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.

The revised SBK rules have evened out the competition in World Superbike this year, with all machines allowed to be of 1000cc capacity. Irrespective of engine configuration air-intake restrictors have been abandoned this season.

As the Laguna event approaches Pierfrancesco Chili and his PSG-1 Ducati team sit fifth in the championship race after some superb rides, only marred by more than his fair share of DNFs. The most experienced rider of all, Chili has recently turned 40-years-old, but has been a race winner in SBK as recently as Misano this year, and a Laguna Seca race winner in 2003. He is only one of three current SBK riders to have won on previous visits to Laguna.

Garry McCoy on his Xerox Scuderia Caracchi Ducati 999RS, a former MotoGP and proven SBK race winner, is one of the most experienced riders of all, but Laguna will be another unfamiliar event for him, even if he has raced on the Laguna layout, in his 125cc GP days. McCoy has already joined the 2004 SBK race winning crew, thanks to his race two success on home soil in Australia.

Leon Haslam, son of British racing hero Ron, has been making a strong reputation for himself in World Superbike since his full-time induction into the series this year. Having taken a podium finish of third at Oschersleben, and a win at the Brands hatch round of British Superbikes two weeks ago, Leon's pace of progress has been an impressive factor in the rejuvenated SBK class.

With a new engine spec in their armoury of weapons to take to Laguna the Foggy Petronas Team, running the technically innovative Petronas FP-1 triple, have many reasons to look to the American Venue as a potential source of more podium finishes.

The triple cylinder macine riding Troy Corser is one of the trio of former Laguna race winners in this year's Laguna contest, and thanks to a Superpole win in Oschersleben and a second place race finish at Misano, his hopes of similar performances are well founded. His team-mate Chris Walker is hoping to have recovered from his most recent catalogue of injuries in time to be a force at Laguna, looking to add to his single podium finish so far.

DFX Ducati Sterilgarda riders Steve Martin and Marco Borciani have shown well this year, with Martin even looking capable of wins on his fully private 999RS machines. His single podium thus far may be added to at Laguna, while Borciani waits his first turn at a top three finish.

Best hopes for the privateers of SBK in America are the Bertocchi Kawasakis of Mauro Sanchini and Ivan Clementi, while for Suzuki Sergio Fuertes's MIR Suzuki has already made some ripples in the big Superbike pool. The Chinese backed Zong Shen Team, featuring Piergiorgio Bontempi and Warwick Nowland on Suzuki GSX-R1000s, has also been in the privateer mix all season, and they embark on yet another new adventure in SBK with their first trip to Laguna Seca.

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