Noriyuki Haga may be a veteran of 254 World Superbike races, 39 of which he has won, but the 2009 title contender has never stood on the top step of the podium at Imola.

But he badly needs to this weekend, when the Italian circuit returns to the WSBK calendar for the first time since 2006.

Haga lost the world championship lead he had held since race one of the 2009 season last time out in Germany, when he collided with Jonathan Rea, helping rookie rival Ben Spies take the title advantage by 18 points with three rounds and six races remaining.

During his four previous visits to Imola, Haga has taken just one podium finish, a third place in 2005.

"We came away from N?rburgring disappointed, because we know we should have, and could have, taken at least one race win," said Haga. "Now I am in second place in the championship which means that at Imola it is even more important to finish first. There are 50 points on offer at Imola and the gap between Ben and I is only 18...

"It is of course Ducati's home track and we haven't been here for a few years, so, as well as needing the points for the championship, it would be great to do well in front of all the Ducatisti," added the Japanese.

Haga won six of the first twelve races this season, but has now gone five rounds without a win. Spies has taken twelve wins, but has had five non-scores compared with three for Haga.

Unlike Spies so far, Haga has a team-mate who is able to help his cause.

Michel Fabrizio retains a slim mathematical chance of the crown himself, but with a 75 point gap to Spies the Italian has admitted he will soon be riding for the team - and expects to be on form in front of his home fans this weekend.

"I was very comfortable on this track when we tested here in July, and one of the fastest, but I'm aware that it will be significantly cooler for the race and that may make a difference," he said. "The 2006 Imola event was one to forget for me but this year I am much more confident, mainly due to the fact that testing proved the 1198 can go well here. I'm looking forward to the final Italian race event of the season!"

Haga and Fabrizio have both been re-signed by Ducati Xerox for 2010.