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Tom Sykes has taken a potentially critical step towards the 2013 World Superbike Championship title after prevailing over his main rivals in a significantly shortened 12 lap sprint at Laguna Seca

Originally intended to be run over 26 laps, two separate red flag stops would see the third attempt at the race reduced to just a 12 lap sprint, an enticing premise that would see a thrilling dog fight between Sykes, Marco Melandri, Chaz Davies and Sylvain Guintoli.

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Indeed, the eventual frenetic battle for victory seemed unlikely when the first start got underway as planned, with pole sitter Guintoli getting away well from the front and settling into a comfortable two second lead from Sykes and a charging Chaz Davies.

However, when wild-card Danny Eslick crashed on lap six and his Suzuki caused damage to the air fence at an important point of the circuit, the decision was taken to deploy the red flags for safety reasons.

Following a lengthy delay, the restart got underway with Guintoli once more getting the jump off the line from Sykes, while Davies was quickly back up to third after a disappointing start forced him to claw his way back past Laverty and Melandri.

However, the red flags would again make an appearance on lap eight when Eslick's team-mate Roger Lee Hayden slipped at turn four, the air fence getting damaged once again and forcing organisers to stop proceedings. The American's crash had come just a lap after Leon Haslam suffered a similar fall at the same bend, the Briton reported to have hurt his injured leg in the process.

With the third start shortened to just 12 laps around the relatively short circuit, a rather unfortunate Guintoli wouldn't get away so well on this occasion, the Frenchman's tardy getaway compounded by a hefty clash of handlebars with Sykes on the run to the opening bend.

Their contact would subsequently allow Davies to grab the lead, with Melandri completing a provisional BMW 1-2, while Guintoli, Sykes and Laverty chased to round out the top five.

Indeed, if Guintoli and Sykes looked like the losers from the restarts at this stage, Melandri appeared to be something of a winner, the Italian going significantly better on this occasion having slipped back during the first and second getaways.

However, having had time to tinker with its S1000RR during the breaks, Melandri was quickly harassing his team-mate for the lead, even if he was reminded of his rivals' presence when Guintoli attempted to dip beneath him at the final corner on lap three.

Nonetheless, Melandri would hold firm on his line, not only denying Guintoli but allowing the close-following Sykes to slip past the Frenchman into third position.

With little sign of team orders between the two BMW riders, Melandri continued to put pressure on Davies for the lead, but was again caught napping at the final corner when Sykes slipped his Kawasaki up the inside on lap seven.

Presented with an ideal opportunity to put a greater margin between himself and his rivals in the overall standings, Sykes set about attempting to wrest the lead from Davies, the Welshman proving a stubborn opponent as he protected his lines.

However, with Melandri creeping back into contention, Sykes's perseverance would eventually pay off with a neat pass into the turn ten right-hander to nose into the lead.

Quickly putting the hammer down, Sykes merely needed to keep his lines clean over the final two laps to cross the line for his seventh WSBK win of the season - one that could arguably prove to be pivotal in his title quest.

Indeed, Sykes would benefit from Davies holding onto second place, the Welshman coolly responding to Melandri's lunge for the position on the final lap at turn five by simply doubling back on his teammate, while the Italian would then get bumped down to fourth at the Corkscrew by a charging Laverty.

A rider that was seemingly struggling to get involved in the lead battle, Laverty would come on strong in the final laps to secure a spot on the podium, thus improving his title chances.

Guintoli, meanwhile, would have to make do with a frustrated fifth place, a somewhat cruel result given the relatively commanding leads he held at the time of both red flags.

His fade means Sykes has multiplied his lead in the standings to 22 points, while Laverty finds himself just 13 points behind his team-mate in third place overall. Melandri, meanwhile, is now 45 points adrift in fourth.

Though almost forgotten amidst the title contenders, Davide Giugliano put in a competitive ride to sixth as he spent his entire race harassing the factory Aprilias, well ahead of a lonely Jules Cluzel in seventh position on the leading Suzuki.

Wickedly fast during all three starts courtesy of an unusual wide line down into the first corner, Toni Elias would lift himself from a beginning position of 15th to finish in eighth, with Ayrton Badovini and Mark Aitchison rounding out the top ten.

With just 16 riders making the third restart after Eslick, Hayden, Haslam and Niccolo Canepa - the qualifying standout falling during the second attempt at the race -, David Salom, Blake Young, Michel Fabrizio, Federico Sandi and Vittorio Iannuzzo picked up the remaining points.