Neil Hodgson may have clinched the championship last time out at Assen, and Ducati have taken the manufacturers' crown, but for most of the rest of the competitors, with 2004 plans still not fixed, the results of this Sunday's two World Superbike races will be pivotal.

Since the inclusion of Imola into the calendar in 2001, it has always formed the final hurdle of the challenging championship - with last year's title showdown between Troy Bayliss and eventual champion Colin Edwards a true all-time classic, showcasing the best of motorcycling competition as the two former champions fought it out over two thrilling races.

However, this year Imola is the penultimate test of the production derived machines, with the final round appearing on October 19 at the much less charismatic Magny Cours circuit, in France.

Imola, a traditionally fast track adorned by numerous chicanes to maintain a safe level of corner speed on today's 200bhp Superbikes, has seen some epic clashes over the past two years.
Of the current rider crop, only two have enjoyed wins at the Imolese circuit: Ruben Xaus (Ducati Fila 999 F03) and Regis Laconi (Ducati NCR Nortel 998RS). Each took a win in the 2001 season, on a Ducati and Aprilia respectively.

Xaus has mounted more of a challenge to Hodgson than any other rider this season, and his total of four race wins have helped him to a 51-point lead over third place, almost guaranteeing second place on his factory machine.

For Laconi, on a customer machine, wins have come tantalisingly close this season, but as yet he has not scored a full pointer. An old fashioned hard charger with the experience of a proven WSBK and MotoGP race winner, Laconi will be on top form for his Italian based team at Imola, as he attempts too finish third overall - and help his chances of a factory ride next season.

Laconi's target in the points race is Englishman James Toseland - now unemployed for next season after HM Plant Ducati's announcement that they won't be back in 2004. After scoring his first ever race win at Oschersleben in June and gathering points in a host of other races, Toseland is undoubtedly having his best season to date. But both Laconi and Toseland have a small fistful of DNFs this season, and that as much as anything else may determine their overall fates come Magny Cours.

Imola will also present Alstare Suzuki rider Gregorio Lavilla with a special challenge on his four-cylinder 1000cc GSX-R. Despite the mandatory restrictor plates fitted on the intakes of his factory machine, the big Suzuki has proved to be fast at virtually every track, and a fully competitive machine in its first year of competition. The prospect of his first win will be enough to see Lavilla pushing as hard as ever in Italy.
Chris Walker, Toseland's HM Plant Ducati team-mate, has had his usually dramatic season, riding the highs as well as the lows with his infectious enthusiasm for the next challenge and Imola will be no different for him than his home circuits like Brands or Silverstone or the far flung rounds at Sugo.

However, he is also out of a job after Magny Cours, and needs to perform in the final two rounds to ensure he gets a competitive seat in either WSBK, BSB or maybe even AMA SBK next year.

The most experienced man in the championship is the elder-statesman of the WSBK paddock, Pierfrancesco Chili (Ducati 998RS). His business suit may be made out of leather but his approach to the art of on-track war is still as pugilistic as ever. Having already scored a race win at Laguna Seca in July. Chili could only top that marvellous display with a win in front of a home crowd at Imola.

With the usual crew of tough privateers running Ducati 998RS machines, the Suzukis of Lavilla and part time rider Vittorio Iannuzzo, are joined in the exhaust symphony by the high-pitched howl of the three-cylinder Foggy Petronas FP1, piloted by Troy Corser and James Haydon.

Improvements to the triple have seen it almost match its early season best of fifth at the previous Assen round. Corser, the 1996 World Champion, can maybe even improve on that score in Italy, but needs to be on absolute top form to take on the more highly developed competition.

Meanwhile, the World Supersport Championship moves into its tenth round of the year with Ten Kate Honda superstar Chris Vermeulen poised to take the title, especially after Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Yamaha Belgarda R6) fell out of contention in spectacular fashion at Assen.

Katsuaki Fujiwara and his Alstare Suzuki team-mate Stephane Chambon, are the only two left who can overhaul the young Australian, but it will take some extraordinary results for that to happen even before the final race in France.

Christian Kellner (Yamaha Motor Germany R6) is the top Yamaha competitor this season. The only other man to have won a race this year is reigning champ Fabien Foret who has otherwise struggled on a less than fully developed bike Kawasaki ZX-6RR.

All four competing factories have scored race wins in Supersport this season, in a year that has seen up to 20 factory entries in any one race and a consistent 17 at all other rounds.