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With the year plunging deep into Autumn and the original November-scheduled finale in India having been nixed, the conclusion of the 2013 World Superbike Championship is now very much upon us.
And what a thrilling conclusion it is destined to be! In just over three weeks, we will be heralding an all-new, first-time World Superbike Champion, a remarkably short timeframe to consider given no clear favourite has ever really emerged this season as we enter the critical final phase.
Of course, there is good reason to be hesitant when considering whom will emerge victorious following last year's events when Marco Melandri's title hopes collapsed and Tom Sykes came from almost nowhere to snatch the title from Max Biaggi.
Fast-forward to now and four riders across three manufacturers remain well in the hunt for the title with just three rounds and six races to go. As we prepare to return to Laguna Seca for the first time since 2004, it is Sykes that leads the way, eight points ahead of the ultra-consistent Sylvain Guintoli, while Eugene Laverty and Marco Melandri are in contention too, 26 and 33 points adrift respectively.
A master over the single lap, Sykes has shown flashes of utter dominance this season, his double successes at Donington Park and Imola propelling him to a deserved title lead, even if technical issues at Aragon and Moscow have ultimately prevented him from establishing a greater advantage. While recent races have shown the Kawasaki's odd tendency to wane over longer distances – as was the case in 2012 -, Sykes appears to have learned lessons from last year's near miss.
A real contrast in approach, Guintoli has only stood atop the podium once this season – during the very first race in Australia. Since then he has always been in podium contention, the Frenchman showing true grit to shrug off a mid-season shoulder injury to pop up to the top of the order despite his relative lack of wins. Indeed, Guintoli has spent more time than any other rider leading the overall standings this year, but the man himself admits he cannot rely on just 'being there' at the finish to take the ultimate spoils, he needs to cross the line first…
Perhaps the biggest unknown quantity in the quartet, Laverty's title hopes had looked to be all-but-over following three costly crashes in five races between Imola, Moscow and the Nurburgring, but his double win in Turkey has catapulted him back into contention. A six-time race winner in 2013, Laverty certainly has title-winning raw pace, but he knows he cannot afford another self-inflicted error.
The only former world champion of the quartet, Melandri is looking to give BMW that elusive first title in what is set to be its final season in the series. There is little denying Melandri is hard-to-beat on his day, but those 'days' have been fewer and further between than many had expected this season. Should he find his form for the final three rounds – two of which held around circuits he will know better from his GP days -, that 33 point margin may not seem so sizeable…