The last long-haul event inked on the 2003 World Superbike calendar will see the series make its annual pilgrimage back to the USA, the place where the superbike concept first came of age as a racing class in its own right.

Based more closely on the machines bought and ridden by performance-oriented street riders than any other global racing class of the time, superbike racing rapidly grew to eclipse all other forms of four-stroke competition in the late eighties and early nineties.

Now an established FIM world championship class, and with twelve races on the calendar in 2003, the WSBK's recent changes in regulation mean that it has aligned itself even more with the original mass-produced streetbike ethos, with 1000cc four-cylinder machines now eligible for competition. Laguna Seca will this year host the first US-based race held under the new SBK technical rules, and a clutch of local wild card riders will be on hand as usual to push the regular riders to the edge and beyond once more.

As has become a modern tradition, Laguna SBK weekend hosts individual rounds of the AMA Championship classes, on top of the usual pair of world races. This provides a popular weekend format for the local fans, who've been swarming to Laguna in record numbers for the last couple of seasons.

Part of the attraction of the Laguna weekend is the track itself and its close proximity to the seaside resorts of Monterey, Big Sur and Carmel. Laguna, nestling in a natural amphitheatre within a raised dry lake bed - hence the Spanish name Laguna Seca - features a wondrous natural topography, making it one of the trickiest and most undulating circuit in world racing. At 3.610km in length, Laguna is one of the shorter tracks on the SBK trail, with the race lap record of 1min 24.888secs making for an average lap speed of 153.096kph.

The jewel in Laguna's glittering crown is without doubt the Corkscrew corner. Approached along the ridge of the lagoon wall, the corkscrew drops down a 30 per cent slope to the left - in a sudden lunge from the apex to the exit - with the drop followed an unfeasibly short time later by a tight right at the base of the compression and then another, longer, downhill left. A real eye opener for Laguna novices, the Corkscrew is a must see for any spectator over the race weekend, not to mention a perennial test for riders at all levels of experience.

One of Laguna's biggest fans is Neil Hodgson, who, although without a win at the American venue quite yet, has been a virtual victory machine all season. In the previous 14 races, the Briton has topped the podium no fewer than eleven times, taken two second places and has failed to score only once - thanks to a crash at the most recent event in Misano.

In the shadow of Hodgson for most of the year, Ducati Fila team-mate Ruben Xaus came out to bask in his own glory at Misano, both barrels of his big Ducati blazing as he took his first ever SBK race winning double. Second overall in the championship, Xaus nonetheless has a 107-point deficit to make up to Hodgson.

Xaus, himself, is now 23 points clear of the only other rider to have won a race in the 2003 season, James Toseland. The HM Plant Ducati rider's excellent win at Oschersleben - in race two of round five - was his first ever triumph in SBK, proving that the 22-year old is maturing into a real contender.

Regis Laconi (NCR Ducati) will be a genuine force to be reckoned with at Laguna, a circuit where good set-up and hard, but smooth, riding finds great reward. Laconi was a SBK race winner for the factory Aprilia team, and a man the factory riders have had reason to fear as a threat to their status this season.

SBK's second factory status Spaniard, Gregorio Lavilla, has come close to securing the first win for the 1000cc fours on his big Alstare Suzuki GSX-R1000, while a succession of injuries and bad luck has prevented the perennially popular Brit Chris Walker from emulating his younger team-mate Toseland's race-winning performance.

Seventh in the title chase, with number seven on his PSG-1 Ducati 998 RS, is Pierfrancesco Chili, the championship's oldest competitor, but still one of the best. A mixed bag of misfortunes has seen him score five DNFs thus far, counter-pointed by five podium slots, including a near win at Oschersleben.

The Foggy Petronas FP-1 three-cylinder machine has yet to come close to a win, for either Troy Corser or James Haydon, but both should be back in action at Laguna, with Haydon having largely recovered from his recent neck injury. Having suffered some problems in the development path of their unique three-cylinder 900cc engine, more new parts are expected to be in place for Laguna.

Aussie Steve Martin (DFX Pirelli Ducati) heads up a swarm of rapid Ducati privateers, including team-mates Juan Borja and Marco Borciani. Lucio Pedercini on his self-entered machine is one of three riders in his eponymous team, Nello Russo and new rider Luca Pederzoli being the others.

Thanks to the presence of one of the big name wild cards, Eric Bostrom, Ivan Clementi and Mauro Sanchini (Bertocchi team) will no longer be the only riders still on 750cc Kawasakis. Bostrom, who currently leads the AMA standings, cannot use his regular overbored ZX-7RR and thus will use a 750cc version for the Laguna SBK race - as per FIM rules.

Bostrom will not be joined at Laguna by multiple-WSBK winning brother Ben, but will have three times AMA Superbike champion Mat Mladin and fellow Yoshimura Suzuki competitor Aaron Yates in attendance on GSX-R1000s. In a peculiar slip of fate, Giovanni Bussei will be racing at Laguna Seca after all, but not for his regular UnionBike Yamaha team. He will race in the wildcard colours of Ducati Austin, for whom he has been competing in the AMA Championship for the last couple of races.

There will be no World Supersport Championship race at Laguna Seca, but all classes return to the fray once more on 27 July at Brands Hatch.


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