By Neil Morrison

It may have taken 26 races and 522 laps run in 11 different countries for Tom Sykes to seal his first World Superbike Championship but he still did it with one race to spare.

Sykes' comfortable third place in race one in Jerez was enough to keep the Aprilia duo of Eugene Laverty and Sylvain Guintoli out of reach, making Sykes the twelfth rider to have won the title at the final round in the series' 26-year history.

Of those twelve occasions, nine went to the final race with the champion yet to be decided.

Honourable mentions must go to the Fred Merkel for his 1989 triumph and James Toseland, whose two Championships were both went down to the wire, but here we choose six of the best of those title races that went down to the wire.

1988 - Fred Merkel, Fabrizio Pirovano, Davide Tardozzi and St?phane Mertens - Manfeild Park, New Zealand
The inaugural World Superbike Championship was established as a cheaper four-stroke alternative to Grand Prix that didn't require its contestants to risk life and limb around road circuits, like the TT F1 series, to come out on top.

The first instalment served up a real cracker as a cast of grand prix cast-offs and national hotshots made up a colourful grid. None more so than 'Flying' Fred Merkel, the three time AMA Superbike Champion and Californian extrovert was every bit as charismatic as his blonde, surfer good looks suggested.

As he lined up on Oscar Rumi's new Honda RC30 his competition came in the form of two extremely fast Bimotas using fuel injected Yamaha engines, ridden by Davide Tardozzi and St?phane Mertens, as well as Fabrizio Pirovano's steel framed Yamaha FZ750.

Although the Honda was considerably down on power Merkel's consistency kept him within 2.5 points of leader Tardozzi going into the final round at Manfeild Park in New Zealand. Pirovano was level on points with Merkel and Mertens still had a shot of the title, 10.5 points back of his teammate.

The lettering on the back of Merkel's helmet read 'If you want blood... you've got it' and his fighting instincts proved vital as he prevailed in the final round dogfight.

Rain greeted the riders on race day and Merkel won the first outing from Pirovano with Tardozzi fifth. The sun emerged between races and with the track drying Tardozzi fell from his Bimota on the warm-up lap, handing the initiative back to Merkel. Mertens, who only had a slim chance of lifting the crown, was instructed to hand his machine over to the tearful Tardozzi on the line but ignored team orders and duly won the race.

Merkel tip-toed around on wet tyres to fifth and claim the first ever World Superbike crown by 5.5 points from Pirovano who couldn't finish higher than 13th after pitting for slicks.

He may be somewhat unknown compared to his American Gran Prix counterparts that thrived in the 80s but his rivals certainly appreciated his talent. Tardozzi later said of him, "Merkel was a very good rider, really talented. Maybe if he rode 15, 20 years later, he could have had a fantastic career. He won even if I had the best bike."

1994 - Carl Fogarty, Scott Russell and Aaron Slight - Phillip Island, Australia -
The Championship truly came into its own during 1993 and '94. Not only did it gain full satellite TV coverage via Sky Sports in '93 and Honda's full factory support in '94, it also boasted its first proper rivalry in the form of Carl Fogarty and Scott Russell.

Their intense disliking of one another stemmed from an Easter meeting at Brands Hatch in 1991 where aggressive riding on Fogarty's part led Russell to show him his middle finger on the slow-down lap. Carl was only too happy to return the favour. Foggy later remarked Russell's face looked like a "slapped aree" when he lost. Sniggers all round and much sniping in the press ensued.

Later both put the rivalry down to their sheer bloody-minded desire to win. As Fogarty said after his retirement in 2000, "He was one of only three riders that I've raced that wanted to win as badly as I did. When one of us lost you could see our face on the rostrum, it was like stone." Russell always rated Fogarty as his toughest competitor saying, "He was a hard-ass. He did whatever he had to do to win."

The series' growing fan base was robbed of a showdown in '93 as the calamitous organisation in Mexico forced organisers to cancel the final round, handing Russell the title. Yet it was only a year later at Phillip Island when they provided a finale that was befitting of their ability. Russell had considered joining Ducati in the off-season and had even agreed a suitable salary, yet leaving Rob Muzzy's Kawasaki outfit was harder than it seemed: "Deep down inside, instead of joining them I'd rather beat them." His decision added extra spice to the affair.

Fogarty broke his wrist in a practice spill at the second round in Germany leaving him 64 points behind the Kawasaki star after three rounds but Russell was to suffer a loss of form in Albacete and Misano where he crashed and finished poorly. He recovered brilliantly at the penultimate round in Donington and his double win put him within five points of Fogarty.

With Aaron Slight a further 12 back of Russell three men had a chance of taking the crown in Australia. Fogarty stamped his authority on matters by comfortably winning race one while Russell's stand in teammate Anthony Gobert let Russell by on the line to get second. The second instalment was to be even more dramatic.

