Gordon Ritchie has covered World Superbikes for over a quarter of a century, and is widely regarded as the world's leading journalist on the series. MotoMatters.com is delighted to be hosting a monthly blog by Ritchie. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.
I guess it is a credit to modern motorcycle engineering that so few bikes that get looked after properly in racing break down in actual races any more. With major parts of most WorldSBK machines coming from a production line somewhere, along with the rest of the bikes destined for the street, that’s remarkable in itself. Given that they all have upper rev limits and just a little bit of something in reserve on the computer design screen simply because you have a very limited engine allowance through the racing year, overstraining even your purpose-built racing components is a risky business nowadays.
Especially as in all but a few straights, the electronics spend a lot of the time attenuating the power you already have. Most of these bikes make too much power now, so the way it makes it matters more.
The reason I mention this potential race bike breakdown thing is that as I am clattering the keyboard in a hotel in Murcia, halfway between Barcelona and Jerez, the championship lead is a mere point, with Toprak Razgatlioglu just one ahead of Jonathan Rea. But, without an unfortunate front-running breakdown, due to an electrical charging system and voltage drop problem in Race One in Catalunya, Razgatlioglu would be leading by quite a few more points. He’s running away with this championship, if only he didn’t keep losing points.
He’s dropped his own already, of course. Twice. Rea and/or his Kawasaki have managed to lose a lot more potential points than usual in 2021 too. Arguably, the 2021 championship rules are to blame for some of those lost points for both riders. It’s actually that factor as much as the wonderful on-track fighting between those two and others that is adding to the compelling compendium of reasons to watch the bejeezus out of WorldSBK in 2021.
Variety is the spice of life
Scott Redding’s undamped rear shock of a season - up and down, up and down, nobody knows where next - also saw him win a race at Barcelona, to keep half his profile in the big picture even now. Michael Ruben Rinaldi was your Race Two winner in Barcelona, and Tom Sykes as your 51st podium taker, on the new ‘M’ BMW, also showed we are much more than the Raz and Jono show that the points table indicates.
The leading three in the championship fight may be a realistic two but it does not hold back the fact that all these and more unpredictabilities are making for a superb championship fight in 2021. All the certainties have gone out the window, more or less.
Since we last checked in on the column here we have been to new track Navarra (Bumpy? I said, bumpy? When each and every rider’s vision has returned to normal and their dental fillings have been repaired, I will give you bumpy my friends!). There has been high drama and low opinions in Magny-Cours and a few more impossible plot-line twists in what is becoming a daytime soap opera with a whole range of characters. And to top it all off three different race winners at Barcelona, none of whom were Razgatlioglu, your points leader still.
It has not been all adrenaline, happy high jinx and amusing spattery, but more about that later.
Redding nearly won a triple at Navarra, only for Razgatlioglu to spoil his three-in-a-bed weekend trophy frolic with a win in Race Two. Magny-Cours, always a place for a nice bit of hydrocarbon warfare and sudden drama, saw Razgatlioglu actually get his three wins in one weekend and almost everybody was delighted to see it. And then he didn’t.
Kawasaki had noticed that he had gone onto the green track limits area of the circuit on the final lap. Race Control had not seen it, it appears, but once it was brought to their attention, it was plain he did ‘go green’ and there was no option for them afterwards but to drop him one place. It’s the rules, they say.
Cue social media fury, furore and everybody wading in to say how crap it all was.
It all got a bit nasty and personal from people have probably never met any of the main players involved but then again, that’s social media in a post-truth anti-social social media age, on an unregulated medium where you can anonymously mine for Bitcoin currency or troll for shithouse notoriety.
There was nothing quite like this kind of Sunday online pile-on when both Razgatlioglu and his team-mate Andrea Locatelli both touched the green on the final lap of the Superpole race at Assen a few weeks ago. I guess that’s because everybody kinda saw that right away, as it happened on the most closely scrutinised piece of asphalt ever made - the final chicane at Assen.
Good for the goose
The post Magny-Cours online clamouring surprised a few people in its severity. Especially Rea. He had clocked his rival’s misdemeanour. Somebody in his team did too. And the rules have a precedent, in WorldSBK in that Assen event. Nobody gained or lost anything in the Netherlands but at Assen that tight inside line could possibly help you defend, get upright earlier and make your rival go further round you.
Rea actually went past Razgatlioglu right after his green nibble in France, so advantage? Hard to see one in that instance. The opposite, really.
It really helped no one’s cause that it took so long for a decision to be made in Magny-Cours that Race Two was started with the results of the Superpole race - before the penalty - determining the line-up on the grid. Then the usual media scrum members not getting to hear about it until the riders had just gone away from the post race briefings, and were not there to be asked the many questions that would have arisen. But it all came out in the end.
Here is the hard reality of the on-track Magny incident, however. Whatever anybody says, Razgatlioglu hit the green, on the final lap. Even though he effectively lost a place by doing so, it’s a bust in 2021. It’s VAR for a velocity sport, but it is our current reality, known to all. The player was offside or not? The rider was on the green, or not? Whether you like the rule or not. Another thing entirely.
So should we adhere to some rules and not others? If we are racing but I line up on the grid with 0.2psi less in the back tyre than the regulations say is the minimum, should I get pinged? If I leave pitlane 0.5 seconds too early in a tyre change should I get pinged? If I just continue at high speed under a yellow flag situation, should I get pinged? More of that later, unfortunately.
