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Tom Sykes has started the penultimate round of the 2012 World Superbike Championship as he means to go on by setting the pace in first free practice at Portimao.

The Kawasaki rider retains a shot of claiming the title having moved 26.5 points behind current leader Max Biaggi with four races remaining and with many citing Portimao as the pivotal round in the championship fight, Sykes has come out fighting from the start.

Setting his best time of 1min 44.343secs within twenty minutes of the session getting underway, it would prove good enough to fend off a flurry of fast laps in the closing stages to stay on top.

Behind him, fellow title challengers Marco Melandri and Max Biaggi experienced differing fortunes as the former posted a late improvement to go second quickest on the factory BMW, while the latter settled for the tenth best time.

Even so, it was a typically close session as 14 riders lapped within a second of Sykes, beginning with Melandri and Leon Camier in second and third, the latter getting his weekend off to an encouraging start as he looks to further his current run of strong form.

Consolidating Melandri's position, his BMW counterparts also showed well in FP1, with Leon Haslam in fourth, while BMW Italia duo Ayrton Badovini and Michel Fabrizio ended the session fifth and seventh quickest.

PATA Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli split them in sixth, while reigning champion Carlos Checa and Jonathan Rea on the Honda squeezed ahead of Biaggi in eighth and ninth respectively.

Behind Biaggi, Eugene Laverty shadowed his team-mate in 11th, just ahead of Loris Baz, Davide Giugliano and soon-to-be BMW rider Chaz Davies.

A slightly depleted grid following the news that Maxime Berger has been axed by Effenbert Liberty Ducati, the team - podium winners at Portimao in 2011 with Guintoli - will continue with Brett McCormick and Lorenzo Lanzi for the weekend. The pair were 18th and 20th fastest respectively.