After months of speculation, lyrical waxing and self promotion, some reputations will be on the line when the 2009 World Superbike season effectively kicks off with a three-day group test at Portimao this weekend.

Running from Friday to Sunday, all 32 riders registered on the largest ever official WSBK entry list will make the trip to Portugal to give the first proper indicator as who will be the rider to beat in 2009.

Seven manufacturers, including newcomers Aprilia and BMW, will enter a total of 15 factory backed entrants this year, meaning there will some very high-profile riders finishing outside the top ten when the season comes to an end in eleven months time.

Together with a further 17 private, or semi-private, entries, the competitiveness of this year's championship is already whetting the appetite of motorcycle fans around the world and prompting fevered debate as to who will be amongst those to beat.

Many eyes will be on reigning champions Ducati Xerox, who enter their first season without 2008's runaway title winner Troy Bayliss. It is his replacement Noriyuki Haga that will garner much of the attention, particularly if he makes the headlines again as he did with his series of falls during testing at Kyalami.

On that occasion, it was his team-mate Michel Fabrizio who upstaged him, the Italian shrugging off an indifferent maiden season with the factory team to dominate proceedings in South Africa. With a year now under his belt, Fabrizio could edge his way further up the betting order if he proves in Portugal that his pace wasn't a fluke.

Yamaha will be another team with eyes fixed firmly on them as they introduce their all rookie pairing of Ben Spies and Tom Sykes. The antithesis of Haga and Troy Corser in terms of experience, Spies has already shown he is more than capable of running with the best of the World Superbike riders.

With prior knowledge of the Portimao circuit, it may provide the best indicator as to where he and the new 'long bang' Yamaha is amongst its rivals. Having been slightly overshadowed by Spies so far and suffering with an ailment in Kyalami, Sykes will want to use the test as a chance to get closer to his team-mate.

Compared with Ducati and Yamaha, and to a lesser extent BMW and Aprilia, Honda have had a fairly low-profile winter period as most concentrate on their F1 withdrawal. Still, any fears of scaling back will be unfounded when the season gets underway as they will be represented by eight bikes in 2009, three works and five independent.

After strong maiden seasons, Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari are already being touted as title favourites in 2009. Checa was very quick at Portimao last year, although he may have to watch out for Jonathan Rea, who proved his worth as a Superbike rider following a fine debut with the team at the same meeting. The Northern Irishman won't be there to settle for being their third rider...

Having scaled down to two bikes for 2009, Suzuki have also been quietly going about their business recently. Introducing the new K9 GSX-R1000, both Max Neukirchner and Yukio Kagayama provided Xerox Ducati with arguably their strongest competition on a consistent basis in South Africa with a bike that remains in its infancy. With more development under its belt, this week's test may well see Suzuki spring something of a surprise, particularly in Neukirchner's hands.

Having skipped Kyalami, Kawasaki will make an official debut in its new form of being run by Paul Bird Motorsport. With the team pulling out of MotoGP, WSBK has become Kawasaki's prime focus for 2009, so the pressure is on riders Makoto Tamada and Broc Parkes to make an impression, particularly in a field that is far more competitive than it was last year.

Of the two newcomers, Aprilia has certainly been the most praiseworthy, with many being surprised to see the team already on the pace in South Africa. Although the RSV-4 is still undergoing development, Shinya Nakano is already showing he is adapting to Superbikes well by matching Max Biaggi turn for turn. A regular appearance inside the top ten this weekend will be a fine effort.

BMW, meanwhile, have more ground to gain, although Corser and Ruben Xaus have made good noises about the S1000RR's potential. Although BMW's novice operation makes it slightly hard to compare them to stalwart racers Aprilia, they need to make sure they aren't swept up the myriad of privateer entries waiting in the wings to pick up where the manufacturer teams are struggling.

Chief amongst these will be Sterilgarda Ducati, who have always done a very good impression of a factory outfit that goes beyond their 'B' team status. Shane Byrne fronts their charge this year and, following his star turn testing in Portimao last time, he could be vying for places at the front again.

Elsewhere, Supersport graduates Stiggy Honda are expecting big things, particularly from Leon Haslam, who showed he can be a WSBK front runner with his wild-card ride for HM Plant at the end of last year.

Now under Pierfrancesco Chili's watchful eye, Guandalini Ducati are also a team to watch in 2009 having doubled up to include Superstock champion Brendan Roberts, while multiple winner Regis Laconi could be interesting to watch at DFX Corse as he bids to hark back to his Ducati glory days.

After his disastrous injury-riddled 2008 season, Tommy Hill returns to racing in 2009 with Althea Honda, but threatens to get swept up in the fierce competition around him. Having no team-mate won't help his cause, while he is also one of the few riders yet to sample the Portimao circuit. It's a similar story for former British champion Gregorio Lavilla, who takes on the remnants of Alto Evolution on a single Honda at Pro Ride.

By all means, this weekend's test probably won't reveal who will win this year's championship.

Indeed, the chilly January conditions that are likely to greet the riders, not to mention the potential for the inclement weather than has afflicted F1 this week, could well skew some of the results, particularly for those who have never visited Portimao before.

Nonetheless, as the countdown for the 2009 season officially starts here, bookmakers and fans will certainly be watching these three days with plenty of interest...



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