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. The full blog will be available each month for MotoMatters.com subscribers. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.
It is so much easier to design technical rules for a prototype class than it has ever been for production derived series. Argue all you want about that. But when you are racing the actual products that real motorcycle companies make, and however many racing modifications you allow or disbar, you have to get the scales out and make sure that you allow every potential investor in your racing business to be competitive. Then it is up to them to win or not.
So many things are controlled nowadays, in all forms of production racing, that the base model that you built has become even more important in its fundamental suitability for racing. Unlike prototype racing classes, you have to run what Mr Yamaguskawaduconda brung to a showroom near you.
We have been down the road of the bikes that are eligible in WorldSBK not mirroring real world sales trends in the past, of course. Think of the era when 750cc road bikes were going out of favour and everyone started building 1000cc or greater road-going race replicas. Paradoxically, they were road bikes first, WorldSBK race bikes only after a few argumentative seasons had brought forth new rules.
We have reached that situation in the WorldSSP championship in recent times, as the great European and North American road-going public have eschewed their one-time hooligan tendencies on high revving 600cc race reps. Those left in that ageing camp have now got an addiction to even stronger 1000cc fours or 1200cc twins. In reality these are all licence altering drugs on the street, so far beyond anybody not called McGuinness, Dunlop or Hickman it has become surreal.
But, the really crazy 1000cc ones are still selling freely, with some riders holding on to 600s for real racing or pretend-racing track day use.
Whatever your two-wheeled fix, I adore all of you (in a limited and platonic fashion, of course) but so few of us buy 600s for anything but racing or track days that nobody sells them as road bikes in many territories.
WorldSSP was once a very differentiated capacity class, a bit like WorldSBK was, but always less tech heavy. 600cc fours came from all the Japanese manufacturers and even Bimota for a time, and 750cc twins from Ducati.
The Italians leaving the stage as their booming middleweight road range went over the 750cc limit actually did the rule balancers a big favour, as almost everything was 600cc. The MV Agusta and Triumph 675 cc triples were usually at their limit in WorldSSP, despite occasional successes, so they proved to be, very often at least, self-limiting in their ultimate ambitions.
In fact, no rider of anything but a 600cc four-cylinder has won WorldSSP since it became a full World Championship in 1999.
Responding to the market
Back to a recent past and present… Suzuki kinda lost interest as 600cc road bike sales fell, then Honda stopped developing, leaving just an ageing Kawasaki and newer Yamaha, and eventually even they stopped selling their WorldSSP bikes in key road bike markets. We clearly needed a new WorldSSP normal.
The problem for just spreading the net out in terms of suitable bikes is that unlike the 750/1000cc and 1000/1200cc jumps of the WorldSBK class (which eventually got de-stressed three years ago as absolutely everybody was racing 1000cc four cylinders by then) the middleweight market had splintered into several shards, many going off along different engine configuration, styling and capacity vectors.
We have now reached a point where a middleweight bike with sporting pretensions was often bigger then the early eligible machines from the first 15 years or so of WorldSBK racing. Some modern sports bikes, with real performance potential, are really like old sit-up-and-beg unfaired or barely-faired Superbikes from long before the world championship started.
Not many were just slightly lower tech versions of their 1000cc or 1200cc hypersport flagships anymore. Some never had any real track oriented design parameters at all.
Motorcycling in that middle ground had simply changed tack, and those who wanted pure racetrack performance just went out and bought a full 1000c four-cylinder race replica, the kind that most major manufacturers were running in the top flights of national, Endurance and WorldSBK racing.
That left the ‘600s’ as dead models catwalking. Still great racing bikes, yes, and often the racing was great too, but with one machine (the Yamaha R6) doing almost all of the winning thanks to its modern and track oriented design features. The last five World Championships went to riders of R6 machines, so yes, something had to be done to keep WorldSSP relevant and bring about more manufacturer interest.
The early discussions even included making a naked or ‘semi-naked’ category of racing, but that idea eventually put its coat on and was sent home in a taxi.
What we have now opted for in the new era of WorldSSP is a class with engines ranging from the existing 600cc four cylinders (Yamaha and Kawasaki), 765 and 800cc triples from Triumph and MV Agusta respectively and even a whopping 955 V2 Ducati Panigale.
How do you balance the performance of that lot? I mean 350cc more for the Ducati than the Yams and Kwaks…
Whatever the rules say - and they were very late arriving in a finished form, which hints at the complications therein - the FIM (really Dorna and the FIM) reserves the right to step in to keep the 2022 machines sealed inside in the same performance envelope. But to get it right first time, there has been a lot of science and measurement going on in the winter.
The fundamental idea is to keep what are now formally called ‘Next Generation’ WorldSSP machines as stock as possible inside, and with a performance envelop that does not exceed the best current 600s.
The powers that be even let some hopefuls run fairings on unfaired streetbikes.
The main way of limiting the bigger engines right now is via torque maps, sealed software and throttle opening limits. And the 955cc Ducati starts out with a 5kg heavier bike and rider minimum weight limit compared to all the others. Yes, they have gone down that combined weight route too.
