'On-Jai' ready to step up into the big time
Hong Kong motorcycle sensation Cheung Wai-on knew early on in his career that he would get to the stage where he would be competing against the 'big boys' - and he will do just that when he makes his debut at the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix next weekend.
The one-time teenage wunderkind, whose four victories in the ACM Trophy race in Macau is unmatched by any local or overseas rider, will get a chance to rub wheels with the best road racers in the world as he makes his first foray into the most prestigious two-wheel race in the former Portuguese enclave.
Having ridden 125cc bikes for most of his life, the 23-year-old 'On Jai' has moved up the power grid and will be steering his own Yamaha R-6 600cc bike in an attempt to gradually move up to more powerful 1,000cc bikes in the future.
'It's been a dream of mine to race against the very best riders in Macau and now I will have a chance to do so. I am absolutely delighted to be racing in the Motorcycle Grand Prix and I am praying I will do well,' said Cheung, who still considers himself an amateur racer.
'I am no way near the same level as guys like John McGuinness and Mike Rutter, but I do hope to give them a good run and I will try my best to produce a respectable race in Macau,' he said.
Cheung was speaking just days after gaining a first and second place in the China Zhuhai Motorcycle Championship, where he is lying second in the 600cc class with two races to go.
'I will be competing in the final two races in December but that pales in comparison to the competition I will be receiving in Macau. It's been altogether very exciting competing in Macau.
'The atmosphere, the competition and the tricky circuit makes it all worthwhile competing. That's why I keep going back because I think it's one of the most unusual tracks in the world,' he said.
'I first raced there as a young teenager and I know the circuit well, but it's always a challenge competing there because you never what might happen.
'This is my seventh race in Macau and I am really looking forward to it again, especially as I am now competing in a much higher class,' said Cheung, a full-time mechanic at his father's garage in Shau Kei Wan.
Considered one of Hong Kong's best-ever motorcyclists, Cheung first made a name for himself as a 16-year-old when he set the Zhuhai International Circuit ablaze with some extraordinary performances that had pundits thinking he was good enough to compete at the very top.
He displayed his enormous potential then by setting a sizzling lap record of one minute, 54.741 seconds on a Honda RZ125 - an astounding time considering he was competing against more powerful 250cc and 400cc bikes.
But things didn't quite work out for Cheung, who has been struggling with sponsorship and whose career has been held back by the lack of financial backing and poor management.
'This is one of the reasons why I thought it would be better to be competing in the 600cc class because it is higher profile. Eventually, I want to wind up in the 1,000cc class. I have been racing in 600s for about three years now so it's a big change to the smaller bikes I was used to riding.
'I thought if I wanted to do something about my career, I needed to switch to a bigger bike with more power. I built my own bike in my father's garage and although it is no way near to the power and class of the factory-built bikes that I will be competing against [in Macau], I have done my best to make it competitive,' said Cheung.
'My form has been pretty good and I will be ready for Macau. It's the circuit that really brings out the best in me.'
Cheung knows only too well the opposition he will be meeting in the 38th edition of a race held in high esteem. He will be competing against the likes of four-time Macau winner Rutter, the West Midlands-born rider who is making his 10th visit to Macau as this year's British Superbike Championship runner-up. Rutter will be on a Red Bull Honda Racing Honda 1000cc bike and is favoured to make it five Macau wins.
Other top contenders for honours include fellow Briton McGuinness, the 2001 Macau champion, who finished second behind Rutter last year, Scotsman Roger Bennett and German ace Markus Barth, who are both veterans of the Macau Guia circuit.
'I am not thinking of a podium finish because I know I will have a very tough time competing against these stars, but I hope to win my class [600cc]. It's not easy riding 600cc bikes as it is around 50 per cent heavier than the 125cc bikes I got used to racing.
'But I usually do well in Macau and I am usually in my best condition for Macau. If I get a good result there, I might be competing in the 1,000cc bikes sooner than I think. That's really my goal'.
Cheung is certainly one of the most talented and dedicated bikers around and one only has to look back to his tearful burst of emotion when he finished fourth behind a trio of top-notch Japanese riders on superior bikes in the 2001 ACM Trophy race. The Hong Kong rider finished 3.549 seconds behind race winner Naoki Kato, but Cheung still managed to clip more than six seconds off his old lap record of 2:49.361.
Unable to accept that he was no longer the best amateur rider in Macau after previous wins in the race, Cheung had to be consoled by a race marshal after failing to defend his title.
'That was really a sad day for me because I tried my very best but my best wasn't good enough to beat the Japanese, who were much quicker than me along the straights because they had more power. Their bikes cost more than twice as much as my bike so it was still a good result for me.'
Whatever the outcome, Cheung knows that he will do his 'absolute' best, hoping his career will somehow take off with his best years ahead of him.