'Bridesmaid' of racing aims to have last laugh
Having two Irish riders racing at World Championship level in the same class is something that we are not used to, but at Phillip Island, World champion Jonathan Rae was once more joined in the Superbike class by Toombridge's Eugene Laverty.
Laverty has been at the top of racing for many years now, but unlike his Ulster rival he has just failed on a number of occasions to get to the very top of the World Championship, finishing runner-up in World Supersport twice, and once in World Superbike.
Laverty comes from a great racing family, with his father Mickey a race winner on the roads, but for the young lads of the Laverty household - Eugene, Michael and John - they never took to the roads, and concentrated their racing on the circuits.
Eugene started off racing in 2001 at Nutts Corner, and later that season he took his first win at Mondello Park. From there he graduated to the 125 British Championship and finished runner-up. In 2006 he finished third in the British 600 championship behind Cal Crutchlow and Tom Sykes with four wins to his credit.
Graduating to the 250 GP class for 2007 and 08 he had mixed luck in the two stroke class, but for 2009 he signed for the Parkalgar Honda and won his first Supersport World Championship race in Qatar, narrowly beating Ten Kate Racing's Andrew Pitt to the chequered flag. His win was also the first for the Parkalgar Honda team. He stacked up three more wins and four second places to finish as series runner-up behind Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow, ending Ten Kate's run of being the top Honda team for many years.
In 2010 he took eight wins and 10 podiums but still finished runner-up in the class, and 12 months later he signed for the Yamaha World Superbike team and took a double at Monza and six podiums to finish fourth in the championship.
He signed for Aprillia in 2012 and took one win and a sixth in the championship. The following year he had a much better run, taking nine wins and 18 podiums to finish runner-up in the championship, and in 2014 he moved to Suzuki and took their first win at Phillip Island, his only success of the season.
His dream of moving to Moto GP was realised in 2015 when he rode the Honda RC213 for the Aspar team, but he struggled and finished a lowly 22nd in the championship.
The team changed machinery for the 2016 season and Eugene finished in a brilliant fourth place in the second race in Argentina, but that was the highest that he finished, and in the championship he finished 13th.
With competitive machinery only allocated to a few of the elite teams, Eugene moved back to WSB with the Sean Muir Racing Milwaukee Aprillia, and at Phillip Island I caught up with him and we chatted about his career.
I put it to him about his father being a true road racer, and the Toomebridge area a stronghold for the sport.
'I was never interested in doing real road racing as it is a different discipline,' he replied. 'While my dad did it, it was different in the 70s. Nowadays I have the ultimate respect for the lads that do it, but it's a different mindset to do it.'
I asked Eugene, with all the classes that he has competed in from the 125 two strokes up to Moto GP, is there any class that was his favourite.
'There was a few times during my career, especially with bikes that I have won on, that are special, but I suppose in my second year in World Supersport when I won eight races, and in my 2013 Superbike year, these are the memorable ones, and both times it was the second year on the bikes, as in the first year you learn and in the second you succeed.'
When I threw in about winning at Phillip Island on the Suzuki, he said: 'We could have had a whole season of Phillip Island as the bike really suited here, but with only one win it was a tough year, only suiting the flowing circuits.'
The next question focused on being bridesmaid three times.
'Yeh, in the first year in World Supersport I was the underdog, but in the second year I really felt that we deserved that one. The 2010 season I thought I did everything right, but was frustrated in not winning the championship; mechanical problems came at the wrong time, costing us the title.
'In 2013 it was me and Tom for the title, but only one rider can win it, and they were stronger that time.'
Coming from Toomebridge where one of Ireland's best known sponsors, Joe Millar, hailed from, and who was very much involved with the old 500 Grand Prix class, I asked Eugene would he have loved to have ridden a big Two Stroke in the old class, compared to the four strokes that we have now.
'I would have loved to have ridden a big two stroke as there were no fancy electronics, just pure, raw power and it was down to the rider. It would have been a great era to have been there.'
Referring to the current Moto GP class and the two years that he spent there, I put it to Eugene, did he feel frustrated with the bikes that are available to smaller teams, and that it is just the top few riders that have the best bikes and set-ups.
'You can stay in the Moto GP class and be a midfield runner for years, but that was not me, as trying to keep up with the progress, you only end up getting injured and that is not what I want.
'Don't get me wrong, you can get injured anywhere or any time, but you are never going to get to the top unless you have the factory machinery.
'When I was in 250 and Moto GP, I was starting to crash too much towards the end on my second year in each class, because you get to the level that you want to win, and you just don't have the bike to get there.
'That's why I prefer to be in World Superbike, where you have a bike that will have a chance to win.'
The last time that Eugene rode in WSB he rode for the Italian Aprillia factory, and this time he is back on the Aprillia, but with the British Sean Muir team. I asked him about the changes to the bike since he went to Moto GP.
'It has changed more so because of the rules, with pistons and so on. The engineers have been able to give me something like I had before, but because it is a different bike it is hurting us at a track like Phillip Island, where we were so successful with the old bike.
'In Portamio in Portugal we had a better handle on the bike as it is a track with hard braking, but here in Phillip Island it is different and free-flowing, fast and smooth, and that's where the difference is.'
Like Jonathan Rea, I asked Eugene did he have any advice for young riders coming through.
'One piece of advice that I will give any young rider is that every time you put your leg a across a bike, you have to be prepared and ready to perform, as you never know that that race will be where you perform your best and you never know who is watching you.
'It may be your big chance, and the race that could change your career - always be ready.'
Unfortunately that is where our interview finished as, like his fellow countryman Rea, Eugene was in high demand with the media. Unfortunately the new Aprillia didn't perform as well as he would have liked over the two race days, and as I reported in my race report, he was somewhat frustrated.
By the time you read this he will have had another race weekend in Thailand, and hopefully he will have sorted his problems out, as the Kawasaki that has proved so good in the past few years, are still at the top in World Superbike, where I believe they will stay for a few years yet.
I would like to thank Eugene and his beautiful wife Pippa, who were so helpful over the few days down under, and also to Sam Walker from SMR for his help.