The 2003 World Superbike Championship culminates with a new beginning in France this weekend when, after some recent 'false starts', the French fans of global Superbike racing will have the chance to see their heroes in live action descends on Magny Cours - one of the most modern tracks on the calendar.
Almost 4.5kms in length, Magny Cours currently hosts the French Formula One Grand Prix, and has been newly altered to aid four-wheel overtaking – something the WSBK riders aren't expected to struggle with.
Neil Hodgson, the recently crowned 2003 World Champion, heads the list of contenders in what is expected to be his final SBK outing before moving to MotoGP next season. The Brit has found his Ducati 999 a difficult machine to set-up at some venues, but it has not stopped him scoring a walloping 12 race wins thus far – over half of the available races.
Most recently Hodgson's dominance has come under serious threat from his team-mate Ruben Xaus. Suffering from a torrid early season run of form, Xaus has allied consistency to his awesome speed and machine control in recent races, and has won six of the last ten contests, taking doubles at Misano and the previous round at Imola on September 28. The Spaniard is also chasing a GP seta next year and two more wins would do his hopes no harm.
Five riders have won at least one race this season, with James Toseland and Pierfrancesco Chili the two regular SBK competitors on the top of the score sheet - British wild-card Shane Byrne having convincing won at Brands Hatch. Toseland and the hugely experienced Chili are at opposite ends of the SBK ladder in terms of age and racing miles, but each has squeezed enough out of their respective 2003 machines to take a single win – Toseland at Oschersleben and Chili at Laguna Seca.
NCR Ducati's Regis Laconi will be looking towards Magny Cours with special excitement, this being the first opportunity he has had in his SBK experience to race on home soil. Laconi has yet to score a win this season, despite several outstanding performances on a customer spec machine.
A win at Magny Cours would cap off an excellent return to the SBK fray and send what is expected to be a large French crowd away in raptures of delight. Having just gone third in the series overall, Laconi will also be keen to secure not one but two good finishes, to keep ahead of Toseland in the championship table – the man he's tipped to team up with at the factory Fila Ducati team next season.
With 1000cc four-cylinder machines being allowed into SBK for the first time this year, Alstare Suzuki rider Gregorio Lavilla has put in some impressive rides – but is yet to win a race. Magny Cours may be the perfect place for his machine to exploit its broad-ranging abilities.
Chris Walker, Toseland's HM Plant Ducati team-mate, has frequently been injured, but is now fully fit Walker and likely to be a factor in Sunday's two races. Without guaranteed employment for 2004 - like many of his peers at this stage - he will be hoping to sign off with nothing less than a win in France.