With the completion of the fifth round at Knockhill, the 2011 MCE British Superbike Championship has moved into the latter half of its 'first phase' with the an intense battle for a top six finish looming.

Nine rounds make up the first part of the 2011 season, with the top six classified at the end of the Cadwell Park round in August going on to challenge for the title over the final three events.

With four rounds still to go, the top three of Shane Byrne, John Hopkins and Tommy Hill are looking fairly comfortable having won seven of the year's ten races thus far. Currently, the trio are already 93, 62 and 41 points clear of the all-important seventh place.

However, the battle for the remaining three positions is proving closely contested, with eight riders in with a close shout of a top six spot at the moment.

Fourth place man Michael Laverty has hit some good form recently to lift himself up the order, the Swan Yamaha rider 16 points clear of seventh place man Peter Hickman, while the injured Stuart Easton still remarkably retains fifth aboard the MSS Colchester Kawasaki, a measure of how strong his start to the season was.

If Laverty - and even Easton - have a comfortable buffer to the battle for sixth, things are much closer further behind with just 22 points covering Ryuichi Kiyonari down to Josh Brookes in 12th.

A lacklustre few rounds have dented Kiyonari's title credentials, but while he is 88 points behind HM Plant Honda team-mate Shane Byrne at this stage, the fact he remains on the top six bubble - and is a reputed title winner at this level - means, somewhat bizarrely, he cannot be discounted as a title favourite.

Arguably the year's surprise package, Tyco's Peter Hickman - ironically riding the bike that took Kiyonari to last year's title - remains well in contention in seventh, the Thruxton podium winner now the only top rider to have finished every race this year. However, that attribute could prove his downfall when dropped scores are taken into effect as currently Hickman stands to lose six points from his current total.

The only rider outside the top six to have won a race this season, Croft victor Jon Kirkham is having a turbulent return to the BSB top flight, though his accomplished Samsung Crescent Suzuki machinery suggests he is well capable of stringing some consistent results together.

Having made the showdown in 2010, Michael Rutter is chasing a top six spot again, but is having a frustrating experience with the improved, but fragile, electronics on the Rapid Bathams Ducati. Still, his experience - and occasional flashes of speed, especially when it rains - means Rutter is probably considered a stronger bet than those around him.

Though overshadowed by Easton initially and then again by the Scot's replacement Alex Lowes, it is actually Gary Mason that represents MSS Colchester Kawasaki's best chance of reaching the Showdown, the former Cup winner picking up the pace in recent rounds to perch himself 15 points off the top six.

He is positioned ahead of Loris Baz, whose blistering qualifying pace has been hampered by poor starts and indifferent race performances. In his defence, the rookie Frenchman has been an entertaining addition to the BSB ranks and has at least found the consistency to score in all but two races.

At the bottom end of that 22 point margin is Brookes, who is enduring a fairly dismal first season with Relentless by TAS Suzuki. Having gotten both of its riders into the Showdown last year, helping it to secure official Suzuki GB backing and the services of 2010 runner-up Brookes, it has been a frustrating year for the Irish-based outfit.

Not helped by a couple of major offs for Brookes earlier in the year, the Australian is yet to trouble the podium, though he has regained some consistency in recent races to ensure he remains a threat to those ahead.

Of course, with four rounds remaining, those further back might still fancy their chances of a late charge, not least highly-rated Lowes, though the new Kawasaki rider may have dealt those hopes a definitive blow when he failed to score in either race at Knockhill.

2011 MCE British Superbike Championship top fifteen after five rounds

1. Shane Byrne (HM Plant Honda) 172 points 2. John Hopkins (Samsung Crescent Suzuki) 141 3. Tommy Hill (Swan Yamaha) 120 4. Michael Laverty (Swan Yamaha) 95 5. Stuart Easton (MSS Colchester Kawasaki) 89 6. Ryuichi Kiyonari (HM Plant Honda) 84
7. Peter Hickman (Tyco Honda) 79
8. Jon Kirkham (Samsung Crescent Suzuki) 74
9. Michael Rutter (Rapid Bathams Ducati) 69
10. Gary Mason (MSS Colchester Kawasaki) 69
11. Loris Baz (Motorpoint Yamaha) 63
12. Josh Brookes (Relentless Suzuki) 62
13. Chris Walker (Pr1mo Kawasaki) 46
14. Dan Linfoot (Sorrymate.com SMT Honda) 45
15. Alex Lowes (MSS Colchester Kawasaki) 39