By any means necessary
The good-sportsmanship-is-dead theme reared its head, and roared at Magny-Cours, but of course it is easy to say that we/they/nobody else wouldn’t have complained/protested. If there was a world championship on the line in that final race, maybe anybody would? This is a professional sport and tens of millions are spent every year. It is spent to try and win, not lose.
All the same, maybe those who feel wronged definitely would complain about any rivals’ transgression now?
Just to add another rod to the core of the nuclear reactor of fair or unfair rules, what if manufacturer ‘A’ had not been allowed to have their expected 500 extra revs from a ‘new’ engine homologation negated by the rules after a winter of testing on the more peppy one?
Maybe the guys in green already feel they need to flag up every possible advantage they can get. Their bike revs lower than any other bike in the championship, by regulation, not engineering prowess, and it shows in the results. Rea, being Rea, has been over-performing on the Kawasaki, Alex Lowes is a better litmus test of its true abilities in 2021, even with a niggling shoulder injury for 90% of the season. Maybe the Kawasaki’s relative lack of punch in 2021 is because of the rules being enacted to the letter.
Should the Kawasaki privateers at least have been given enough revs to stay on parity with their improving rivals? Is that fair or unfair to 109 times race winner Jonathan Rea? I mean, if we are not talking strict rules, but fairness? Maybe ‘they’ could have said, OK, it’s a borderline new engine but we’ll give it to you, as you have fewest revs now? Is it fair to not have those revs if you are a Kawasaki privateer team and don’t have Jonathan Rea’s GOATness at your disposal?
Letter of the law
Many important lessons should be taken away from 2021, even now. But one approach to 2022 is shining out. Follow the rules completely, and no problems will occur.
Toprak should have not hit the green paint at Assen and Magny-Cours on the final lap, and Kawasaki should have read the rules better in the winter. Or consulted the powers that be before finding out they would not get their extra winter test revs just days before the start of the season. Rules are rules.
It was probably unfair and definitely sad to see Razgatlioglu robbed of a stunning triple for such a small indiscretion. Everybody gets that idea. It’s also not very Corinthian of KRT to protest on a technicality, (although now may be a good time to remember that Supersport teams used to clock how their rivals were bending the rules week-by-week, but wait until their own lead rider had a DNF or similar, and only then protest to the authorities about their rival’s rulebook bending/busting. Where does the Magny complaint stand in that level of moral piety? You judge, I am just your ‘insider’ sounding-board, BTW).
Is it a bit rich now the heat has come down a bit to complain about other people complaining about your rules transgression when the same rider - your own rider - has now lost two podium positions and the points that go with them because he went onto the green for no good reason on the final lap of two races?
And so on. Argue amongst yourselves because after all that, I find myself in the bizarre position of agreeing with just about everyone’s opinion of the great ‘Magnygate’ scandal. It was alI very unsatisfactory. Untidy.
It would be a very hard person, however, who does not ache even a little for Toprak to miss out on his triple win. He is a sublime WorldSBK riding talent - a joy to watch and a natural showman. Magny was a mess in a way but it also added even more spice to a WorldSBK season that, unlike a few others, didn’t even need it.
Life on the edge
So, should we change/improve/remove the rules on the green paint? Well, forbidden painted asphalt run-off is a lot safer for the riders than a sudden interface with gravel or grass and an inevitable highside/lowside. That regression would also be unquestionably unfair if a rival - however unwittingly - ran you wide and forced you to fall, rather than be obviously pushed wide by a foot or two, recover the track, and then go and argue your case after.
One part of me, my default gut feeling, says ditch the painted areas, if they make a hash they crash… But, even now, crashing at some corners in WorldSBK is best avoided. I am not for having them miss a corner by an inch and ride into a pit full of venomous snakes or bear traps either. It’s dangerous enough already.
Let’s face it, if we keep the green paint then the riders, as they need to in their line of work, will get as close to it as they possibly can, because even now if you stray into green in the middle of a race, you get a warning before anything really happens.
Then we open the doors of the referee’s judgment much further if we say ‘common sense’ should apply.
Whose common sense? When is ‘touching green’ an advantage, when is it fair or unfair gamesmanship, when it is it a tactic to put the other rider off, or even gently ease your rival onto the green and get him docked places?
Give them an inch
Racers and teams will always push the limits of the rules no matter what. They go for gaps that are not really there, they will nudge that rulebook to the fringes of combustion, they will get as close to the track limits and the limits of the track as they can in pursuit of a winning lap time.
Conversely, and correctly, they could complain if the green paint was removed and they get run wide by someone else and crash on grass or gravel, potentially ruining their season. Or worse.
Racing is a hard business. Too hard at times as a marshal suffered multiple fractures at Barcelona after a second bike crashed, under a yellow flag situation in WorldSSP FP1. She was struck by it while rescuing an earlier crashed bike from the gravel. Please get well soon.
The yellow flag rule is a good one, designed to avoid this kind of truly avoidable injury.
Consider this… Three riders went to hospital in the WorldSBK class alone after Barcelona, after two top WorldSSP riders had suffered tough injuries at Magny-Cours two weeks before. Racing has its own ways of reminding us how dangerous it can be even with all our modern safety systems and regs in place, so let’s think on about ‘common sense’ rule changes that could make the job even a little more dangerous.
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