Preview - Laguna Seca.

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.

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Bayliss leads Hodgson et al at the dramatic Laguna Seca raceway.

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