A pre-season change to the customary running order of the World Superbike Championship sees round five of the 2003 series take place at Oschersleben, in East Germany.

One of the newest, and safest, venues, Oschersleben is a disapointingly flat - yet tortuous - circuit, with seven left and seven right corners, most of them tight and several featuring a mid corner change of radius. The 3.667km circuit has 15,000 grandstand seats and space for a total of 80,000 spectators, with most viewing areas raised 6-8 metres above the level of the track to enhance the field of vision.

The sight every WSBK crowd has witnessed since the start of the season is that of Neil Hodgson winning races - eight from eight so far - a record breaking start to any SBK campaign. Nine at Oschers for the Ducati Fila rider would equal the best number of straight wins in a single year; ten would propel Hodgson into greatness before half the races had even been completed.

Having to fight hard for some of his wins, Hodgson nonetheless approaches Oschersleben with a high degree of confidence, but his team-mate Ruben Xaus is safe in the knowledge that although he has found Hodgson unstoppable so far, he is the only current WSBK runner to have won a race at Oschersleben - for Ducati in the second leg of the 2001 event.

Spain is well represented in the upper echelon, with Xaus, second overall behind Hodgson's stunning tally of 200 points, being pressurised by Alstare Suzuki's Gregorio Lavilla, only four points adrift of Xaus after two outstanding Monza podium finishes.

As likely to be the first man to depose Hodgson as any other, Lavilla has been on startlingly quick form of late, and all despite running air intake restrictors on his 1000cc four-cylinder machine as per the new 2003 regulations.

The energy, enthusiasm and sheer joie de vivre of Frenchman Regis Laconi has brought him to fourth overall, an impressive achievement for the first of several true privateers on the Oschersleben grid. The NCR Ducati star's brace of second place finishes have shown he can run with the very best when the circumstances are correct and Laconi will probably find Oschersleben one of the best tracks of the year in this regard.

The odd piece of misfortune has relegated the HM Plant Ducati pairing of James Toseland and Chris Walker to fifth and sixth places overall, despite the fact that each has access to 2002 factory spec 998 F02 Ducatis. Battling in the leading bunch week in and week out, the British duo have suffered injury since the start of the year, but each is determined to reverse their recent slip in the ratings.

The last of the seven riders to have taken at least one podium so far is the oldest man in the series, Pierfrancesco Chili, who is an ever maturing 38-years-young. By a strange quirk of coincidence he also sits seventh in the championship and runs number seven on his private Ducati.

A unique entry to the World Superbike Championship for the 2003 season is the Foggy Petronas FP-1 project. The Malaysian oil giant Petronas has joined forces with four-time SBK Champion Carl Fogarty to produce a three cylinder, 900cc machine, which has given 1996 World Champion Troy Corser and British star James Haydon places on the grid and no end of headlines so far.

A welcome addition to the WSBK line-up, the uniquely styled and coloured FP1 has enjoyed a race best of fifth in Phillip Island (race one), and a front row start at Valencia - both courtesy of Corser.

DFX Ducati's Steve Martin leads a strong three-rider challenge on Pirelli tyres; Juan Borja and Marco Borciani add their corners to the triangle. Walter Tortoroglio, promoted from the ranks of Superstock, rides a Honda VTR1000 twin while his fellow Italians Ivan Clementi and Mauro Sanchini campaign the Bertocchi Kawasaki 750s for one more season. A whole gridful of high-level privateer Ducati riders and the as-yet unnamed wildcards completes the WSBK entry.

In the World Supersport Championship class Ten Kate Honda rider Chris Vermeulen has enjoyed the championship lead since the second round in his native Australia, after overtaking the early sprint of Valencia race winner Katsuaki Fujiwara (Alstare Suzuki). Yamaha Germany rider Christian Kellner took the top spot at round three at Sugo, but Vermeulen, still only 20-years old, scored his personal win number two, and a 29 point championship lead, after the Monza race.

Fujiwara, Kellner and Vermeulen are the only three riders to have won races in 2003, but with 19 factory bikes competing at every round, the scope is broad for another winner sometime soon. Karl Muggeridge, Vermeulen's Ten Kate team-mate, was easily the most competitive qualifier at Monza, but a burnt clutch after the start put paid to his chances of a decent finish, pre-empting his retirement from the meeting.

Three former Supersport World Champions still actively compete in the series - Stephane Chambon (Alstare Suzuki), J?rg Teuchert (Yamaha Motor Germany) and Fabien Foret (Kawasaki Racing Team). Of the three, only Teuchert is not a proven winner at Oschersleben.

Other obvious and serious threats to the top step of the podium include the balance of the 2003 podium finishers: Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Yamaha Belgarda), Alessio Corradi (Team Italia Spadaro Yamaha) and Iain Macpherson (van Zon Honda).


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