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.