With a massive grid boasting 38 riders – 23 championship class and 15 EVO class -, the 2011 MCE British Superbike Championship is shaping up to be one of the closest, most exciting on record.
Following the three-way title shootout in 2010, there is certainly plenty to get excited about ahead of another season, thanks to a series of high-profile moves amongst riders and teams.
Unlike previous seasons, just three riders that finished inside the top 15 are missing from this year's entry lists – Alastair Seeley (BSS), James Ellison (WSS) and Yukio Kagayama -, yet only four of those are staying with the same team-bike combination.
Chief amongst those is reigning champion Ryuichi Kiyonari, who remains at HM Plant Honda for a crack at a fourth BSB title. He faces stern competition from within his own camp, however, with the return of 2008 champion Shane Byrne, the double title winner keen to revive his reputation after two fairly fruitless seasons on the world stage.
Predicting who will win the BSB title in 2011 is proving a tough task, however, with several riders arguably in with a shout at the crown. Indeed, just reaching the top six shootout is likely to prove an intense fight in itself…
Having just missed out on the title in 2010, Josh Brookes and Tommy Hill head to pastures new this season, the former at Relentless Suzuki and the latter with Swan Yamaha. The Swan-backed team has also lured Michael Laverty and the support of Yamaha UK for a renewed assault on regaining for the manufacturer.
Of all the riders, however, most eyes will arguably be on Samsung Crescent Suzuki signing John Hopkins, who comes to BSB as arguably the series' finest-ever coup. The team may have lost full Suzuki GB support, but testing has shown Hopkins and team-mate Jon Kirkham to be potential threats nonetheless.
Over at Kawasaki, MSS Colchester have the new ZX-10R at their disposal, plus multiple race winner Stuart Easton back in their midst and returnee Gary Mason, while Chris Walker also returns to the Kawasaki stable with the ambitious new Pr1mo team.
Having taken the world championship by storm this season, Ducati cannot be discounted either, Michael Rutter showing in 2010 that he is still a reckoned force in BSB. With bold new backers in Rapid Solicitors', Rutter is likely to be up there again on the ever-reliable 1098R.