Promotion to the Premiership is the ultimate prize on offer to the winners of speedway’s rebranded Championship division. But, for Edinburgh Monarchs team manager Alex Harkess, his thoughts are not far down the line as he prepares for life in the new second tier.
He said: “That’s not even our aim at this time. Our aim first and foremost is to make the play-offs and that hasn’t changed this year.
“And that has become more difficult because only the top four teams will qualify. If we make it, we’ll take things as they come.”
Harkess believes Monarchs have built the best team they can under the budget restraints they were under during the winter, but insists they didn’t miss out on any major targets as a consequence. He said: “It never really affected us at all and we would never have paid ridiculous amounts of money to a rider to come to us no matter how much we had or didn’t have.
“We always try to be sensible. Buying success never crossed our minds – it never will. At the same time, we didn’t lose out on any major targets either.”
If there is a perceived weakness in the Monarchs squad it could be their choice of second-string performers Josh Pickering and Max Clegg, although the way Pickering equipped himself in last week’s Scottish Open when winning heat 14 there may be nothing to worry about.
Said Harkess: “One of them has to improve and that is Max and I hope Josh produces as well.
“If Max can improve his standing in the team now, that is what we are looking for. He is no longer a reserve and I think it is going to be more difficult for him this year because he hasn’t got the safety net of scoring points in the National League. He is only riding in the top two divisions and points will be that bit harder to come by. But he has to produce.
“There is no pressure on Josh, he’s here to do a job and as we all saw in the Scottish Open he will give 100 per cent in every race.
“Max and Josh are two riders who may hold the key to success.”
Just as important will be the response of Erik Riss to becoming Monarchs’ third heat leader. “Erik knows he has to up his average,” said Harkess. “He did it last year and has upped it every year since he joined us and he has got to keep doing that.
“If he can do that we can’t ask for no more really. That’s all we’re asking everybody to do.
“Skipper Sam Masters and Ricky Wells should take care of themselves and are probably two of the strongest riders in the league.”
With teams in the Championship reckoned to be more equal this year than in previous years, reserve riders have become hugely important and could have a big bearing on a team’s progress.
Monarchs have opted for Mark Riss (Erik’s big brother) and Mitchell Davey, who is the oldest member of Monarchs team at 27, as their preferred tail-end duo.
Said Harkess: “Mitchell, I think, has to sort his target out of beating other reserves in the league. Mark has got the experience of riding for us for two thirds of last season. He was in the main body of the team then and starting from reserve this year should boost his confidence.
“His aim will be to get back in the team, equally the aim of the two second strings will be not to drop down to reserve.
“The balance of the team looks good and the secret is to turn your track into a fortress and try to pick up points away from home.
“I think we will be challenging for a place in the top four – I’m optimistic.”
• HOW MONARCHS LINE UP
Age 26. Born Australia.
Now in his fourth season with Monarchs, Masters has earned a reputation as a consistent performer both home and away. In his role as skipper he will be expected to lead from the front again and won’t drop too many points.
Age 22. Born Germany.
A heat leader role for Erik this season and expectations are high that he will respond to this extra responsibility with some big scores. Gave a glimpse of what’s to come by winning three races on the bounce in last week’s Scottish Open, could be a key rider for Monarchs.
Age 26. Auckland, New Zealand.
Wells had been target of Monarchs for a while and they finally got their man this year. Although his form fell away over the latter part of 2016, has shown already that double-figure points will not be problem for him.
Age 19. Born West Yorkshire.
Without question this will be a big year for Clegg, who occupies a pivotal second string role in the team this season. Big aim of his will be to improve his scoring ratio on some of the bigger away tracks. A lot of eyes will be watching to see if can manage it.
Age 21. Born Australia.
The one gamble in the Monarchs line-up. Thrown in at the deep end by starting off a second string. Monarchs will be happy if he lives up to his five-point starting average, anything above would be a bonus.
Age 23. Born Germany. A reserve role to begin for Riss senior and this should help build his confidence early on. Once considered a better prospect that younger sibling Eric, Mark will be out to prove that initial assesment wasn’t wrong.
Age 27. Born Australia.
Senior member of Monarchs’ team this year and Davey has nowhere to hide in his role as a reserve rider. Has bags more experience than many of his Championship counterparts and that’s why Monarchs signed him. Should dominate at Armadale but must do the same on the road.