The importance of the Assen race to the whole World Superbike paddock is immense, and for more than just the reasons of the Circuit van Drenthe's long and proud history as a motorcycle racing venue.

Traditionally falling towards the end of the SBK calendar, Assen has frequently been the venue for some titanic battles on track, many of them deciding championships outright or firming up which of any particular year's hopefuls will be going into the final race or two with a genuine chance of securing the coveted world championship.

This year may be no different, as championship leader Neil Hodgson (Ducati Fila) enjoys a monumental 150-point lead over his team-mate Ruben Xaus, the only man capable of overhauling his total. It will take a Herculean winning run from now to the season climax at the French circuit of Magny-Cours on 19 October for Xaus to snatch the laurels from Hodgson, and a huge amount of misfortune would have to befall the Englishman for anything other than Hodgson's name to grace the championship trophy.

The last Ducati world champion, Troy Bayliss, won his single title in 2001 at Assen, and Hodgson's side of the Ducati Corse garage at least will be hoping for a similar trick at this most challenging of circuits.

Fast and curvaceous, long and festooned with cambered corners, Assen belies its completely flat topography by being one of the most challenging and technical circuits imaginable. Much modified from its original closed road nature, being purpose built by the standards of the day in 1954, Assen is a true classic rider's track, exclusively aimed at motorcycle racing and, despite being widened, shortened and continually remodelled for safety reasons, it is still something of a breathtaking final exam of any rider's all round abilities.

Machine speed is king at Assen, but it has to be allied to a cool use of racecraft and no little expression of rhythm on behalf of the rider.

Of the current SBK crop, only Pierfrancesco Chili (Ducati PSG-1) has been able to score a win at Assen thus far although, in past years, there have been close calls for riders like Xaus and Troy Corser (Foggy Petronas FP-1). Chili has a win under his belt already this year, and he approaches Assen as one of a select band of only five riders to have done so.

Hodgson's runaway lead is peppered with eleven race wins, Xaus has taken three victories, Chili and James Toseland (HM Plant Ducati 998 F02) one apiece and, in the previous round, wild card Shane Byrne (Monstermob Ducati) took both Brands Hatch victories as a preamble to securing the British Championship title.

Arguably, the most improved rider in the series this year is Toseland, who has already suffered pain and injury for his high-speed art, but is now reaping the rewards in status and respect from a watching world. On one of the best bikes in the field, podiums at Assen are a genuine prospect for Toseland but, as the rolling mauls for the top points scoring places have shown this season, the competition will be as stiff as ever in Holland.

Regis Laconi (Ducati NCR Nortel Caracchi) has been close to a win this year, and his fourth place in the championship makes him the top 'true' privateer, running a fast customer machine rather than a new or season old factory machine.

The awesome early season performances from Gregorio Lavilla and the Alstare Suzuki GSX-R1000 have stumbled a little of late, but each has done enough to show they have what it takes at true world level. Once more, the impressive Vittorio Iannuzzo will be in company with Lavilla, albeit on a somewhat less full factory-spec machine.

Injury and drama have been constant companions for Toseland's team-mate Chris Walker this year too, putting him sixth overall at present, by the slender margin of 13 points.

With many a DNF to his name, Chili matches his race number seven to his championship position, but he is nonetheless a whopping 62 points ahead of Aussie privateer Steve Martin in eighth place, the Pirelli shod rider just ahead of his team-mate Marco Borciani and another perennial SBK privateer, Lucio Pedercini.

The spread of talent this season extends not only to those in possession of a machine currently capable of race wins. The Foggy Petronas effort, a high profile and high class affair has yet to show engine performance capable of taking either Corser or second rider James Haydon to the podium, but few doubt that, when the machine is as developed as its unique 900cc three cylinder format allows, top results will be within reach.

As well as four local wild cards, there will be a proliferation of 'foreign' competitors, the most high profile being proven SBK race winner John Reynolds on his Rizla Suzuki GSX-R1000. The huge attendance of British spectators at Assen, just a ferry hop across the North Sea from the UK, will be entertained by another of their compatriots too, as Leon Haslam campaigns his Renegade Ducati.

In the World Supersport Championship, now approaching round nine, Chris Vermeulen (Ten Kate Honda) still enjoys a comfortable 37-point championship lead over Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Yamaha Belgarda), but the fight for second at this moment in time is as close as it is possible to be.

Katsuaki Fujiwara (Alstare Suzuki) has been as potent a threat as ever, scoring a win, like his team-mate Stephane Chambon, who secured the last race at Brands Hatch. This trio, all chasing Vermeulen as three races remain, are some way clear of fifth place man Christian Kellner (Yamaha Motor Germany). The only other man to have won a race this year is reigning champ Fabien Foret (Kawasaki Racing), who sits in overall eighth place.

A huge 19 factory-supported machines have been competing for the World Supersport crown this season, making Vermeulen's win tally of four an outstanding achievement. This is tempered by the knowledge that all four competing manufacturers have scored at least one win.

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