It seems like an age since Shane Byrne concluded his dominant 2008 British Superbike title triumph with his thrilling last lap win over Leon Haslam. Then again, for most motorcycle fans, six months without action does feel like a small lifetime...

A lot can happen in that time, not least the rapid deterioration of the world's economy, but despite the doom and gloom of financial hardship that has engulfed the sport over the winter, the BSB has remained remarkably strong and heads into 2009 brandishing a 30-strong entry list - one more than what ended 2008.

Of course, there are some big names missing, with the top four in last year's standings, Byrne, Haslam, Cal Crutchlow and Tom Sykes, all seeking their fortune on the international stage, while the withdrawal of champions Ducati certainly came as a surprise for many.

Nonetheless, the setbacks pale into comparison when you consider just how much there is to look forward to in 2009.

Indeed, a variety of new team, bike and rider combinations ensure this year's grid has very different look to it, to the point that, in the championship class, just two riders - Jason O'Halloran and Aaron Zanotti - begin the season with the same team and bike as they ended 2008 with.

It also means picking a favourite for victory this weekend, let alone the title, is proving remarkably difficult.

A couple of weeks ago, the smart money would be on GSE Racing. Although they are embarking on their switch from Ducati to Yamaha, one glance at how well the R1 is showing in the world championship, coupled to GSE's title-winning nous and two very capable riders, should have made the Airwaves Yamaha the bike to beat at Brands Hatch.

However, delays in getting the bike ready mean the first time James Ellison and Leon Camier ride the machine will be during the first free practice session of the weekend. It's a tough ask to expect the Airwaves machine to be fighting it out for wins just three days after it touched the tarmac, but there is little doubt that GSE will know how to turn it into a winner before long - it's a case of when, rather than if.

If the R1 does prove to be quick straight out of the box, then riders Ellison and Camier certainly have the capability to get in front. Camier is 2008's highest-placed rider to be continuing this year, while Ellison was definitely the best rider not to win a race last season. Both have signed with GSE to win the title - a 'small' thing like not testing the bike won't skew their expectations.

Nonetheless, given GSE and Byrne's outstanding start to the 2008 season, this is the ideal opportunity for their rivals to take advantage and, leading that challenge, will be perennial rivals HM Plant Honda.

Still, their build up to the first race hasn't been without drama following the announcement that Joshua Brookes won't race at Brands Hatch due to visa irregularities. The former World Supersport frontrunner is an exciting addition to the field, but we'll have to wait for Oulton Park to discover exactly what he is capable of on a Superbike.

As such, the ever-reliable Steve Plater will take his place temporarily, alongside full-time rider Glen Richards, who makes a welcome return to the Superbike paddock having won the Superstock and Supersport titles in 2007 and 2008. His best chance to win a first BSB race and launch a title challenge, Richards is definitely considered a threat.

A new bike, new sponsor and a new, high-profile rider, Crescent Suzuki have certainly been courting their fair share of headlines over the winter period, but while they may have been forced down to just one machine in 2009, it won't make them any less of a title threat.

Indeed, while the distinctive blue and yellow hues of Rizla may have gone - replaced by a tasteful looking white, blue and gold colour scheme -, the acquisition of Sylvain Guintoli is a going to be a big draw for many people in 2009.

Arriving straight from MotoGP, Guintoli is looking to BSB as a chance to revive his career and while the old question marks of track knowledge and Superbike experience hang over his head, his times during testing have shown he is as quick as his ex-GP status suggests. Still, it remains to be seen how well Guintoli can swap some of that white, blue and gold paint with the best of them...

Eager to put a disappointing 2008 season behind them, three riders, exciting new sponsors and one 'amazing bike' have made Rob Mac Racing the early dark horse heading to Brands Hatch.

The rider line-up alone is one of substantial interest. Of course, Chris Walker needs no introduction to BSB fans, his decision to return proving one of the most popular announcements of the off-season, while the arrival of the equally experienced Michael Rutter - complete with North West backing - should make the team even more of a firm fan favourite in 2009.

Completing their line-up with the young Graeme Gowland, the team head to Brands Hatch shrouded in mystery having conducted all of their testing away from their rivals. However, all three riders are making good noises about their chances in 2009, so it is no surprise their rivals are expecting big things this weekend.

Another team that has warranted the attention of its rivals has been Hydrex Honda, who head into 2009 with a bold new rider line-up. Fronting their campaign is Karl Harris, who returns to the team after his frustrating year at Rob Mac Yamaha, while Stuart Easton gets a full-season deal following his superb one-off victory for them at Macau.

For Harris, 2009 needs to be the season that he breaks his victory duck, while Easton is finally in a position to deliver on the promise he has shown in recent years. Luckily for them, the Hydrex Honda is tipped to be a surprise package in 2009.

While the factory team has been forced to reduced its efforts, Suzuki's second-string team, Relentless by TAS, arrive at Brands Hatch with an expanded two-bike effort. Although some of this will be down to Atsushi Watanabe's Japanese contacts, it is a welcome boost for a team that showed flashes of excellence in 2008 with Michael Laverty.

After a not too impressive maiden season with the Crescent team, Watanabe moves over in 2009 to put his new found experience to good use, while Ian Lowry makes a welcome debut with the team having plied his trade in Supersports for the past three seasons.

Kawasaki, meanwhile, head into the new season with two teams representing them having agreed to supply two bikes to MSS Colchester and the newly re-branded Hawk Racing team, Buildbase Kawasaki.

Both teams enter with strong rider line-ups, MSS Colchester luring last year's top Yamaha rider Simon Andrews and endurance racer Julien Da Costa, while Buildbase have Tristan Palmer and Cup class champion John Laverty on their side. Both teams are targeting positions well inside the top ten, although few will deny this year's ZX-10R will need to be a substantial improvement on last year's effort.

Elsewhere, Andrews' former team Jentin Racing are looking to maintain their run of top ten finishes into 2009 after signing Henderson R1 champion and Superstock runner-up Jon Kirkham. Making a return to the Superbike fold, Kirkham has an exciting opportunity at the helm of a new Yamaha R1.

Completing the 20-strong championship class line-up are two riders who are staying put for 2009; O'Halloran, who extends his time at SMT Honda having made a good impression towards the end of last year, Zanotti on the Red Viper Honda and David Johnson, whose Maxxis team switches to Yamaha in 2009.

Away from the headline-grabbers at the front of the field, the Daily Star Cup is also destined for an exciting title battle, although most eyes will be on Quay Garage's Gary Mason to see whether he can carry his giant-killing form from the end of 2008 through to 2009.

He faces stiff competition from Martin Jessopp, who was the model of consistency in 2008, and Tom Tunstall, who has secured an ex-WSBK Honda for this year's campaign.

STP-JHS Racing will make it five manufacturers on the grid when they appear with a pair of MV Agustas for Victor Cox and Chris Burns, while Alastair Fagan, Brian McCormack, Kenny Gilbertson, Peter Hickman and Matt Bond ensure the Cup field is well represented this season.

It all kicks off with official free practice on Friday 10th April, with two races to be held on Easter Monday - and you can catch up with all the latest news, views and results from Brands Hatch at