The quandary of the race special

Watching things from afar is never easy. In the modern age when everything is streamed, tweeted, posted immediately, having a poor connection to the worldwide interweb just makes it even more frustrating.

This weekend I was in Abu Dhabi at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games. My son is racing in the cycling competition and with the weeklong event starting on Thursday I was never going to be in Thailand for round two of WorldSBK. So over the weekend I had one eye on the cycling and one on live timing on the WorldSBK app that wouldn’t play ball.

I always enjoy the journey to Buriram. Thailand is a true assault on the senses. Visually, aurally and olfactory it so different to what we are used to in northern Europe and everywhere you go there is something to excite. The drive from Bangkok to Buriram itself is a bit of an ‘epic’ but it is never boring. However, once in Buriram the Chang International Circuit is probably the single most boring track on the calendar to photograph. It’s pretty flat, there are three long straights and at most corners the barriers are so far away that opportunities to get nice tight action shots are fairly limited. So from that side I wasn’t going to miss it.

The main topic before the race was whether or not the domination of Bautista and the new Ducati V4 in Australia would be a one-off. Jonathan Rea had won six of the eight races that had taken place at Buriram up until now so if he was to bounce back from the defeats at Phillip Island this was the perfect opportunity.

He certainly put in a spirited effort but it wasn’t to be. Bautista left Thailand with a perfect six for six record and also had a fairly comfortable margin of victory again in each race.

Predictably the fastest riders on the planet all took to social media to throw in their tuppence worth. The Ducati V4 may be a bit of a rocket ship but it would appear there is no faster race machine than the armchair.

From what I can see there is a lot of JR bashing going on at the moment. Basically telling him to “man up”, “grow a pair”, “stop whingeing”, all based on his press comments on Saturday that the speed difference between the Panigale and the other WorldSBK race bikes was now clear to see. Buriram however does make racing a bit like a BBC Top Gear challenge – ‘the producers decided we will line up on a long straight and see who gets to the end fastest’. 

Personally I can see both sides of the armchair racers argument. 

Rea arrived at Kawasaki in 2015 as an unknown quantity. Everyone knew how good the bike was given Sykes had won the championship in 2013 and been runner up twice. No one could have predicted how dominant he would have been since then. Fair play to him and Kawasaki for putting together the ‘package’ and keeping him at the top but that domination has not been the best thing for the championship overall and in the last couple of years the technical and racing regulations have chopped and changed with a less and less guarded intention of stopping him winning.

Now Ducati have thrown the kitchen sink at their Superbike project and they have quickly and dramatically raised the bar. Already I have read that the title has been decided but also that everything will change when we get back to Europe and Dorna apply the rev limit rules to limit the performance of the new bike.

My view is that neither of those assertions is correct. We have 11 rounds still to complete and absolutely anything can happen. I also don’t believe Dorna will step in and change anything in the technical regulations. It has been clear for the last few years that they want Kawasaki to stop winning, now it is happening they are not, in my view, going to rush to change it back. 

One of the issues that comes up commonly is that of homologation specials. This is one place I do feel that the technical regulations could be altered. I have mentioned this before but if the desire is to have the WorldSBK series more equal and affordable, and separate it more from MotoGP, a way to achieve that would be to increase the numbers of units made to homologate a race machine. Originally a manufacturer had to produce as many as 2000 units for the bike to be homologated for racing. Now it’s as little as 500 over a two year period.

Kawasaki have partly taken advantage of this by taking the standard Ninja ZX-10 road machine, making various engine upgrades and producing an R or now an RR version of which they only have to produce 500. However the base chassis and frame remains more or less the same. Ducati have now looked at the rulebook and clearly discounted commercial considerations in producing a bike with the sole purpose of being a race bike. That is in their DNA but not so much in that of Kawasaki and certainly the other Japanese manufacturers whose 1000cc sports bikes have to sell well, far and wide and not just to a niche racing market. If homologation numbers were much higher then the commercial realities of producing a ‘special’ may change and the bikes on the WorldSBK starting grid would be more akin to the bike we can all buy in the showroom.

A contrary view to that however is that homologation specials may just be the saviour of WorldSBK. In challenging times for sports bike sales world wide, manufacturers may like the idea of only having to produce a limited number of units to go racing. With a cap of €40,000 on the price tag it also makes ‘factory’ race machinery accessible to the privateer.

Personally I love all the trick bits on any racing machine, motorbike, car, bicycle. I have said it here before: it’s what gets me excited about racing. All it needs is for the other manufacturers to adopt that philosophy and we could see a newer version of the R1M, ZX-10RR and even a V4 Honda line up on the grid next year.

Someone always comes along and raises the bar in any sport. Yesterday it was Kawasaki. Today it is Ducati. It is up to the others to decide if the want to join in.

By Graeme Brown @geebeeimages

Photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages

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