Gobert cleared off leaving the title rivals to fight amongst each other. With Russell needing to gain more than ten points on his rival he knew his game was up with two laps to go when his tyre exploded. He waved Fogarty through at the Honda hairpin in what proved to be a symbolic gesture.

Commentator Keith Heuwen famously noted, "If he had a towel he'd have thrown it in" and Fogarty later reflected, "From that moment on he changed, the best of Scott Russell was gone." Great Britain had a two-wheeled World Champion in a major series for the first time since 1977 and it was the first of a famous four for Fogarty.

1998: Carl Fogarty, Aaron Slight and Troy Corser - Sugo, Japan
Not since 1988 had the Championship gone to the final round with the front three this close. Six points separated Corser, Slight and Fogarty when they arrived in Japan, having had a month to reflect on the madness at the previous round in Assen.

With Kocinski now riding in Grand Prix Slight began 1998 as pre-season favourite to take his first World Superbike crown aboard the continually improving RC45. Yet his progress was stunted by a list of catastrophes that littered the road to Japan; Punted off by a backmarker, an engine blow-up and a start line pile-up to name but a few.

Fogarty had his own list of issues to contend with where a loss of confidence riding in the wet and dwindling motivation afflicted his early season form. Corser, returning from a year out in the cold in 500s, was the only man to maintain any form of consistency but he only won twice all year.

Corser had a habit of fading during the middle of the race only to end strongly in '98, calling his fitness into question. It had disrupted him at the Austrian and Dutch rounds, handing the initiative to Slight and Fogarty entering Sugo. He also held serious doubts whether he was receiving the same equipment as Italian teammate Frankie Chili, leaving tensions running high in the red garage.

It all came apart for the Antipodeans before the race. First the Hondas were off the pace throughout qualifying. Slight was a distant tenth with his supposed to be wingmen Itoh and Edwards back in 11th and 15th. Then Corser suffered an innocuous spill in morning warm up, after downshifting too many gears along the back straight, breaking three ribs and puncturing his spleen in the process. He wouldn't start either race.

That left Fogarty to battle with local wild cards Kitagawa and Ryo at the front while Slight could do no more than seventh, behind names like Russell and Hodgson, riders he had the beating of all season.

Slight and Honda's chances were unravelling and the Kiwi knew it, taking his frustrations out on Hodgson in the gravel trap after the first race. Hodgson, who had qualified sixth and a row ahead of Slight, revealed the Honda man asked him to let him by if he saw his front wheel three minutes prior to the race. An astonishing request to make when Hodgson was still riding for a contract the following year.

The result gave Fogarty a 1.5-point advantage with a race to play. He simply had to beat Slight to claim his third crown and duly did so, following Haga, Yanagawa and Ryo to finish fourth, enough to win overall by 4.5 points.

The achievement marked Fogarty down as the first man to win three World Superbike titles as well as the first to regain his title. For Slight, this was the beginning of the end. "I have never seen the pressure get to anyone like it got to him," Fogarty wrote in his autobiography.

A winless 1999 followed before he was diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain at the start of 2000. He would never win a World Superbike race again.

2002 - Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss - Imola, Italy
Colin Edwards pulled into the Laguna Seca parc ferm? with his shoulders slumped and head bowed. His first thoughts weren't on congratulating the winner or debriefing his team. They were on how to get away from the paddock, and on to the road to Texas.

"I had the edge in the first race but ran wide with about four laps to go and Troy and Ruben came by. To finish third was soul destroying. I actually felt like going home."
It wasn't bad enough losing out to Bayliss, for that he had become accustomed to. But to finish behind Ruben Xaus was the killer. 17 races into the 2002 season and he was 58 points behind the dominant Australian, having won only once to Bayliss's 14.

But what was to follow would go down as the greatest comeback in the Championship's history. After winning the second race at Laguna, he scored double wins at Brands, Oschersleben and Assen. All the while his SP-2 was becoming more competitive. After a successful stint at the Suzuka 8-Hours HRC packages began to arrive in the Honda garage at the start of each weekend, giving Edwards added grunt out of the corners. He also completed close to 12,000 miles at Michelin test tracks throughout the year meaning by the season's close he was running a softer compound that wouldn't work for the Ducatis.

The pair went to Imola separated by a single point, Edwards dramatically gaining the upper hand when Bayliss crashed out of a podium finish in Assen.

Edwards led home the first affair with Bayliss a close second. The Aussie now needed to win with Edwards third to triumph, which meant getting teammate Xaus between the pair. Fans were treated to 21 laps of a racing master class with Bayliss somehow improving his lap times by over a second from qualifying.