The rules and allowances starting the season were based on keeping everyone at the performance limits of the existing 600cc fours, which will have a different set of technical rules from the Next Generation bikes in many respects.
Brake rotor sizes now have maximum limit, even if it is smaller than the original road bike, to stop people gaining a ‘showroom’ advantage, especially with their next sporty middleweight models.
There are more sealed engines allowed throughout the season for the 600s than the new triples, and more for the triples compared to the Ducati V2s.
Complex answers to simple questions
The rules, all of them, are really extensive and complicated, but they have to be for all the reasons mentioned near the beginning of this text. Everybody has to have a fair, fighting chance, whatever they make and sell on the street.
Through the coming year, Scott Smart (ex-BSB racer and the FIM Technical Director) and all his background crew will keep tabs on all aspects of performance, and dive in where required to keep everybody competitive.
Even before we have rolled a wheel in real racing anger, the realities they have faced in building this new class have made for a lot of very specific special cases, exceptions and hard-nosed manufacturer-by-manufacturer technical rule customisations. These have had to happen to start 2022 with everyone on the same plane of existence as the expected race-long pace.
Potential podiums for all is the immediate dream and a short term necessity.
Nothing new under the sun
Fundamentally - although the people behind it all will hate me for saying it - we have returned to the days of the previous organiser’s ‘Performance Equalisation’ philosophy in WorldSBK. Even if this time it is being applied in WorldSSP.
Back in the day bikes like the Honda Fireblade had no ride-by-wire throttles, but almost all their rivals did. So Honda lobbied for a concession, and everybody without ride-by-wire got it. Some people had split throttle bodies (allowing many fours to be fooled into thinking they were 500cc twins on early throttle opening, or back-torque reducing under heavy braking) but others had not. So that was also allowed.
Much of that kind of thing was then removed when there was a general philosophical shift to make WorldSBK machines more racing streetbike than full racebike. Fair enough.
In the past, in general, technology in WorldSBK got greater, more expensive - just more - to let the less insane road bikes keep up with the most extravagant barking mad race reps. When somebody kitted out their road bike with race level electronics, more sensors than the Starship Enterprise and wallet-burning lightweight ancillaries all over, the have-nots were more-or-less allowed to ‘tech-up’ to become haves again.
Dorna/FIM’s initial idea to race as stock as possible was, therefore, a fantastic idea. As an idea, fantastic. They also, more-or-less, delivered… even if every change meant more initial cost.
They have absolutely reduced the costs of buying, running and generally owning a WorldSBK bike over a season compared to almost any previous era. You need more talented and expensive electronics engineers than ever before, but that is the way bike tech is heading - development by electronics.
Insisting that everybody running any manufacturer’s bike got low cost access to virtually all of the factory team’s tech and software was, and is, a work of great merit and measurable benefits.
Dozens of new rules, updated rules and new technical limits have been applied since Dorna took over, trying to get everybody to follow the same rulebook that would ensure everybody would be competitive. And it is working in the WorldSBK class.
But as the old WorldSBK guard that Dorna replaced whispered into the breeze that eventually blew them all away, the previous rulebooks had only been arrived at because they had to deal with the reality that the manufacturers really did want freedom in electronics, and all Superbikes were not born the same. However you cut it, they said, something like a €12-14,000 Fireblade was not a €40,000 MV Agusta, Aprilia or Ducati donor bike for WorldSBK racing.
Now, with WorldSSP a class that was in danger of becoming a Yamaha R6 cup, except for some derring-do rides from Kawasaki and even occasionally MV Agusta competitors, Dorna had (has?) a much more difficult task at hand than it had (or has?) in WorldSBK.
Balancing a middleweight class that is much more disparate in the potentially homologated machines on sale in your local stores makes that obvious enough.
And from the outset of this new ‘600’ era they have quietly adopted the once-rejected theory and practice of ‘Performance Equalisation’. Same rules for everyone? Not at all, but specific rules for ‘these guys’, ‘those guys’ - and even ‘all those guys’ without a bike with a full race-style fairing, but a flat handlebar middleweight with big performance potential.
You simply have to adopt ‘Performance Equalisation’ techniques (however you then stamp it into the often-changing rule books) when you try to create a balanced class from such disparate materials as WorldSSP contains nowadays.
Reality vs expectation
So far, the Yamahas and Kawasakis are still fast, and of course they have years of data and set-up secrets up their sleeves as they go from track-to-track.
Trouble is, everybody says the Ducati will simply dominate with that bulging 355cc advantage over the fours. Again, so far in testing, not quite the case.
But most of all, on the eve of a completely new and outwardly whacky WorldSSP era, Dorna/FIM will not be shy getting the tech referees in to stop any championship fight being too one-sided.
The computers, recent test results, simulations and yes, even the close result of the exciting Daytona race, all point in a good direction. But the proof of the racing is always in the winning.
Very soon we will see who has been sandbagging and who made the right choices from 2022’s wide open box of options. With any luck, and a million numbers crunched through the FIM simulator, it will be any and all of them.
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