Stop the Shuffling

Graeme chips into the WorldSBK merry-go-round of opinion regarding possible rule changes

There has been a lot of pontificating recently about what should and shouldn’t be done with the WorldSBK Championship from sections of the media who either never, or only once a year, visit the World Superbike paddock. The recent interview with Dorna supremo Carmelo Ezpeleta, where he suggested the technical rules be changed to restrict the race machines to a ‘stock’ setup, gave them fresh impetus to shuffle in their armchairs and hammer the keyboard.

I have spoken a lot about the dominance of Kawasaki and Ducati over the last few years but in that same period there have been a number of regulation changes in an attempt to share out the podium places with other teams and riders. The most recent was the shuffling of grid positions after race one – a huge success (ahem) – Tom Sykes came from eighth on the grid in race two at Laguna, to first, in the space of 3 corners.

This current furore was the main topic of conversation on the way to California, pretty much all weekend and still rumbles on.

I met Steve Guttridge from Kawasaki Europe in Heathrow airport before we left the UK. I also spoke with Paul Denning again about the topic as well as Marco Chini from Honda when I was at the race. Generally when the subject was raised there was a collective rolling of the eyes. No one in the WorldSBK paddock seems to have an appetite for more regulation changes. For sure the team at the top of the tree are unlikely to want anything to change but it’s interesting that a few of the others down the order feel the same.

I also managed to have a brief chat with the man in day-to-day control of WorldSBK, Daniel Carrera and he confirmed that the comments from Ezpeleta are a clear intention to bring the WorldSBK product closer to the street bikes. There is a feeling within Dorna that the current level of performance clearly shows that most of the teams are not able to reach it.

To my mind much of the perception comes from the MotoGP paddock, where a lot of the pontificating comes from as well. I am sure many are still smarting at Jonathan Rea’s lap times from the test in Jerez at the end of last year, where he set the fastest time amongst some exalted MotoGP teams and riders.

At the moment Dorna are happy with the show between Kawasaki and Ducati but they want to see more bikes and manufacturers at the top. Who doesn’t? However, Carrera made a telling comment; that Dorna understand that in previous years there was a fight between the Superbike and MotoGP classes – SBK gave freedom on the technical regulations that increased the costs and brought the bikes more to a prototype standard. Dorna’s view was, and is, that it’s important therefore to find a better balance to provide better opportunities for people competing in the championship, and marketing wise bring WorldSBK closer to street bikes.

On face value it would appear that there is still a feeling of competition between the MotoGP and Superbike series, despite them being controlled by the same organization.

A quick look at the FIM technical regulations for WorldSBK is quite revealing. The word ‘homologated’ gets a real work out. Chassis, engines, fuel injection etc must be as homologated, i.e. as on the standard road bike. Other components such as suspension, brakes and engine covers have to come from an ‘Approved List of Components’, these have a price cap and must be available to purchase for any team.

There is a lot of talk of a ‘standard’ ECU being imposed, much the same as MotoGP. In WorldSBK the ECU’s are restricted to those on the ‘Approved List’ and again the price for the unit, the dash and all the wiring is capped at €8000. On top of that, ‘factory’ appointed teams on that list must distribute system upgrades to ‘privateer’ teams.

So when you look at all that I don’t think you can get much more ‘stock’ for the regulations. The perception that the bikes are close to prototype is, in my view, hugely misplaced.

Race machines, particularly, in a world championship have to have an air of exotica about them. It’s what gets us all excited; a touch of carbon fibre here, some CNC milled finishing detail there is all it can take some times to get the juices flowing. If we wanted to see a bunch of road machines racing we would all be at our local circuit, watching club racing.

I therefore understand the general feeling amongst those in the Superbike paddock that the current regulations are fine and that other teams need to work harder to push Ducati and Kawasaki. More than anything, however, a period of stability is needed. Not further changes.

Paul Denning from Yamaha echoed what we had discussed in Misano. That the regulations were fine and that it was up to the other teams to step up to the same standard as Kawasaki and Ducati through the development of their package and riders.

One manufacturer that is enduring a terrible time at the moment is Honda. Would a further change to the regs benefit them? Whilst the current SBK programme is coordinated from Honda Europe, Japan still has an influence. The current directions coming to the SBK arm is that there will be no further commitment to WorldSBK whilst the technical regulations are continually being changed. However, it has been reported that they have already looked into changing the electronics package on the bike from Cosworth to Marelli, but testing time is limited and further regulation change would not help in terms their current development programme and budget.

The same feeling was echoed in the MotoAmerica paddock at Laguna Seca. The guys there have been working hard to raise the profile of their Superbike series after the disastrous tenure of Daytona Motorsports Group. The FIM are trying to standardize all Superbike regulations throughout the world and MotoAmerica has fully embraced the concept.

Apparently MotoAmerica management had a meeting on Saturday evening at Laguna and agreed that they wouldn’t be changing their regulations anytime soon. The manufacturers in the States were committing to the series and it’s current technical rules and they didn’t want to jeopardize that even if WorldSBK regs were changed.

But if Dorna are looking at this with MotoGP tinted glasses on, is it not a little hypocritical given the situation in that paddock? Since 1983 the 500cc, and now MotoGP, championship has been won every year by either Yamaha or Honda with the minor exceptions of Suzuki in ’93 with Schwantz and Kenny Roberts Jnr in 2000, and Stoner on the Ducati in ’07. I don’t hear anyone shouting from the rooftops that MotoGP needs a dramatic change to break that domination. So why in WorldSBK? It was 20 years between championship wins for Kawasaki so now they have won three in the last four years is that really a reason to stick a big spanner in and tinker again?

There has been a drive in the GP paddock to reduce costs and allow closer racing and, to be fair, it has succeeded and we have seen some really great action in the last few years. However, lets be honest, unless you are on a blue Yamaha or an orange Honda you have little hope of challenging for the title let alone winning it.

My current worry is that this suggested wholesale dumbing down of the machinery is going to drive manufacturer-backed teams away from the WorldSBK series. If Honda are putting the brakes on their development until a clear route is given and both Aprilia and BMW have suggested that they will leave the series if a standard ECU is introduced, what would we end up with? A series dominated by Kawasaki and Ducati.

One other person I spoke to on the way to California was Stuart Higgs, current boss of British Superbike and Race Director for MotoAmerica. He had joined in a twitter conversation and pointed out that in Superstock 1000 the ‘current best bike’ dominates. With manufacturers increasing the lead times on the introduction of new road bikes you could see a single manufacturer dominate for a few years until a newer, better street bike comes out. Altering technical rules won’t change that.

As Paul Denning said, as I have said, and many people are now repeating, regardless of technical regulations, the best rider, in the best team, on the best machinery pretty much always wins.

In my mind the last thing WorldSBK needs right now is more upheaval. Lets just get on and enjoy what there is at the moment. Who knows, Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies might sign for Suzuki in 2019.

By Graeme Brown, photos by GeeBee Images

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