With two laps to go Bayliss slowed the pace sufficiently to allow Xaus to close in but Edwards wasn't finished. A stunning exchange through the Villeneuve - Tosa - Piratella section on the final lap had Bayliss close to crashing. Having given it his all, Edwards motored through to take a record breaking ninth consecutive victory. Those breathless final two laps still stand as one of the series' finest moments.

As a ride, Edwards still ranks it amongst his best. His bloody-minded determination to win left everyone in little doubt he was the deserving champion. "I didn't just wanna win the title with a second place, I just had to win it. Nothing else mattered at the time," he said soon after. It had been quite a show.

2009 - Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga - Portim?o, Portugal
2009 was supposed to be Noriyuki Haga's best chance of winning the title he had coveted for so many years. A failed drug test prevented him taking the 2000 championship to the final round at Brands Hatch. A stuck-open throttle wrecked his chances at the penultimate round of 2004 and he came within two points of pegging back James Toseland in 2007.

With reigning Champion Bayliss retired and the Japanese taking his factory Ducati seat he was set to eliminate his unwanted 'best rider never to win a championship' tag.
However taking his place aboard the Sterilgarda Yamaha was a five-foot ten-inch Texan who had the distinction of finishing 92 percent of his AMA races on the podium and taking Matt Mladin on... and beating him.

Ben Spies' speed was evident from the first round, where he won in Australia and took the first seven poles of the season. The initiative was handed back and forth between the pair all year: Spies trailed by 88 points after six rounds, then Haga was lucky to escape with 'just' a fractured vertebrae at Donington. He rallied again to beat Spies in three of the four races before Portim?o to lead the Texan by ten points.

Having wrapped up a deal to move to Moto GP for 2010 before Magny-Cours, Spies felt a lot of pressure lifted off his shoulders for those final races: "I haven't been anxious, I've been having fun hanging out with everybody because I won't be here next year" he said upon arriving at the Algarve.

Their body language on the grid couldn't have been more contrasting, Spies the very picture of cool and composed started from pole, whereas Haga, starting from the third row, looked uneasy and out-of-sorts all weekend.

Haga crashed attempting to make up time in race one while Spies triumphed. The Texan then played a risky game of damage limitation in the second, hovering on the edge of the top six while Haga stormed through the field eventually finishing second to Spies' fifth.

Spies' winning margin was just six points and was Yamaha's first (and only) World Superbike title at the 22nd attempt. With 43 wins, only two of which came after 2009, Haga's legacy as the most successful rider never to win a World Superbike title was ensured.

2012: Max Biaggi, Tom Sykes and Marco Melandri - Magny-Cours, France
Always an enigma throughout his twenty years in World Championship competition, we look at how Max Biaggi saw the events unfolding around him as he claimed his second World Superbike title in Magny Cours:

"Considering these difficulties and a lot of contact with the other riders, I'm happy with a fourth and third place which reconfirm my lead in the standings." -Biaggi breathes a sigh of relief after the penultimate round at Portim?o as title charger Marco Melandri injures himself in a race one fall and Sykes doesn't score in race two. He goes into the final round 30.5 points ahead of the Kawasaki man, 38.5 ahead of Melandri.

"I want to tackle this race like any other... we must not lose focus because we are the ones with the most to lose. Being out front puts you in the bull's-eye." - A pair of fifth place finishes will be enough for Biaggi to take the crown as he tries to retain his focus the day before Friday's first free practice session.

"I won't dwell on what happened. It is already time to think about what to expect tomorrow." - A difficult Superpole saw him qualify a lowly tenth while Sykes stormed to his ninth pole of the season. An audible intake of breath is heard inside the Aprilia garage as rain is forecast for race day.

"I was not on really hard brakes so it was a really strange crash. I was straight up and down. It was a pain in the ass and I did not realise what happened." - The alarm bells are ringing as Biaggi falls on lap three of the wet race one at the tricky Adelaide hairpin while lying fourth. With Melandri finishing second and Sykes third the title race is wide open.

"For three hours before race two it was the most difficult time from a psychological point of view. Jorge Lorenzo came to my motorhome to chat with me and push me a little bit more." - The 41-year calls on a little help from his friends as he psyches himself up for the final race of his career. His lead has been reduced to 14.5-points. Melandri still has a chance, 18.5 points back.

"This is the fourth world championship out of six that I've won in the last race. I guess I must like a difficult challenge!" - An understatement if ever we saw one. Although Sykes wins Biaggi survives a few early scares to finish fifth, the bare minimum requirement to take the title. It was the closest in history, a meagre half point advantage.

"During the season we saw Tom become a top rider [and] saw Kawasaki step up amazingly." - He even has time to doff his hat to the emerging Sykes, and adds a caveat for his Aprilia team for 2013.

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