Neil Hodgson began this weekend's crucial Dutch round of the World Superbike Championship in fine style by topping free practice at Assen and, after 'only' taking a provisional third place in Friday qualifying, insisted that he had not shown his full hand.

The 29-year old British rider, who needs just ten points to clinch this year's title, was quickest throughout the morning free practice session, and topped the timesheets on race tyres until three minutes from the end of first qualifying, which was interrupted when a slower rider crashed and brought out the red flags. With all riders then on qualifying tyres, Hodgson was edged out of the top two places by Gregorio Lavilla and old rival Chris Walker.

"Everything felt good, and it was great to be back on the bike after such a long break," the champion-elect declared, "The bike feels hard round here because it's a physical track, but luckily I've done a lot of training recently.

"The 999 is quite smooth through the corners, but there is certainly a bit more to come. It probably won't improve the lap times much, because the bike just feels harder to move around than last year, but there is more there. I also didn't really ride too well in the last couple of minutes because I had spent most of the time on race tyres. The plan tomorrow is to try more tyres and do race distance as always."

The Briton has spent the summer break preparing to move to a new house, along with wife Kathryn and the baby the couple had last week, but insists that he is not being distracted from the job in hand at Assen.

"Obviously, I've had a lot on my mind recently, but now it feels fantastic to be back on the bike again," he said, "I know I've got a job to do this weekend."

Team-mate Ruben Xaus said he felt a little out-of-touch after the five-week break, but was equally convinced that there was more to come from the second Fila Ducati 999.

"It wasn't easy, because I felt a bit rusty after the holidays and was not riding the bike," the Spaniard admitted, "It's more a question of set-up and reaction to fast corners, because I spent the summer riding supermoto bikes and it's not easy to get back into the swing [of superbikes]. At Assen, the corners are coming at you one after another.

"I find the rear a bit stiff and not reacting, but I'm sure we can solve that problem and then we can be good. If we can find a tenth everywhere, I know we can be up at the front because, last year, I did a 2min 01 easily. It'll come tomorrow, I feel sure."



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