Glenn Irwin’s ambition of following up his podium heroics at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix with another rostrum on his debut at Macau is not be such an unlikely goal after all.
The British Superbike rider was seventh fastest in first qualifying on the PBM Be Wiser Ducati and later improved in Q2 to secure a stunning front row start in third place behind pole man Martin Jessopp (Riders Motorcycles BMW) and eight-time Macau winner Michael Rutter (Bathams/SMT BMW).
The Carrick man, who claimed top-three finishes at the North West and Ulster GP in his debut in the Supersport races at both events, is also making his big bike debut on the roads, yet no challenge seems to overawe the 26-year-old, who also finished on the podium during his maiden season in the MCE British Superbike Championship on the PBM Be Wiser Ducati.
Irwin, who has a verbal agreement in place to continue in Paul Bird’s team in 2017 alongside five-time BSB champion Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne, was only four-tenths back on Jessopp's hot lap and will now start the 12-lap race as a potential winner on the Panigale R.
He left no stone unturned in his preparation for the event, studying on-board footage and putting in the hours in the gym, and it is clear his efforts have paid dividends.
Irwin is up against a seasoned international field, but the confident Northern Ireland man - speaking before he sealed his front-row start - said he would love to follow up his NW200 and Ulster GP rostrums with another top-three finish in the final road race of 2016.
“I’m not going to say anything silly, like I’m going out there to try and win or anything,” Irwin said.
“But I have surprised myself in the past at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix and if I don’t surprise myself again, then I’ll be disappointed.
“This place needs the utmost respect, but I’ve put the preparation in and I’m taking this very seriously. For me, it’s no holiday race,” he added.
“I’ve finished on the rostrum at the North West and Ulster and I’ll admit it would be nice if I could do that again.”
Irwin has certainly made a strong case for a podium charge during the 50th anniversary meeting of the legendary event in East Asia, when more than a few of his more experienced rivals will be casting a nervous glance over their shoulders.
Stalwart Rutter, meanwhile, could be in line to secure a dream ninth victory to mark the Golden Jubilee of the race after impressing on the Bathams/SMT BMW.
Rutter, who achieved the first of his record haul of eight wins in 1998, is fired up to add a ninth victory and the 44-year-old looks set to go very close indeed after leading the way in free practice and Q1 before being toppled by Jessopp in the final session.
“It certainly doesn’t get any easier,” said Rutter. “If you look at who will be out there and who will have a chance of winning, it’s a long list. You just don’t know.”
Somerset man Jessopp, who has finished as the runner-up at Macau three times, was overhauled by Hickman in 2015 after leading for a long period in the race and will be quietly confident this could finally be the year when he breaks his duck.
Hickman – who rides a third Bathams/SMT BMW for Robin Croft’s team after initially being entered with GBmoto Kawasaki - will start from seventh, behind key contenders Gary Johnson (Penz13.com BMW), Stuart Easton (Bathams/SMT BMW) ad Horst Saiger (Kawasaki).
Honda Racing's John McGuinness and Conor Cummins were eighth and ninth fastest respectively, with Ian Hutchinson completing the top ten on the Tyco BMW.
Dublin’s Derek Sheils, who is also making his bow at Macau on John Burrows’ Cookstown B.E. Suzuki, gave a good account of himself as he qualified 13th behind Dan Kneen (Mar-Train Yamaha) and Didier Grams (BMW).
Brian McCormack (TAG Racing Honda) was 17th with Michael Sweeney (Martin Jones Racing BMW) from Skerries 25th and Saintfield man Davy Morgan 28th on the Magic Bullet Honda.
The race will be broadcast live on BT Sport 3 from 7.30am, with highlights set to be shown on Channel 4 next Wednesday, November 23, at 8pm.
Channel 4 will also broadcast a one-hour highlights programme featuring the Sunflower Trophy meeting at Bishopscourt on Saturday morning at 6.35am.