Despite the loss of arguably its two biggest names and the factory Honda team, the 2001 British Superbike Championship is still shaping up to be an enthralling battle from start to finish and it gets underway this weekend at Donington Park with arch-rivals John Reynolds and James Haydon favourites to duel it out for the crown.

The 2000 season was a vintage one for Superbike fans in Britain with Neil Hodgson and Chris Walker fighting tooth and nail every inch of the way for what has to be the strongest National Superbike series outside of Japan but both have now moved on to pastures new, Hodgson taking his GSE Racing team with him onto the World stage and as the 2001 British Superbike Championship gears up for action there are several men who believe they can emulate the excitement created by Walker and Hodgson last season.

Heading the list of Championship contenders are BSB veterans John Reynolds and James Haydon, team-mates in the Red Bull Ducati outfit last year, but not this time around as Haydon moves onto pastures new after a turbulent season last year that ended up with Reynolds and Haydon bitterly disliking one another.

Haydon has moved to the Virgin Mobile Yamaha team where he will be partnered by Jamie Robinson who returns to the British scene after a season with the QUB Optimum Aprilia 250cc Grand Prix squad while Reynolds will be partnered by Sean Emmett, who raced for the Red Bull team in 1998 and 1999 and all four have to be considered genuine title contenders right from the off.

The 36-year-old Reynolds is riding high after taking his first World Superbike victory at Brands Hatch last October and despite several months with nowhere to race, Reynolds will still be riding high and looking to start the season, his fifth with the Red Bull team, with a victory.

Haydon meanwhile benefits from the fact that when the factory Yamaha team withdrew from the World Superbike Championship, a lot of the data and some equipment from the stable that housed Noriyuki Haga found itself winging its way to the Rob McElnea run squad giving the team possibly the best infrastructure in the entire series.

While much of the attention will be focused on these two, both Emmett and Robinson will be hoping that while their team-mates are falling over themselves, they will be left to do the majority of the winning and claim the title. Emmett has plenty of experience at this level and should quickly fit back into the Red Bull mould while Robinson returns for a second try at BSB after a largely fruitless year in Grand Prix's.

Of the two Robinson is probably quicker but Emmett's experience at this level should prevail early in the year as Robinson could take a few races to get to grips with the Yamaha R7.

Outside of the above mentioned quartet, other factory entries come from Chris Walker's old team, Crescent Racing Suzuki who, after failing to raise the necessary backing to move onto the world sage have returned to BSB with a singleton entry for the very capable John Crawford and after showing flashes of brilliance last season he could be a dark horse for the title as the team try to make up for the heartbreak of losing the crown in the very last race of 2000.

Kawasaki once again field two ZX-7RR machines, Michael Rutter signing up to ride alongside the swiftly emerging Stephen Plater. While Rutter will be the favourite to win if the races are wet and Plater could well snatch a win or two if things fall his way, it is hard to see wither rider challenge for the title this year.

A new team to the series is the Dienza Ducati outfit who field a lone Ducati 996 for ex-Virgin Mobile Yamaha rider Paul Brown who was absent throughout the bulk of 2000 with a serious wrist injury while perhaps the biggest cheer of all will be reserved for Steve Hislop who returns to action after breaking his neck in that stomach churning accident at Paddock Hill Bend last August.

Hislop will ride the lone Monstermob Ducati 996 and while it may be too much to ask for the Championship, the immensely skilled veteran will be a threat all year, waiting in the wings should the leading runners come a croppa.

Nine bikes in the main class is less than what we saw in 2000 and budget problems for several of the privateer teams mean that the entry for the first round of the Championship this Sunday stands at 21 at the time of writing with ex-Honda rider Shane Byrne tipped to take the title on his Suzuki in the absence of 2000 privateer Champion Dave Heal.

Byrne will have to work hard to keep ahead of Gordon Blackley, runner-up to Heal in 2000, who returns with the Hawk Racing Kawasaki team and Dave Wood, who rides for Heal's 2000 outfit, Myco Racing. The remainder of the privateer field is made up largely of Kawasaki's of varying vintage and the title will go to either Byrne, Blackley or Wood as nobody else has the equipment or budget to sustain a season-long Championship challenge.



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