The new look 2004 World Superbike Championship kicks off in what is now traditional style, at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit, Valencia, on Sunday 29 February.

This season will be the 17th of continuous World Superbike competition, with road-derived machinery from a variety of manufacturers once more doing battle on the racetracks of the world, from the historic and contemporary venues in Europe to the intercontinental rounds in Australia and America.

A total of five previous race winners will be competing in World Superbike this season, and all will be in attendance at Valencia, vying with each other for the right to call themselves the first winner in the latest era of global Superbike racing.

A modification in the technical rules in the Superbike class sees twin, triples and four-cylinder machines engaging in SBK competition on a truly level footing this year. The adoption of spec Pirelli tyres is also expected to play a major part in making the competition as close as it possibly can be.

With each eligible SBK machine capable of producing up to - and over - 200bhp from its roadbike-based motor, the competition is could well be as exciting as in any of the previous 16 years.

The official Valencia winter test sessions have normally been a good indicator of how the season itself will go and all the evidence so far points to the pre-eminent SBK forces emanating from the Ducati Fila factory workshops.

Fastest man in the earlier Valencia tests was proven SBK race winner Regis Laconi, who was victorious in a dramatic final race of the 2001 season, at Imola. Fourth overall in the championship last year, the Ducati Fila mounted Frenchman will have to fight hard in every corner of every race this season, especially with the likes of his very own team-mate James Toseland - a rider who also enjoys the status of race winner in this intense category of motorcycle sport.

Toseland was a fine third overall last year, heading off Laconi in the final races of the year at Magny Cours, shortly before he too was promoted to the full factory Ducati team for 2004.

Of the current SBK combatants, Troy Corser is the most successful at Valencia, the Foggy Petronas FP-1 rider doing the double in the 2001 season. Corser is joined in by the exciting talent of Chris Walker, the two men competing on the technically innovative three-cylinder machine, a fusion of Malaysian and European technology.

Among the small army of new or returning SBK talents this year are the Xerox NCR Ducati 999RS rider Garry McCoy and Renegade Ducati 999RS rider, Noriyuki Haga, who was the 2000 season runner-up.

Haga is an 11 times World Superbike race winner and a real threat on his brand new 999, while the vastly experienced McCoy is something of an SBK rookie - but still looking to score wins in a new form of competition in any case.

Another rapid Aussie in with a chance of real glory this year is DFX Ducati's Steve Martin, teamed up with Marco Borciani for the second year. Splitting the factory Ducatis on the timesheets at the recent tests, Martin has already shown his potential in measurable terms.

A strong list of Ducati privateers also includes the talents of Britain's Leon Haslam, who will be taking on the SBK world in his rookie season. Already fast in testing in Spain for the Renegade Ducati team, Haslam starts his full SBK career at the best possible venue.

Having won the riders' World Supersport championship for the past two years, Ten Kate Honda have increased their involvement by accepting the challenge of World Superbike this year. 2003 Supersport Champion Chris Vermeulen will compete on the all-new Honda CBR900RR, and has already shown good speed in testing, despite riding a not fully developed machine.

The Kawasaki Bertocchi and UnionBike Yamaha teams will also compete with four-cylinder bikes, while another new entry in World Superbike will run Suzuki GSX-R1000s. The Zongshen China effort affords an entirely new aspect to the championship and will run the experienced Piergiorgio Bontempi and Endurance racing star Warwick Nowland.

In the Supersport World Championship, which gained full World Championship status in 1999, all the major Japanese manufacturers have enjoyed title wins in the Riders' category but this year a returning Ducati factory entry brings a whole new emphasis from Europe.

Lorenzo Lanzi will be the man charged with running the single Ducati Breil 749 in with the best of the four-cylinder machines. A full effort from Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha sees a whole gridful of potential winners' line up for the Valencia season-starter, and Suzuki also unveils a new GSX-R600 to the world of competitive racing.

1999 Champion Stephane Chambon will share the Alstare Suzuki garage with multiple race winner Katsuaki Fujiwara, while Yamaha unleashes four factory bikes, two of which will be ridden by the Belgarda boys, Jurgen van den Goorbergh and 2002 Champion Fabien Foret.

The Yamaha Motor Germany team also runs Christian Kellner and Kevin Curtain while Honda has six officially supported entries, from the Ten Kate, Klaffi and Team Italia Megabike squads. In Karl Muggeridge (Ten Kate) and Sebastien Charpentier (Klaffi), Honda has two race-winning riders, while new signing Broc Parkes is a hot prospect for the Dutch masters Ten Kate.

Qualifying for all classes starts on Friday 27 February, finishes on Saturday 28, and for Superbike the excitement of Superpole qualifying - during which the fastest 16 from regulation qualifying race against the stopwatch during a single flying lap, to determine ultimate grid position - returns once more. Racing for real commences on Sunday 29th.


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