WorldSBK: Through the box

Graeme looks back on Donington Park and some rumoured changes for WorldSBK

There was a really sombre mood around the paddock when I arrived at Donington on Thursday and it was only temporarily lifted when bikes were running on track. I guess there would have been the same feeling in the MotoGP paddock at Mugello and more so at the MotoAmerica races at Road America this weekend where Roger Hayden took two podium places.

Even the riders of my local speedway team, Glasgow Tigers, had their own little tributes by racing at the weekend with #69 patches on their clothing. It shows just how broad Nicky’s appeal was and I keep hearing from all quarters that no one had a bad word to say. The sombreness will linger for a long time I guess.

Things got back to business pretty quickly after the race weekend in Donington with a two day test at Misano. I was supposed to be there for a day but a broken Easyjet plane meant I never got off the ground and the rescheduled flight wouldn’t have got me to Italy in time to pick up my rental car so I decided to call on a local photographer to supply images and enjoyed a couple of extra days at home.

We will reach the half way point of the season at the next race in Misano and things don’t seem to have changed particularly much in the last three weeks. The only hint of change was seeing Alex Lowes on the podium in race one at Donington and team-mate Michael van der Mark only a whisper off it in race two. Now I don’t want to take any credit here but I did say in my last blog that I expected to see the Yamaha’s challenging for podium places soon. The hard work and development they are doing is clearly paying dividends but they are still a little way off the performance of the Kawasaki or Ducati.

There was still talk around the paddock at Donington about further tinkering with the regulations and format of the races in WorldSBK for next season. There is clearly a campaign brewing somewhere that the dominance of Kawasaki has to be curtailed.   The one thing that came up at Donington was the race two grid positions not really having the desired effect in shaking up the competition but I don’t see how a further alteration will change anything.

In race two it was ironically Kawasaki who both suffered and benefited from what is really the first time this season that a track incident affected the outcome of the race. When Leon Haslam crashed on the first lap Sykes got held up whilst Rea carved his way to the front and went from tenth to first within minutes. He then checked-out and raced to his eighth victory of the season. Sykes was the fastest man on track but could do nothing to reel in his team-mate. He was quick to vent his frustration afterwards saying the reverse grid “pissed on my bonfire” as he chased the record of 10 wins in a row at the Leicestershire track. In the end it was the same trio on the podium – Rea, Sykes, Davies – only in a different order so there wasn’t really much of an impact.

One of the frustrations of the teams has been over the changes to the race weekend format. Honda officials have been reported as complaining that there is not enough track time on a weekend to actually work on a race setup. With the two Free Practice sessions on a Friday being timed, half the time is spent chasing a chrono for Superpole, rather than working on machine development. That is a fair point if you are at the back end of the field but those at the sharp end can use both sessions to work on race set-up as they know their pace is fast enough to guarantee a place in Superpole 2.

Dorna confirmed that the Saturday Superpole and race one format will remain for 2018. The reverse grid format for race two will be reviewed at the end of the year however. The latter certainly hasn’t delivered what was hoped. If we go back to January when I spoke to Chaz Davies and Jonathan Rea about it, it is exactly as they had predicted. In 2016 both of them had had races where they started on the second or third row and they came through to the front within a few laps. They didn’t foresee a change in that in 2017 and save for a crash, as in Donington, the grid system has failed to force any change in the results and it is debatable if it has provided any more excitement.

I also noticed at Donington that the involvement of Servus TV, the Austrian channel owned by Red Bull, had ramped up further. They are sending crews to each race now with pit lane reporters to broadcast live. It is certainly making the pit lane and grid a little bit more crowded with Dorna’s own live feed crews, Mediaset and Eurosport all having teams broadcasting form the paddock. I have said before that I think this is the way to increase the overall appeal of the series. If more people are seeing it on TV, more people will want to come and experience the racing at their home track. More ‘eyeballs’ will also justify more expenditure from the manufacturers to promote their products.

In a recent interview Honda Europe’s competition manager, Marco Chini, acknowledged that the performance of their new Fireblade was a problem when it came to promoting the road bike. That situation is purely one of priorities and development. Honda Motor Co. and HRC in Japan do not see the WorldSBK series as a priority for their budget. When you put it behind F1 and MotoGP it has to compete with MXGP, Trials and the Rally Raid programme. Honda clearly prioritize their budget on markets where they will get the maximum return and 1000cc sports bikes don’t merit that at the moment.

With Dorna increasing the profile of the WorldSBK series and getting more people – potential customers – viewing the racing it may be a catalyst for companies like Honda and Suzuki to place more of an onus on the development of their race machinery. That way there will be more competition at the front of the grid and there will be no need for Dorna to tinker with artificial means of manipulating the results.

Photos by GeeBee Images

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