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.