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They think it's all over. . .

... it is now

Sunday 19th October 2003

Words: Simon Bradley
Pictures copyright SBK International/Simon Bradley

The 2003 World Superbike season finished with a bang rather than the expected whimper at Magny Cours, France. I don't think anyone really expected there to be much in the way of serious racing going on as all the championship positions that mattered were already decided and all the rest seemed to be sure things as well. But we were mistaken on both counts - serious racing and some unexpected final position changes in the championship were both on the cards at this, possibly the last World Superbike meeting as we know it before the sweeping rule changes for next year see the departure of most manufacturers for more open competition.

First surprise out of the box was young James Toseland taking his first ever superpole by just eleven thousandths of a second from Neil Hodgson. A stirling effort and one that bodes well for the new year. Local hero Regis Laconi managed to stay ahead of Reuben Xaus, while Frankie Chili headed up the second row a mere four thousandths of a second ahead of Chris Walker with Gregorio Lavilla, as usual, hot in pursuit on the leading four cylinder bike. James Haydon, in his Foggy Petronas swansong, managed a unique double achievement, both in beating his team-mate and in securing his best ever superpole position of 13th place on a much improved FP1. So the stage was set for a potentially interesting race. But nobody could have guessed just how interesting...

So, on to race one, then.

James Haydon may well be the unluckiest man in superbike racing. Having secured his best ever starting position, the unfortunate FP1 rider got taken out in determined style by a completely out of control Ivan Clementi, who simply attempted to make an overtaking gap on the first corner where none existed and punted both himself and Haydon into the gravel, fortunately without injury. Whether Clementi had suffered brain or brake failure has yet to be confirmed, but this incident was totally avoidable and bordering on homicidal.

James Toseland now knows the sweet sorrow of throwing away a whole lot of hard work as well. The GSE Ducati rider carved his way rapidly back down the field from first to fifth as his tyre choice proved to be less than ideal. Still, his fifth place, ahead of Regis Laconi, kept his hopes alive for taking third overall in the championship.

Another unique event for this race was Chris Walker overcoming his usual bad luck to beat his team-mate. Walker rode possibly the best race of his World Superbike career to finish a solid third, managing this time both to get the better of his season long nemesis Gregorio Lavilla and to remain upright. Lavilla, flying the flag both for Suzuki and for four cylinder bikes in general, came in fourth in yet another sound performance.

Up at the front, Hodgson had taken the lead with Xaus in attendance but never looking threatening. Both riders managed to break the lap record, though, with Hodgson ultimately proving the quicker of the two on his way to securing his thirteenth win of the season.

Troy Corser improved on his dismal starting position to finish a respectable eighth place, a tenth of a second adrift of countryman Steve Martin and half a second ahead of Martin's team-mate, Juan Borja.

Race two proved to be rather less encouraging for Corser as he managed the rare achievement of falling off on the warm-up lap, highsiding the FP1 out of the Nürburgring Esses and being lucky to escape injury as the bike landed behind him and tried to push him into the wall.

The rest of the grid managed to get away intact, with Clementi reigning his enthusiasm in for a while and everyone remaining upright for the next few laps. Indeed, luckless james Haydon joined his team-mate in the gravel in an almost identical incident, again fortunately without injury, on the fourth lap. The fourth lap also saw the departure of Frankie Chili, whose championship hopes finally sank with no points at all from this weekend.

Up at the front of the pack, two separate battles were going on. Early leader Hodgson yielded to Xaus on the 13th lap but stayed in close, harrying the Spaniard, until on lap 20 Hodgson threw the Ducati into the gravel to give him only his second DNF of an otherwise pretty spotless season. Behind the leading pair, GSE team-mates Toseland and Walker were duking it out, rarely more than a tenth of a second apart. In what is certainly the last race for the HM Plant/GSE team for the foreseeable future, the two British riders provided 25 laps of spectacular, close and utterly professional racing of which they should both be proud. Hodgson's departure elevated both of them to the podium, with Toseland taking second place from Walker by fourteen hundredths of a second.

Gregorio Lavilla brought the Suzuki home in a lonely fourth place, 12 seconds behind the leaders and 13 seconds ahead of the pursuing Steve Martin and Leon Haslam, who were in turn followed by Juan Borja and another Suzuki, ridden by local wildcard Sébastien Gimbert, while the Kawasaki pairing of Clementi and Sanchini rounded off the top ten.

So what of the championship?

It should come as no surprise that the first two riders are factory Ducati borne, with Hodgson leading by a comfortable margin from Xaus. Toseland, on last year's championship winning machine, came third with Regis Laconi dropping to fourth after picking no points up in the second race. Gregorio Lavilla did a splendid job all year to take fifth place on the Suzuki just ahead of Chris Walker, while Frankie Chili still managed seventh despite a string of DNFs. Steve Martin took a career best eighth place ahead of Pedercini and Borciani.

Only four riders took the top spot on the podium this year - Hodgson, Xaus, Toseland, Chili and British round wildcard Shane Byrne - while just four more - Laconi, Lavilla, Walker and British wildcard John Reynolds - got onto the podium at all.

From a manufacturer's perspective, Ducati are the runaway winners with nearly double the points of second place Suzuki. Kawasaki take third, an impressive achievement for a company that is still running a 750cc four cylinder bike that has been around for five years against everyone else's new 1000cc machines, while Foggy Petronas took fourth in their debut year.

Next year may well be a different story. Although there are promising signs that a number of semi works teams will be present, full blown factory support would currently appear to be limited to the Ducati Fila team and Foggy Petronas. The new rules make it apparently impractical for most of the factories to field entries so I suspect we should look forward to far stronger grids in national championships, where the competition is seen to be less restrictive. That, of course, will probably mean that we have seen the last of the fantastic wildcard performances we have come to expect in the UK as British Championship bikes will no longer conform to SBK rules.


Race 1

1 N Hodgson, Ducati
2 R Xaus, Ducati
3 C Walker, Ducati
4 G Lavilla, Suzuki
5 J Toseland, Ducati
6 R Laconi, Ducati
7 S Martin, Ducati
8 T Corser, Foggy-Petronas
9 J Borja, Ducati
10 M Sanchini, Kawasaki

Race 2

1 R Xaus, Ducati
2 J Toseland, Ducati
3 C Walker, Ducati
4 G Lavilla, Suzuki
5 S Martin, Ducati
6 L Haslam, Ducati
7 J Borja, Ducati
8 S Gimbert, Suzuki
9 I Clementi, Kawasaki
10 M Sanchini, Kawasaki

Championship Positions

489 N Hodgson, Ducati
386 R Xaus, Ducati
271 J Toseland, Ducati
267 R Laconi, Ducati
256 G Lavilla, Suzuki
234 C Walker, Ducati
197 P-F Chili, Ducati
139 S Martin, Ducati
112 L Pedercini, Ducati
111 M Borciani, Ducati


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