The 2003 World Superbike Championship culminates with a new beginning in France this weekend when, after some recent 'false starts', the French fans of global Superbike racing will have the chance to see their heroes in live action descends on Magny Cours - one of the most modern tracks on the calendar.

Almost 4.5kms in length, Magny Cours currently hosts the French Formula One Grand Prix, and has been newly altered to aid four-wheel overtaking - something the WSBK riders aren't expected to struggle with.

Neil Hodgson, the recently crowned 2003 World Champion, heads the list of contenders in what is expected to be his final SBK outing before moving to MotoGP next season. The Brit has found his Ducati 999 a difficult machine to set-up at some venues, but it has not stopped him scoring a walloping 12 race wins thus far - over half of the available races.

Most recently Hodgson's dominance has come under serious threat from his team-mate Ruben Xaus. Suffering from a torrid early season run of form, Xaus has allied consistency to his awesome speed and machine control in recent races, and has won six of the last ten contests, taking doubles at Misano and the previous round at Imola on September 28. The Spaniard is also chasing a GP seta next year and two more wins would do his hopes no harm.

Five riders have won at least one race this season, with James Toseland and Pierfrancesco Chili the two regular SBK competitors on the top of the score sheet - British wild-card Shane Byrne having convincing won at Brands Hatch. Toseland and the hugely experienced Chili are at opposite ends of the SBK ladder in terms of age and racing miles, but each has squeezed enough out of their respective 2003 machines to take a single win - Toseland at Oschersleben and Chili at Laguna Seca.

NCR Ducati's Regis Laconi will be looking towards Magny Cours with special excitement, this being the first opportunity he has had in his SBK experience to race on home soil. Laconi has yet to score a win this season, despite several outstanding performances on a customer spec machine.

A win at Magny Cours would cap off an excellent return to the SBK fray and send what is expected to be a large French crowd away in raptures of delight. Having just gone third in the series overall, Laconi will also be keen to secure not one but two good finishes, to keep ahead of Toseland in the championship table - the man he's tipped to team up with at the factory Fila Ducati team next season.

With 1000cc four-cylinder machines being allowed into SBK for the first time this year, Alstare Suzuki rider Gregorio Lavilla has put in some impressive rides - but is yet to win a race. Magny Cours may be the perfect place for his machine to exploit its broad-ranging abilities.

Chris Walker, Toseland's HM Plant Ducati team-mate, has frequently been injured, but is now fully fit Walker and likely to be a factor in Sunday's two races. Without guaranteed employment for 2004 - like many of his peers at this stage - he will be hoping to sign off with nothing less than a win in France.

Recent races have seen an improvement in the performances of the Foggy Petronas FP-1, ridden by Troy Corser and James Haydon. The unique three-cylinder machine has been a difficult design to get up to full effectiveness in its maiden racing season, but a recent engine re-vamp has seen the machine become more consistent in its ability to set quick laps for a whole race.

Competing in his last race with the team, Haydon will be eager to end his FPR career with a bang - a good result that is, not a repeat of the crashes that have littered his season.

The remainder of the Magny Cours grid is made up of the regular privateer army, including the most effective trio so far, DFX Ducati riders Steve Martin and Marco Borciani, plus the self-entered Lucio Pedercini. The last riders in the current top ten positions, all will be attempting to finish the season in the top echelons.

Off track, debate is likely to continue over the controversial 2004 rules, particularly the rule forcing all teams to use Pirelli tyres - a decision which has now resulted in rival manufacturer Dunlop complaining to the European Union.

Meanwhile, in the World Supersport Championship Ten Kate's Chris Vermeulen, has already secured the championship after an astonishing season, which has included four wins and a total of seven podium finishes. His most recent rival to the top spots of the podium have come from his own team-mate Karl Muggeridge, who will be going for three wins in a row.

Stephane Chambon is the second placed rider right now, and like half a dozen regular WSS competitors he hails from France. Always a threat at any track and the 1999 World Champion in his own right, Chambon will be keen to hold onto second but faces intense pressure from top Yamaha rider Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Yamaha Belgarda R6) who is six points behind.

Katsuaki Fujiwara (Alstare Suzuki) is only a point behind van den Goorbergh and with Muggeridge only ten points behind 'Katsu', there are four riders going for second place overall.

All four of the big Japanese manufacturers have high quality entries this season and all four have taken race wins so far - Kawasaki thanks to the efforts of 2002 champion Fabien Foret. Another French flier in this most competitive of classes.

Other likely winners include half the field in the correct circumstances, but Klaffi Honda rider Sebastien Charpentier has made a real impact in the series since his induction at Sugo, and may add to his single podium finish on home soil.



Loading Comments...