Despite the decision by Yamaha to withdraw their factory team from the 2001 World Superbike Championship in order to concentrate development on their upcoming four stroke Grand Prix bike, Italian marque Benelli look set to help fill the gap and add a sixth name to the list of participating manufacturers in the burgeoning series.

A glance at the recently released entry list for the 2001 World Superbike Championship reveals one of the most competitive line-ups the series has ever had in its 14 year history with no less than seven different manufacturers represented, six on an official level.

The series is boosted by the arrival of Benelli and their singleton entry for Australian veteran Peter Goddard although the Italian firm face a race against time for their triple cylinder Tornado to be homologated for the series in time for the opening round at Valencia on March 9th.

The firm look set to become the third Italian company to try their hand at the WSBK Championship in the past three years after Aprilia entered in 1999 and Bimota in 2000. While Benelli will aiming to establish themselves as quickly as the former, who are now seen as definite Championship contenders in just their third year, they will be careful to avoid the same fate that befell the latter, who disappeared without trace before the end of last year.

Benelli have made an astute move in the signing of Goddard, who despite being the oldest man on the grid at 36, is regarded as one of the best test and development riders in bike racing today. The Australian participated in the very first World Superbike Championship in 1988 and has a wealth of experience in both Superbike, Grand Prix and Endurance competition.

Goddard is the man largely responsible for developing the Aprilia RSV1000 into a race-winning machine and appeared last year as a replacement for the injured Gregorio Lavilla in the factory Kawasaki team. However the team were forced to cancel their planned test in Italy last week as their engineers worked flat out to get the bike ready for the FIM to pass it for competition.

Despite this setback, Goddard is confident that the team will be on the grid at Valencia. "I haven't signed a contract yet, but everything should be sorted within the next week or so," he told Motor Cycle News this week. The Tornado will be unique in WSBK ranks as it will be the only triple cylinder bike on the grid, but the firm believe they can compete with the more powerful four-stroke competition.

Yamaha may be gone on an official scale but there will still be at least three Yamaha R7's on the grid in the hands of Alessandro Gramigni and the Valli Racing team and from Yamaha Russia, who will field Jean-Marc Deletang and Juan Borja on a pair of R7's. The German Alpha Technik outfit are also expected to join the series with a pair of R7's, possibly for Markus Barth and Jurgen Oelschlaeger.

Despite denying the fans a chance to see Noriyuki Haga on a Superbike this year, Yamaha's withdrawal may see them come back as an even stronger force within the next few years as WSBK boss Paolo Flammini strongly believes while it is rumoured that several other Italian factories are planning an entry into WSB competition in the next few years.