Neil Hodgson may have clinched the championship last time out at Assen, and Ducati have taken the manufacturers' crown, but for most of the rest of the competitors, with 2004 plans still not fixed, the results of this Sunday's two World Superbike races will be pivotal.
Since the inclusion of Imola into the calendar in 2001, it has always formed the final hurdle of the challenging championship – with last year's title showdown between Troy Bayliss and eventual champion Colin Edwards a true all-time classic, showcasing the best of motorcycling competition as the two former champions fought it out over two thrilling races.
However, this year Imola is the penultimate test of the production derived machines, with the final round appearing on October 19 at the much less charismatic Magny Cours circuit, in France.
Imola, a traditionally fast track adorned by numerous chicanes to maintain a safe level of corner speed on today's 200bhp Superbikes, has seen some epic clashes over the past two years.
Of the current rider crop, only two have enjoyed wins at the Imolese circuit: Ruben Xaus (Ducati Fila 999 F03) and Regis Laconi (Ducati NCR Nortel 998RS). Each took a win in the 2001 season, on a Ducati and Aprilia respectively.
Xaus has mounted more of a challenge to Hodgson than any other rider this season, and his total of four race wins have helped him to a 51-point lead over third place, almost guaranteeing second place on his factory machine.
For Laconi, on a customer machine, wins have come tantalisingly close this season, but as yet he has not scored a full pointer. An old fashioned hard charger with the experience of a proven WSBK and MotoGP race winner, Laconi will be on top form for his Italian based team at Imola, as he attempts too finish third overall – and help his chances of a factory ride next season.
Laconi's target in the points race is Englishman James Toseland – now unemployed for next season after HM Plant Ducati's announcement that they won't be back in 2004. After scoring his first ever race win at Oschersleben in June and gathering points in a host of other races, Toseland is undoubtedly having his best season to date. But both Laconi and Toseland have a small fistful of DNFs this season, and that as much as anything else may determine their overall fates come Magny Cours.
Imola will also present Alstare Suzuki rider Gregorio Lavilla with a special challenge on his four-cylinder 1000cc GSX-R. Despite the mandatory restrictor plates fitted on the intakes of his factory machine, the big Suzuki has proved to be fast at virtually every track, and a fully competitive machine in its first year of competition. The prospect of his first win will be enough to see Lavilla pushing as hard as ever in Italy.
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