Most of the current World Superbike competitors have not yet secured their rides for the 2004 season and this could add an interesting twist to this weekend’s action at Imola.

Most of the current World Superbike competitors have not yet secured their rides for the 2004 season and this could add an interesting twist to this weekend’s action at Imola.


Last year, current Ducati MotoGP rider Troy Bayliss and eventual champion Colin Edwards fought it out over two thrilling races at the Imola circuit. Traditionally a fast track adorned by numerous chicanes to maintain a safe level of corner speed on today's 150 kW-plus Superbikes, Imola has seen some epic clashes over the past few 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 been newly-crowned champion Neil Hodgson’s toughest competitor this season, and his four race wins have helped him build a cushion of 51 points over the rest of the riders.


For Laconi, on a customer machine, wins have come tantalisingly close this season. A plucky competitor and former Superbike and MotoGP race winner, Laconi will be on top form for his Italian based team at Imola, as he attempts to 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 other races, Toseland is undoubtedly having his best season. However, Laconi and Toseland have been inconsistent at times this season and both will be keen to impress the teams in the paddock at Imola and the last two races at 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 Suzuki has proved to be fast at virtually every track -in its first year of competition.


Meanwhile, Chris Walker, Toseland's HM Plant Ducati team-mate, 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 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,


The usual crew of privateers running Ducati 998RS machines, the Suzukis of Lavilla and Vittorio Iannuzzo, are joined by the high-pitched howl of the three-cylinder Foggy Petronas FP1, piloted by Troy Corser and James Haydon.


Improvements to the Foggy Petronas FP1 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.