nerve-tingling than before, with virtually nothing to separate the top two protagonists in the premier Formula One Superbike class – visiting British champion Richard Cooper and Whakatane’s Damon Rees.

Rees is a former Boxing Day winner, having tasted glory in the 600cc Formula Two class at Whanganui last year, but he is yet to take to the twists and turns of the Cemetery Circuit on a fire-breathing 1000cc superbike.

Cooper, on the other hand, has impeccable credentials when it comes to street racing, having jumped onto the podium at the famous North West 200 event in Ireland earlier this year, but he has zero experience around Whanganui.

It surely sets things up for a thrilling Boxing Day showdown between these two men.

It is a similar story in several of the other bike classes too, with just six points between Upper Hutt’s Rogan Chandler and Palmerston North’s Ashton Hughes at the top of the 600cc F2 class; just one point to separate Whanganui pair Ashley Payne and Dwayne Bishop at the top of the Formula Sport/Bears (senior) class and only four points between the new leader in the Formula Sport/Bears (junior) class, North Shore-based expatriate Brazilian Gui Mendes, from his nearest challenger, Dunedin’s Michael Lee.  

It’s also tight at the top of the Post Classic Pre-89 (senior) class, with just nine points between Napier’s Eddie Kattenberg and Hastings rider Gian Louie, while, in the Post Classic Pre-89 (junior) class, there is just one solitary point to separate Woodville’s Kieren O’Neill and Castor Bay’s Scott Findlay at the top of the series standings.

“It was a perfect weekend for me even after I arrived at Manfeild a little bit late on Friday (for unofficial practice) and missed a couple of sessions,” said the 36-year-old Cooper.

“I had stayed in Taupo for the week but underestimated the time I’d need to drive across the country and get down to Manfeild,” he laughed the man from Nottingham.

“We did a lot of work with the bike using old tyres on Friday and again used the same old tyres on Saturday morning and didn’t put new tyres on the bike until qualifying on Saturday afternoon. I obviously benefitted from the extra grip and took pole position, going under the lap record.

“I knew then that I had the bike underneath me to be able to fight for the win. Once I got that first race out of the way (with a win over Rees), I felt I was in control for the rest of the weekend.”

“Damo (Rees) pushed me all the way and he’s had a good go at me in a couple of areas, but the good thing is I was able to respond better than I was able to at Taupo, where his track knowledge was way superior to mine. This track at Manfeild was a lot easier for me to learn.”

Cooper and Rees will be on fairly equal footing, however, at Whanganui on Boxing Day and that could produce some fireworks for the spectators.

For Whanganui rider Richie Dibben it was a mixed bag at Manfeild.

He was clearly the fastest rider in the supermoto class (for light-modified 450cc dirt bikes), extending his series lead from seven to 13 points over new No.2 rider in the class, Whanganui’s James Clarke, and Dibben was among the leading riders in the F2 class as well, although his F2 outings were beset by problems.

Dibben was leading the first F2 race when it was stopped early on after another rider had crashed. Dibben took the lead in the re-start but, just three laps into the race, he was shunted off his bike by another rider as they exited a corner and Dibben’s bike was sent sliding 270 metres down the track in a shower of sparks before it eventually came to a stop. This resulted in a non-finish for Dibben and immediate disqualification from the series for the other rider.

Dibben finished third in the next F2 race and then won the final F2 race of the weekend, lifting him from eight after round one to now settle at fourth in the series standings, just four points off a podium position, something he’ll look to achieve on his home track at Whanganui on Boxing Day.

The GIXXER Cup class should also deliver drama at Whanganui, with as many as a dozen riders bunched up and challenging for the win in all races at both rounds thus far.

Originally created in 2017 with the aim of providing a starting place and a pathway towards “growing future champions”, the GIXXER Cup has proven to be a runaway success and it is impossible to pick a winner here until the final races are run on Boxing Day.

Currently, it is Hamilton’s Jesse Stroud, son of Suzuki’s record nine-time former New Zealand superbike champion Andrew Stroud, who leads this class.

Leading standings after the second round of three in the 2019 Suzuki International Series at Manfeild at the weekend:

Formula One Superbikes: 1. UK’s Richard Cooper 118 points; 2. Whakatane’s Damon Rees 117; 3. Alastair Hoogenboezem 85.

Formula Two (600cc): 1. Upper Hutt’s Rogan Chandler 98 points; 2. Palmerston North’s Ashton Hughes 92; 3. Auckland’s Toby Summers 75.5.

Formula Three: 1. Taumarunui’s Leigh Tidman 127 points; 2. France’s Xavier Denis 108; 3. Auckland’s Matt Dunlop 96. 

GIXXER Cup: 1. Hamilton’s Jesse Stroud 114 points; 2. Whanganui’s Caleb Gilmore 102; 3. Whanganui’s Luca Durning 92.

Formula Sport/Bears, senior: 1. Whanganui’s Ashley Payne 99 points; 2. Whanganui’s Dwayne Bishop 98; 3. Ngaruawahia’s Steve Bridge 89.

Formula Sport/Bears, junior: 1. North Shore’s Gui Mendes 130; 2. Dunedin’s Michael Lee 126; 3. Wellington’s Ian Reed 124. 

Post Classics, Pre 89, senior: 1, Napier’s Eddie Kattenberg 123 points; 2. Hastings’ Gian Louie 114; 3. Invercargill’s Jon Rawcliffe 98.

Post Classics, Pre 89, junior: 1. Woodville’s Kieren O’Neill 119; 2. Castor Bay’s Scott Findlay 118; 3. Lower Hutt’s Dean Bentley 100.

F1 sidecars: 1. Auckland’s Peter Goodwin and Kendal Dunlop 125 points; 2. Australia’s Jeremy Joyce and Whanganui’s Louise Blythe 102; 3. Christchurch’s Dennis Charlett and Dan Jenkins 78. 

F2 sidecars: 1. Tauranga’s Barry Smith and Tracey Bryan 120 points; 2. Australia’s Sam Watson and New Zealand’s Jo Mickleson 96; 3. Auckland’s Mark Halls and Darren Prentis 84. 

Supermoto: 1. Whanganui’s Richie Dibben 102 points; 2. Whanganui’s James Clarke 89; 3. Kapiti’s Matt Brough 86.

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Credit: Words and Photo by Andy McGechan