As the 11-Round 2004 World Superbike Championship heads off on its seventh outing of the season the latest fight for supremacy will take place at the wondrously unique Laguna Seca circuit, just inland from the Monterey Peninsula, in Northern California.
Laguna is one of the most challenging circuits imaginable, its tortuous layout rolling up and down the sides of a dried out lagoon bed that gives the circuit its Spanish derived name - 'Dry Lagoon'.
The 3.160km circuit features arguably the most famous corner in World Superbike racing, the endlessly dramatic Corkscrew. This precipitous corner is so called because the riders have to plunge their machine off the edge of a ridgeline of tarmac, diving down what is a 90 degree left hand corner, only to flick immediately right at the base. The Corkscrew is just one of many difficult and unique obstacles to a good lap time at this most specialised of race circuits, a true visual feast for enthusiasts of bike racing.
After the first six rounds of World Superbike competition have been completed, and a total of 12 races have taken place, no fewer than six riders have scored at least one win so far.
The most successful of those is championship leader Ducati Fila's Regis Laconi with a total of five wins. Despite his full hand of wins, and his four from six score of Superpole successes this year, Laconi only leads his team-mate, James Toseland, by a slender three points. Toseland's single win at Valencia and his happy habit of taking podium finishes, even when he is not 100% happy with his machine set-up, has kept him fully in the championship hunt.
The Ducati Fila duo are finding the challenge of the 2004 series a tough one, especially as all riders on all machines now have the same pool of available tyres, from solus supplier to the championship, Pirelli.
Noriyuki Haga of Renegade Ducati has had a glorious comeback to World Superbike this year, the 29-year-old rider for the British-based Renegade team enjoying three wins so far, the most recent at Silverstone in early June.
Lying in third place in the championship, only 32 points from the lead, Haga is an old hand at Laguna (lower pic), having won races in 1998 and 2000. His recent charge to the higher echelons of the table has come coming despite a rash of four DNFs, unwelcome happenings that he and his team hope they have now seen the back of.
Chris Vermeulen has had good reason to celebrate recently, taking his first championship race win in Superbike, after a glorious win in the overall World Supersport Championship in 2003. His Ten Kate Honda team, like Vermeulen himself, has made the jump to Superbike for the first time this year, running the all-new Honda Fireblade CBR1000RR. He sits fourth overall, only two points behind Haga and 34 points from the top of the current table.