Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: Holding The Middle Ground

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.

Changing tastes

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.

Left behind

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…

Balancing act

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.

SortOfStock

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.

History repeating

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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Comments

I was getting too old for thrashing my old Ducati 748 round the roads at what can only generously be called "experienced novice" speeds, and decided to get an agile, lightweight bike that had some power but was also less punishing on my codgerly noodle-arms and back. I did my research and got a 2020 Triumph Speed Triple 765RS. It's as near perfect as a middle-weight bike can get for me, and I have thoroughly enjoyed embarrassing myself around the B-roads of Scotland. It's upright, naked and has handlebars instead of clip-ons.

It's decidedly quick but it's definitely not a race bike. Sure, it's got that Moto2 derived engine, Brembos, Ohlins, quick shifter, etc., and it's pumping out 123bhp to barely-street-legal Pirellis, but it isn't a race bike. Or at least it wasn't.

Take a popular agile little bike, slap clip-ons on it, give it an SC-Project didgeridoo, wrap it in a carbon dress and you've got yourself a World Supersport bike that shouldn't be allowed. 

They took my little gentleman's hooligan bike and turned it into a World Supersport racer; I can't wait to see what happens.

I, too, absolutely love my 765RS, and can’t wait to see it racing against my other ride, an MV 800.  Now I can finally know which triple is better. ;)  (Hint: IMO, whichever bike I’m riding at the time). 

Yes indeedy loving the "goldilocks perfect" middleweight triple, what a joy to ride.

The last minute homologation of the GSXR750 has confused me a bit. If they run that next yr, it may throw things off a bit? Or will it get a RPM neuter to accommodate? A bit odd, that one. 

Talking WSBK again. Last year was fabulous, hope this year is a repeat.

Last year's WSBK was excellent, but I'm more looking forward to the Supersport category this season. As Gordon indicated, it should be a fascinating up and down year with all the new stuff coming in.

I confess I’ve never really watched that class, probably through being biked-out after watching all 3 GP’s! BSB and WSBK, sometimes all in one weekend. But you’ve got me interested now. I’m still excited by the prospect of the Rea/Toprak rematch, and intrigued to see whether Scotty has sold his soul for cash in the bank. (I suspect so).

I am not sure if Scotty didn't jump - he would have been pushed out by Ducati 

WSSP was always interesting but there wasn't a great deal of variety. With Ducati back in - it's going to be interesting.

There are a few short Youtube videos by WSBK on the super sport bikes - the Ducati twin sounds awesome & looks remarkably like its bigger brother.

Going to be interesting how Bayliss junior performs on the Ducati.

 

 

 

I can't tell the difference between this 'Supersport" Duc and a modernized 998. GSXR750 homologated? Ok. Simple person's conclusion? Today's WSS = yesterday's WSBK?

The next-generation World SSP regulations are basically FIA GT3 rules for motorcycles, and they signal a tectonic shift in the production racing industry. There are several key takeaways from the next-gen regs, imo:

1. Emissions regulations have forced the FIM's hand. No one knows what the future holds for production motorcycles, and no one wants to guess by defining a new World Supersport formula. The manufacturers will be deciding the correct displacement, cylinder count and engine tuning for their bikes, based upon their marketing objectives and the regulations in each market. Balance of performance is the only way forward now.

2. Next-generation regulations are intended to realign the world championship and the national championships. If balance of performance is the overriding technical concept, the national championships will necessarily follow. The goal is to get all of the championships using the same race bikes, and roughly the same balance. 

3. Production racing will generate direct sales in the future. Well, that's the idea. The sport could collapse tomorrow, but the purpose of balance of performance is to allow the manufacturers to sell turnkey racing machines (and parts/service contracts) to people all over the world.

4. Tires are the sticky wicket. If the governing body is equalizing all engine performance, handling will become paramount. Equalizing handling performance at tracks around the world, while using different tire brands in each national series is going to be a huge undertaking, perhaps a bridge-too-far. In my opinion, this is the sticky wicket that could blow up all of their plans. They have to equalize tire around the globe, and make the performance accessible to keep chassis tuning costs contained (good luck!). If they succeed, will we see another "tire war" in production racing?

5. The future of Superbike is unclear. These next-generation rules are already creeping into WSBK, but with a restrictive 1000cc 4-cylinder (de facto) formula. The performance modern SBKs is so awesome, and the costs are so high, that it limits their sales potential. Emissions could also become an issue. Difficult to know if the performance threshold will be lowered and the formula loosened to increase participation, or if the manufacturers will try to sell the current SBK missiles to racers around the globe.