Preview – Monza
15 May 2003
The fastest circuit on the SBK calendar hosts the fourth round of the World Superbike Championship on Sunday 18 June, the twelfth time the classic circuit of Monza, situated North East of Milan, has hosted such an event.
Always a stunning venue to watch racing from, Monza oozes character and the rings to the echoes of its eighty year history, offering a unique experience for riders more used to the slower, tighter, more modern circuits.
Lap speeds averaging 180kmph and over are commonplace at Monza, despite the proliferation of speed quenching chicanes which have been added over the years on grounds of safety.
Team Ducati File's Neil Hodgson has scored six straight race wins in 2003, and – ominously for his competitors - is the only rider in the current SBK field to have scored a podium at Monza during the 2002 event.
Riding the all-new Ducati 999 F02 on the machine's home soil for the first time, the Englishman will find his team-mate Ruben Xaus a tough competitor as always, especially as the Spaniard saw Hodgson's lead extended after the previous Sugo round, where Xaus took two fourth place finishes.
Another Spanish rider may beat Xaus or Hodgson to the top step in either or both Monza races, judging by the recent performance of Gregorio Lavilla's GSX-R1000 four-cylinder machine and the resurgence of the rider himself.
Quite how much his machine will be affected by the intake restrictors (fitted only to 1000cc fours this season) at such a quick circuit as Monza is yet to be ascertained, but on the long straight at Phillip Island Lavilla appeared to be at no particular disadvantage.
Other potential podium finishers are numerous, with seven riders having already taken at least one podium score this year.
Possible podium favourites, due to running year old factory Ducati 998F02s, are the HM Plant Ducati pairing of James Toseland and Chris Walker. Each rider has had good and bad fortune so far but Toseland's five race finishes and two podiums place him fourth in the championship, behind Hodgson, Xaus and Lavilla.
For Walker, injured at the start of the year, another pair of crashes at Sugo during round three have caused further injury to his feet and ankles, although Walker has vowed to be in Italy.
Fifth overall in the championship Regis Laconi (NCR Ducati 998RS) is one of the magnificent podium seven, and won the Superpole competition at Sugo, a significant step for a man who has already won an SBK race while a factory Aprilia rider in 2001.
Pierfrancesco Chili has scored only two finishes in the 2003 season so far but each has been a third place, an indication of the class of the 15-times SBK race winner when his race package proves up to the task and his fortune is good. The oldest rider in the championship at 38, Chili is a multiple Monza winner and always a threat on home ground, no matter the performance gap to the fastest factory machines.
The ambitious Foggy Petronas project has had a sometimes highly impressive start to the season, thanks to the efforts of Troy Corser and James Haydon. Headed up off-track by retired four-times SBK World Champion Carl Fogarty, the Foggy Petronas team uses a unique 900cc three-cylinder machine and has been a welcome high-tech addition to the SBK grid in 2003.
DFX Ducati's Steve Martin currently sixth overall despite some reversals of fortune in Sugo, heads up a strong three rider challenge on Pirelli tyres. Juan Borja and Marco Borciani make up the trio, while the privateer Pedercini team also features three riders, with Lucio Pedercini the most experienced at this level of competition.
Honda interest in the Monza race runs to the WET and lone rider Walter Tortoroglio, promoted from the ranks of Superstock, on a VTR1000 twin.
In the World Supersport Championship class Ten Kate Honda rider Chris Vermeulen scored a clear ten point championship advantage over Suzuki's Katsuaki Fujiwara after the previous Sugo round, even though Yamaha Germany rider Christian Kellner took the race win, his first since the 2000 season.
Vermeulen, Fujiwara and Kellner are the only riders to have won races in 2003, but there is no shortage of tough competitors, on any of the 19 factory bikes in the series, capable of winning at Monza.
Particular names to look out for include 1999 World Champion Stephane Chambon (Alstare Suzuki), Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Yamaha Belgarda), Alessio Corradi (Team Italia Spadaro Yamaha), Karl Muggeridge (Ten Kate Honda) and a whole host of others.
2002 Monza race winner and eventual World Champion Fabien Foret may find his new Kawasaki machinery outgunned this year, but fast circuits like Monza generally provide surprises and ultra-close racing through the field.