The forthcoming Valencia World Superbike season opener will be the first of 12 meetings on the 2003 calendar, which features races in such diverse venues as Laguna Seca in the USA, Phillip Island in Australia and Sugo in Japan.

The now traditional Spanish curtain raiser was preceded by official pre-season tests, on 21-23 February. Held at the self same Valencia circuit, the tests gave an unparalleled insight into how the first race of the year will be played out, even if the sometime inclement weather played its part in holding back last minute preparations for the majority of the teams.

If the testing form is to be repeated on race weekend, Fila Ducati 999 rider Neil Hodgson will be the man to catch, having set a blistering 1min 34.016secs despite the cold track temperatures.

The only other rider equipped with a new-for-2003 Ducati 999, and also a factory Michelin contract, is Hodgson, is team-mate Ruben Xaus, and he duly set the second best time in the run-up to the race. T

he fight between the two tall Ducati riders, each with very different riding styles and approaches to the business of racing, will be a fascinating element of the forthcoming season.

Both Ducati riders have scored SBK wins in the recent past, and another race winner, Regis Laconi has already installed himself as a contender with his pre-season speed and professionalism.

Chris Walker has been in top form since signing for his British team, and has put in some useful mileage during pre-season testing. Recovering from injury over the winter months, Walker will be as motivated as any rider in the championship now he has 2002-spec factory machinery under his control.

James Toseland, also from the HM plant outfit, is another rider more than capable of running with the leaders over race distance, despite his recent hand injury.

Arguably the highest profile team in the paddock is the Foggy Petronas racing squad, which fields a two-man line-up of Troy Corser and James Haydon.

Corser was comfortably inside the top ten places during the Valencia tests, and is a multiple Valencia SBK race winner. Haydon, returning to Superbike after many years of scoring race wins in the UK Superbike series.

A welcome addition to the World Superbike field, the Foggy Petronas team are further ahead with the development of their unique three-cylinder machine than many had expected and with a strong rider presence, may spring some surprises on the opposition before season end.

New technical regulations for this season will see 1000cc four-cylinder machines racing for the first time in SBK. With engine power outputs of well over 200bhp possible from these modified streetbikes, air intake restrictors will be mandatory for this format in 2003, with all machines running restrictors in 2004.

The top four-cylinder challenge is expected to come from factory Suzuki rider Gregorio Lavilla (Alstare Suzuki). Two crashes in testing, only a short time before the race itself, have failed to blunt Lavilla, who will be motivated by racing on home soil, even if there is still some development work for the Catalan rider to perform before the GSX-R1000 is fully race ready.

A strong array of privateer Ducati riders will ensure that the top ten positions will be hotly disputed this season. Steve Martin (Ducati DFX 998RS) and multiple Superbike race-winner Pierfrancesco Chili (PSG-1 Ducati) will be two of the main threats in that contest. The DFX riders are three in number this season, with Martin backed up by former works Ducati rider Juan Borja and Marco Borciani.

Even with the new 1000cc four-cylinder rules, the Bertocchi Kawasaki team will run a brace of ex-factory Kawasaki 750s, ridden by Mauro Sanchini and Ivan Clementi.

Lucio Pedercini, Nello Russo and Serafino Foti line up for the Pedercini Ducati outfit, with the lone Honda at this stage being the White Endurance Team VTR1000 twin of Walter Tortoroglio.