Ruben Xaus continued his late season surge as he took the spoils in the first World Superbike race of the day at Imola.

The lanky Spaniard and his Fila Ducati teammate Neil Hodgson spent virtually the entire 21 lap distance nose to tail in a race just as tense as last year's title showdown even without the high stakes.

With Xaus getting the jump from pole position it was Hodgson who had to make some demon moves on the first lap to move into second place passed Regis Laconi and the newly crowned World Champion had soon latched on to the tail of his teammate.

The two red rockets soon pulled out a comfortable gap over Laconi who in turn was well clear of the scrap for fourth place but it was all eyes up front as Hodgson began sizing up the race leader.

However all thoughts of an early, decisive move by Hodgson were dispelled as Xaus remained spectacular, but ahead throughout the first ten laps and even appeared as though he may have broken the Englishman's challenge.

However Xaus took one slide too many entering the Tamburello chicane on lap twelve and allowed Hodgson to nip inside for the start of what would be a titanic second half of the race.

On lap 16 Xaus forced back inside to the lead entering the second chicane only to have Hodgson barge past just one turn later at Tosa with a move so forceful the two bikes momentarily made contact. Full of fire and brimstone, Xaus returned the favour one quarter of a lap later as the two dived into the Variante Alta chicane and once again Hodgson had to play second fiddle.

With a low attrition rate among the 27 starters, traffic began to become a factor on lap 18 and, wary of the potential for some last lap shenanigans Hodgson stuck it up the inside of Xaus for the lead on lap 20 at the Rivazza complex.

But Xaus wasn't done yet and put a crimp in Hodgson's plans as the two piled into the Villeneuve chicane for the final time, taking the lead and moving into the best position possible to deal with the two slower riders that were quickly being sucked in to the leading dice.

With the large Italian crowd cheering wildly, four bikes hurtled under the bridge on the run down to Rivazza almost as one with Xaus furiously weaving from one side to another as the helpless Horst Saiger and Giuseppe Zannini tried to figure out what was happening. Xaus had cleared both by the time he arrived at Rivazza but Hodgson, knowing that one delay would be enough to lose him the race, had no choice but to try and follow his teammate through.

While Saiger got as far out of the way as possible, costing him a place in the process, Zannini didn't appear to be aware of the second Fila Ducati until Hodgson was rubbing handlebars with him and in an instant, Hodgson's chances of victory had evaporated.

It all became academic one turn later when Hodgson ran wide on the exit to the second Rivazza and Xaus crossed the line with a wholly unrepresentative 2.793secs margin of victory.

Hodgson was philosophical over his second place run, knowing that a rematch was just a few hours away while Xaus' fifth win in the last nine races all but assured him of second place in the final standings.

Behind the factory duo, Laconi had a thoroughly lonely run to third place, less than ten seconds behind Xaus and more than 20 seconds clear of the next rider, Suzuki's Gregorio Lavilla.

With the lap one retirement of James Toseland and the lap eleven departure of his HM Plant Ducati teammate Chris Walker courtesy of an 'off' at the Variante Alta, Lavilla was able to outlast the challenges of Steve Martin and the impressive duo of Troy Corser and Lucio Pedercini although had the race lasted one lap longer, an inspired Frankie Chili would surely have claimed the spot.

Chili, in perhaps his final WSBK appearance on home soil had a disastrous start to the day when he stalled his Team PSG-1 Ducati on the startline, forcing the veteran Italian to start from the pitlane, some ten seconds after the rest of the field.

In 27th position at the end of lap one, Chili was 17th by lap four, in the points on lap five, eleventh by lap eight before dispatching Ivan Clementi, Marco Borciani, Corser, an ailing Pedercini and then, on the final lap, Steve Martin for fifth place. A stunning ride which was fully appreciated by everyone in attendance.

Behind Martin, Troy Corser rode well for seventh place after Pedercini's late race retirement while Mauro Sanchini passed his Bertocchi Kawasaki teammate Clementi on the last lap to take eighth place.

Clementi, Marco Borciani, Juan Borja, David Garcia, wildcard Alex Gramigni, Sergio Fuertes and Luca Pini completed both the points scorers and the unlapped runners.

Although the retirement list was small it contained three of the four British riders in the field for in addition to Walker's crash, a broken gear linkage accounted for Toseland on lap one and a bike problem sidelined James Haydon after five laps. However all three will be out for another crack at the whip in race two.