The 2004 World Superbike season is over and Ducati Fila's James Toseland is the new world champion, thanks to his one-two finishes at the last round at France's Magny Cours.

Thus ended the first season that World Superbike, along with its World Supersport and European Superstock siblings, ran Pirelli only tyres.

The rule's primary objective was closer racing, through a more level playing field that didn't see special one-off, back-door tyres doled out to the top teams.

Everybody would, it was claimed, have equal tyres of consistent quality, tyres that were developed and tested with all the different teams; tyres that, once tried, had to be shared with all of the manufacturer's teams and approved by all of the teams before they could be used at the next round; tyres for four-cylinder bikes, twins and triples.

But, just like last year, the factory Ducati team won the championship. In fact, its riders finished first and second again. So what changed with Pirelli and the spec tyre rule?

Last year, a staggering 218 points separated the first three riders at season's end (103 points between the two factory riders, 115 points between second and third place). This year, there were fewer than 100 points between the first five riders.

Neil Hodgson won every race up to Laguna Seca last year, while this year's championship has been hailed as one of the most exciting and closely contested in the 17-year history of the series.

The title came down to the final weekend, with four riders having a chance of taking it.

Toseland, his teammate Regis Laconi, Ten Kate Honda's Chris Vermeulen, and Renegade Ducati Koji's Noriyuki Haga. A few rounds back, only eight points separated the four of them.

At Magny Cours, Laconi didn't even make the front row of the grid. And the pole sitter was none other than Troy Corser on the Foggy Petronas.

Race one had four different manufacturers on the front row, Ducati, Honda, Foggy Petronas, and the Yamaha R1 of local wildcard Sebastien Gimbert (a team member of the newly-crowned, Yamaha GMT94 World Endurance road racing champions) finished fourth in both Magny Cours races on his Yamaha.

When it was all over, only nine points separated Toseland and Laconi. 'Nitro Nori' Haga won race two his sixth win of the year - in the final round to finish third in the championship, 28 points behind Laconi.

Vermeulen's two rare DNFs earned him no points, but he held a solid fourth place in the championship in his rookie season finishing with four victories and nine podiums.

In all, six different riders won races in 2004's 22-race series. The two factory Ducati riders accounted for less than half of them, compared to last season when factory team-mates Hodgson and Rueben Xaus won 20 of the races. Also, ten different riders earned podiums this year.

"We had a Michelin contract last year," said former SBK champion, Troy Corser, who rode for Foggy Petronas in 2004. "But the tyres they gave us were two seconds a lap slower than what Hodgson and Xaus had. Control tyres have eliminated that kind of rubbish."

Pirelli believes it did indeed produce tyres that provided closer racing action and a level playing field for World Superbike competition.

"We will start making our preparation for next season next week, when we test at Mugello with Ducati and James Toseland, the new champion," Giorgio Barbier, Pirelli Racing Manager, said after the final round. "We will be testing our new tyres for next season. By the time we have the next test at Valencia in November we will already have a lot of new bikes, 2005 models, so we will really have some new stuff to test, specifications for next year.

"These will be confirmed for next year's use at Qatar, in early December. The important thing is that all the new and existing teams will be at the November test, working to find the best solutions. Probably Yamaha France will be there as well."

It is evident that a one tyre rule did stop runaway leaders from getting preferential tyre treatment, and levelled the playing field to give many others a chance at the front.

However, a useful question to ask is what did Pirelli get out of this venture?

"The concept of production-based race tyres interested Pirelli, because it would accelerate development of our consumer tyres, and because at Pirelli we sell what we race, and we race what we sell. A road racer in the States can get these tyres easily," commented Eddie Roberts, Pirelli's World Racing Manager. "We don't hide them. We have no desire to hide them. We want everybody on them."