Tom Sykes has romped to his third consecutive Bennetts British Superbike victory after a masterful performance at damp-to-dry Knockhill.

Capitalising on a superb start from seventh on the grid, Sykes prevailed in an entertaining battle with Michael Rutter to eventually run out an easy three second winner over Shane Byrne and James Ellison.

A bruising encounter for several of the 28-strong field, the first race of the weekend always promised to throw up some incidents as riders put their faith in the dry line that was appearing on the warm-up lap by fitting slick tyres.

However, with plenty of damp patches across the grid, the run down to the first corner would always favour those in the centre of the line out.

Sure enough, when the lights went green it was second placed Rutter who got away best, the experienced rider dipping into Butchers ahead of a determined Sykes, pole sitter Leon Haslam and Ellison, who made a fantastic getaway to lift himself up from eighth place off the line.

Byrne, who appeared to react best to the lights, funnelled into fifth, ahead of team-mate Leon Camier, while Cal Crutchlow and Michael Laverty - who started on the outside of their respective rows on the grid - found themselves down in seventh and ninth.

While Rutter's superb bike control enabled him to establish a comfortable lead after the first lap, Sykes nonetheless quickly latched onto the back of the Ducati and very nearly wrestled the lead off the Mallory Park winner heading into the final corner hairpin on lap two.

However, while just a cigarette paper separated the Rizla Suzuki from the North West Ducati as Sykes swept through, the canny Rutter would slip back up the inside and ease his rival onto the slippery kerbs and back down into second place.

Undeterred, Sykes was back on the tail of Rutter, shadowing his every move, but there was drama just behind as Sykes' rival for the runner-up spot in the championship, Crutchlow, fell at Carlube. Catching a damp patch as he rounded the crest of the corner, the front went away from him, leaving the two-time winner punching the air in frustration.

Back at the front, Rutter and Sykes battled on with the younger rider diving past at the first corner on lap seven before Rutter rounded back past on the outside of turn two. Far from being once bitten and twice shy, Sykes tried again the very next lap and this time held his line to prevent Rutter from moving back past.

And away Sykes went, 'The Grinner' quickly pulling out a gap over the chasing pack which now consisted of Rutter, Ellison and Byrne after Camier and Laverty dropped well away.

The leading quartet had previously been a quintet, but pole sitter Haslam would compound HM Plant Honda's misery on lap ten when he fell at Butchers. Although not immediately clear how it happened, the team claim he was suffering from a mechanical issue before being clipped by another rider, possibly Byrne. Either way, it means the team come away from the race with a disappointing non-score.

Crutchlow and Haslam wouldn't be the only riders to hit the ground though, with Scott Smart, Billy McConnell and Atsushi Watanabe all taking a tumble. However, in fairness to Watanabe, he was taken down by an ambitious McConnell at the hairpin, the Japanese rider being taken away, rather worryingly, on a stretcher with a hurt leg it seems.

Things continued to be tense at the front as the leading riders began to lap the back markers, but while Sykes was scything his way through, Rutter was finding it a little more difficult. Furthermore, he was now being chased by a charging Byrne who had passed Ellison for third on lap 13 at the hairpin.

Byrne initially made his pass at the start of lap 20, only for an equally determined Rutter to steal it straight back. However, the championship leader would wait just a few more bends before making his move stick again at the hairpin on the same lap.

With just under two seconds to make up in order to catch Sykes and only eight laps remaining, Byrne quickly set the fastest lap of the race. However, the Airwaves Ducati rider's hopes of catching him would ultimately be dashed by his stuttered progress through the backmarkers. Indeed, Byrne even made contact with Chris Burns' MV Agusta as he slipped through, both riders lucky not to be picking up themselves from the gravel trap.

That delay gave Ellison - who was also past Rutter - a shot at second, but he would settle back behind Byrne after a feigned look.

It was enough for Sykes to cross the line for a third straight win just three weeks after his broke his BSB victory duck at Oulton Park. Also coming after his superb outing in the World Superbike Championship at Brands Hatch, Sykes is very much the man of the moment.

Furthermore, the win sees him get to within 12 points of Crutchlow for second place in the standings, while the Honda rider's fall is also good news for Byrne, who stretches his lead to an almost insurmountable 119 points.

Ellison held on for another impressive podium finish to close on Haslam and Camier for fourth in the overall standings, while Rutter is also in touch with that battle after crossing the line just off the podium after a feisty ride from lights to flag.

Camier finished a very distant fifth, the Airwaves rider holding off the attentions of Laverty, who in turn had a ten second advantage over Karl Harris, the Yamaha rider getting a good finish under his belt for once.

Elsewhere, Simon Andrews is an early candidate for 'rider of the day' after battling his way up to eighth, despite continuing to reel from the leg and wrist injuries he has been suffering with all weekend. Indeed, he did a fine job to catch and pass Tristan Palmer, Gary Mason and Tom Grant, all of which had been fighting for a top ten position for much of the race. Tenth place Mason also took the spoils in the Daily Star Cup.

Steve Mercer, on his debut for MSS Discovery Kawasaki, was 12th, with David Johnson, Martin Jessopp and Chris Burns rounding out the points.