Production-based Series Continues to Defy the Odds
Since its inception way back in 1988, the FIM World Superbike Championship has enjoyed its fair share of ups and endured an almost equal number of downs, yet it remains one of the most exciting forms of motorsport on the planet.
We all know that MotoGP is the ne plus ultra of the motorcycle racing world—it’s the king of the hill, the top of the heap, the New York City of two-wheeled action. When the head honchos responsible for MotoGP decide their series needs a new direction, this creates waves of change throughout the sport—and World Superbike gets rippled more than most.
Example: In 2003, the FIM dictated that 1000-cc engines would be allowed in MotoGP competition; a trial experiment the season prior proved that the old-generation 2-stroke 500-cc engines could not keep pace with the then-new 4-stroke 990-cc units.
The addition of those 10 extra cubic centimetres had a disastrous knock-on effect on World Superbike and its 1000-cc production based formula: The 2003 World Superbike field included only two factory-backed teams—Ducati and Suzuki—as all the other major manufacturers moved to MotoGP and its more market-focused rules.
This prompted the start of some lean times for the Superbike set that included a few seasons with dubious levels of competition—in fact, a few of these seasons were little more than Ducati benefits with the only challenge for the factory team coming from satellite teams using slightly outdated equipment from the Italian manufacturer.
Next year, World Superbike will face a familiar challenge as the MotoGP grid will, once again, be powered by 1000-cc machinery—this time exclusively. But the “junior series” seems better positioned and more appealing for motorcycle manufacturers than ever before. Since 2005, there has been a full complement of factory-backed teams on the WSB grid every single season; this has not been the case with the costlier, more exclusive MotoGP club.
The secret to this success is the World Superbike formula itself: Consistent engine regulations for many seasons and the lower costs associated with developing a production-based race machine are the main reasons why manufacturers remain bullish.
While Ducati has temporarily withdrawn factory support for the series, they maintain strong relationships with key satellite teams and are already preparing for their return. Meanwhile, outfits such as Aprilia and BMW have clearly voted in favour of World Superbike over the more specialized requirements for MotoGP competitors. Even stalwart manufacturers such as Suzuki and Kawasaki are far better represented in World Superbike than anywhere else right now.
With the manufacturers staying on-side, riders with some serious pedigree—such as Troy Bayliss, Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa, Marco Melandri and Noriyuki Haga, to name but a few—have an avenue outside of grand prix racing for pursuing their career goals. The past few seasons have seen a number of World Superbike Champions “graduate” to MotoGP, but not many have made the change stick.
Two-time title-winner Colin Edwards has forged a solid if unspectacular career in MotoGP, but is rumoured to be considering a return to WSB before calling an end to his racing days. Ben Spies made an immediate impact on the World Superbike scene as a rookie, winning the championship in 2009, and he’s nearly repeated that impression in the premier roadracing series in the world.
For others, though, it’s a different story. Bayliss never came close to matching his World Superbike successes in MotoGP—it seemed to be a combination of right place, wrong time for the Australian, despite the fact that the three-time WSB champ was undeniably a great racer. For the likes of James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen, it’s a similar story; genuine star status in World Superbike led to just a few torrid seasons in grand prix racing before the boomerang effect took hold. The same goes for Haga, who may well be the very picture of unrealized potential as a motorcycle roadracer—in both series.
Meanwhile, three refugees who earned their “track cred” in MotoGP have found a welcome home—some might say “retirement home”— in World Superbike competition. Biaggi, Melandri and Checa have all helped energize the grid since joining in recent years.
After signing up in 2007, Biaggi proved to be immediately competitive, but he didn’t secure ultimate glory until this past season, winning the championship for Aprilia. This marked the first crown for the Roman Emperor since the last of his four 250 cc world titles in 1997. This season, Biaggi is off to another strong start with four second-place finishes from the first six races.
For his part, Checa has taken a bit longer to show his talents; a World Superbike regular since 2008, the Spaniard has finally emerged this season as the title favourite. The Althea Ducati team leader has earned all three pole positions and has scored four victories and two second-place finishes, taking a big early lead in the 2011 title chase. If he continues at this pace, Checa will secure his first career world title by season’s end.
The third rider in our list, Melandri, is the latest to join the series and has already proven his worth. Riding for the factory Yamaha team, the Italian has one win and three podium finishes to his credit so far this year. For the former 250 cc World Champion, this season represents another chance to kick-start his career. The past few seasons have been a roller coaster ride for Melandri, but with five MotoGP wins on his CV, there’s no question that he’s more talented than most.
With six races in the books and a further 20 still to go, the 2011 World Superbike Championship looks set to be another classic. While this hasn’t always been the case in the recent past, more often than not the series has produced edge-of-your-seat action from start to finish. It may be a less expensive and less exotic form of racing than MotoGP, but it’s also more relevant than ever—for both the true fan and the average motorcycle rider.