by Russell Atkins

British Superbike returnee Chris Walker has vowed his Rizla Suzuki outfit will be pulling out all the stops this year as he bids to banish his reputation as the series' eternal bridesmaid - having finished runner-up in the championship on no fewer than four occasions.

The 35-year-old is making a welcome comeback to both Suzuki and BSB is 2007, following six years away from the domestic scene plying his trade on the Grand Prix and World Superbike stage. Now he is back, he is determined to avenge four successive title defeats from 1997 to 2000 - the latter of which he missed out on when his bike agonisingly broke down almost within sight of the chequered flag in the season finale at Donington Park - but he is well aware the task will not be an easy one.

"It's a big thing for me and I'm really excited," he enthused to ahead of the opening round of the new campaign at Brands Hatch this weekend. "I had a few sleepless nights over the winter thinking about it, but mainly through excitement. It's going to be good.

"The championship is bigger than it ever was when I was here before. There are a lot of things that have changed, and mainly for the better - the depth of the field has got a lot better, the bikes have got better, the racing is definitely better now and it's also on terrestrial TV. The championship is great, and to be honest it's an honour to be part of it."

'The Stalker' has raced against some of the biggest names in world motorcycling over the course of his 12-year career in the sport, but he argued this year's BSB crop would present him with one of his sternest challenges yet.

"The last season I was in BSB was pretty tough against Neil Hodgson," the Nottingham-born ace explained, "and he went on to win a world title. The year before that I lost out on the championship to Troy Bayliss, who also went on to win a world title. It was tough, but I think the difference now is there are no longer just two, three or four top lads - there are at least ten riders who can win races. That's what the spectators want to see, and it's what I want to see and be a part of too.

"Last year's championship contenders - Kiyo, Lavilla and Leon - I think are the obvious favourites. Jonny Rea is really strong too. He is going to be very special this year, and quite rightly so - he deserves to be. He has trained and worked really hard and put himself in a good position over the years to give himself this chance. Of course 'Shakey' is fired-up as well; he is back with the team he won the championship with, which is obviously great for him. It's a big boost for BSB to keep Shakey there on a mega-competitive bike.

"Then of course there are all the young pretenders. My team-mate has been flying in testing, sometimes faster than me and sometimes just behind. It's been the same with Tom Sykes. Tommy Hill has also come of age and won races last year, so God only knows. There are going to be a lot of winners!"

The team-mate he refers to is reigning British Supersport Champion Cal Crutchlow, who has shown particularly encouraging form in winter testing. His young partner, Walker stresses, will be crucial in helping to develop the bike over the course of the season as Suzuki bids to make inroads into the advantage established in recent years by rivals Honda and Ducati and reclaim the coveted crown it last lifted back in 2004 with John Reynolds.

"Although Cal is new to Superbikes I've still learned things from him," Walker admitted. "Especially coming back to British tracks, I'm going to be counting on his experience there after my seven-year absence. We've been looking after one another. We've been testing different things, and when I've found something good he has tried it and vice versa. It's working really well. We were pals before too, so that really helps - we had already trained together a little bit and done a few things on push-bikes. We get on great.

"The team is a very friendly and nice one to be in. A lot of faces have changed, but it's amazing how many of the old faces are still there too behind the scenes. Paul (Denning) and his dad and Martin James are still the big power behind the team, setting it in the right direction and getting all the funding together. Obviously now they have a new sponsor in Rizla, and a fantastic one at that. They combined a couple of years ago, and it's working really well for them. Rizla is owned by John Player's, which is a local company to me over in Nottingham. It's a good team, and a lot of fun to be in."

As to his outright objectives for the rapidly-approaching campaign, Walker refused to rule anything out, though he did concede it would be vital to build up strong points finishes in the opening rounds before being able to unleash the GSX-R1000K7's full potential later on in the year.

"The bike has come on in leaps and bounds," he asserted. "We're still not 100 per cent there yet; we've still got a little bit of work to do with it being brand new - we are a little bit behind maybe the Honda and Ducati as far as development is concerned. They are at the peak of their bikes, being two or three years old, while we are really in the infancy of ours, but we are not a million miles away. To be that close with a brand new bike I think is pretty good, and it's only going to get better.

"For us the big goal is to get a really good start to the season. We don't expect to go out there and win the first six races - there's no way that's possible - but if we can get through Brands Hatch, Thruxton and Silverstone only a handful of points off the guys leading the championship, then our bike is only going to get better and better whereas theirs' will have peaked, and I think then we will be in a good position to challenge for the front-running spots in the championship. Whether we can actually win it or not this year remains to be seen, but nobody will be trying any harder."