In terms of raw power, entertainment and high drama, the Suzuki International Series has it all.
And so it proved again this season with the three-round series once more winding up on Boxing Day with riders gleefully embroiled in a motorcycling street fight, battling for two-wheeled glory around Whanganui's famous Cemetery Circuit.
Visiting international Richard Cooper lived up to all the hype, the British Superstock 1000 champion running off with the major silverware this year as he wrapped up the Formula One (superbike) class overall and also winning the stand-alone Robert Holden Memorial feature race on Boxing Day.
The 36-year-old from Nottingham borrowed a Suzuki GSX-R1000 bike from the Sloan Frost Racing Team for this first-time visit to New Zealand and quickly came to grips with the unfamiliar circuits – round one at Taupo on December 7-8, round two at Manfeild a week later and then the treacherous curb-lined twists and turns of Whanganui's closed-off public streets.
The Robert Holden race win came at the end of a thrilling handlebar-to-handlebar battle with Whakatane's Damon Rees.
Cooper demonstrated right from the opening round of the Suzuki International Series in Taupo that he was a fast learner, taking almost no time at all to learn the previously-untried Kiwi race tracks, although he was forced to settle for runner-up during the Taupo weekend, ending that event nine points behind Bay of Plenty's Rees.
Cooper came on strong at round two at Manfeild a week later, wiping out the deficit and taking a one-point series lead over Rees as they headed to the Boxing Day finale.
Although Cooper had his hands full battling Rees' elder brother Mitch at Whanganui's final round on Boxing Day – Mitch Rees winning both F1 races on the day – this was not too much of a concern to Cooper, who knew that it was really only Damon Rees that he needed to keep at bay for series honours.
Cooper responded to Mitch Rees' back-to-back F1 class wins at Whanganui by twice finishing runner-up, while Damon Rees finished third both times, and this was easily enough for Cooper to win the series outright, ending up five points clear of Damon Rees, with Mitch Rees claiming third overall for the series, albeit a distant 29 points further back.
Damon Rees led early in the 10-lap Robert Holden Memorial feature race, with Cooper and Mitch Rees for close company.
It stayed like this for the next eight laps, until the leaders started lapping other riders and that's when Cooper pounced, zipping past Damon Rees and into the lead, which he held until the end.
Taupo's defending Suzuki Series champion Scott Moir (Suzuki GSX-R 1000) and Glen Eden's national superbike champion Daniel Mettam (Suzuki GSX-R1000) rounded out the top five in the Robert Holden race.
"I came with no expectations," said Cooper afterwards.
"Obviously I arrived wanting to fight for the championship. I didn't think it would be possible to win because I felt Damon had more experience than me here at Whanganui. But I also knew he'd come off the 600cc bike he rode last year and was on a 1000cc bike this time around. That's obviously a very different animal to ride.”
"Perhaps it took him until race three today (the Robert Holden feature race) to figure it all out and then he was as fast as me, but, by that stage it was too late.”
"To come here and win this series for Sloan Frost Suzuki and TSS Red Baron is amazing, but then to top it all off by winning the Robert Holden race too is pretty special."
Cooper said he'd love to return and race again in the Suzuki International Series next year ... adding "it would be a shame not to come back".
Meanwhile, Auckland's Toby Summers won the 600cc Formula Two class at Whanganui's finale, finishing the day ahead of Hastings rider Adam Chambers and Whanganui's Richie Dibben, although Upper Hutt’s Rogan Chandler had done enough at the earlier two rounds to clinch the series win for this class.
Dibben was sadly forced to settle for fourth overall for the series in this class, no reflection at all of his potential.
Always a dominant figure in the Supermoto (lightly-modified dirt bike) class, where he raced a Suzuki RM-Z450 motocross bike, Dibben was again a runaway winner in the Suzuki International Series this year.
But, in only his second season of racing a Suzuki GSX-R600 bike in the Formula Two class, the 30-year-old stunned when he qualified his bike fastest at Taupo and then won one of the two F2 races there.
Unfortunately, he crashed out while leading the next race.
At Manfeild he was again a revelation, running with the leaders until he again crashed, this time through no fault of his own, but it was another painful no-points result for the Whanganui hero.
He bounced back to win the final race at Manfeild and this gave him a sniff of a chance of ending the series on the podium.
While his 3-2 score-card in the F2 class at Whanganui was not quite enough to achieve this, Dibben will now head to the South Island in a confident mood as he readies himself for the start of the New Zealand Superbike Championships, set to kick off at Christchurch on January 11-12.
"I knew I had the pace to win the Supermoto class, especially with Duncan (Hart) out," said Dibben.
"It was a good confidence booster for me on the 600 bike. I got lap times down to the 49s in that last race, so pretty stoked with that and I'm feeling strong heading to the nationals. If I can finish all the races it would help," he laughed. "Having two non-finishes in the Suzuki International series didn't help."
Other class winners in the series this year were Taumarunui's Leigh Tidman (Formula Three); Hamilton's Jesse Stroud (GIXXER Cup); Whanganui's Ashley Payne (Formula Sport/Bears, senior); North Shore’s Gui Mendes (Formula Sport/Bears, junior); Hastings’ Gian Louie (Post Classics, Pre 89, senior); Lower Hutt’s Dean Bentley (Post Classics, Pre 89, junior); Auckland’s Peter Goodwin and Kendal Dunlop (F1 sidecars); Tauranga’s Barry Smith and Tracey Bryan (F2 sidecars); Whanganui's Bryan Stent and Tracey Bryan (Classic sidecars); Whanganui’s Richie Dibben (Supermoto).
Words and photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com