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.
Now that we are nearly at the end of the 2021 WorldSBK season, but still with what feels like ages to go until the deciding round in Indonesia, we have a chance to look back and forward at the same time.
We’re not looking at the enthralling final championship battle, however. No matter how much it has captured the imagination of the public. That will be decided in a while under the gaze of an increasingly appreciative bike-racing world.
Behind the headline happenings there have been another two important subplots brewing, simmering and both are worthy of a closer look before we get to see if the World Champion spends the winter on an island in the far west of Europe or as close as you can get to Europe but still technically be in Asia.
So, for a moment, pin that forthcoming campaign map up on the back wall of your mind’s personal Operations Room and think on this. We are - whisper it - watching the true start of the changing of the old guard in WorldSBK.
Out with the old...
Chaz Davies will retire after this season, former World Champion Tom Sykes will not get a factory ride in 2022, and may not get a WorldSBK ride at all, at time of press. Leon Haslam is out of his two year HRC gig. The same gig that even half-season nearly champion in 2019, Alvaro Bautista, could do no more than squeeze some podiums out of. Unless Haslam goes privateer again at world level, he is looking at home fixtures from now on too.
Leon Camier has long gone from track action - more on him later - and indeed a whole generational intake of especially top UK riders is now reaching the end of its circle of racing life.
Whisper this one too… Jonathan Rea will start the 2022 season at 35 years of age. He is as up for the fight as ever, but he will be also, y’know, 35. His team-mate Alex Lowes - even - is already 31. By WorldSBK standards, that’s not old, but he’s stacked up 220 race starts behind his ’22’ number plate already. He’s very much at the experienced end. Eugene Laverty has re-signed for the 2022 season, but not inside the factory BMW team, but the now two-man Bonovo BMW squad. He is already 35.
Racers can and frequently do keep on going at the top level of racing in the production-derived biggie that is still WorldSBK well into their ‘30s. But the traditional forces inside WorldSBK are now very much in their autumnal stage, and even the seemingly ‘younger’ riders already confirmed for next year are not exactly wet behind the ears.
Loris Baz (Bonovo BMW for 2022) is another proven WorldSBK racer on the 2022 grid, but he is already approaching 29 years of age. In his prime still, as we have seen by his podium prowess in his privateer return as cover for the injured Davies this year. Not a callow youth by any means.
The young ones?
Let’s put some other ages next to 2022 names in WorldSBK as it stands right now. Alvaro Bautista, 36. Michael van der Mark turned 29 the day this story was written. Scott Redding is 28. So much for the more experienced riders who will line-up next year.
Even the youngest and most impressive stars of this year, and maybe next year, are not really that young, although this is in relative terms when compared to MotoGP, of course. Toprak Razgatlioglu is now 25. Same age - exactly the same age - as his rookie 2021 WorldSBK team-mate and 2020 WorldSSP champion, Andrea Locatelli. Michael Ruben Rinaldi, who will enter only his second season as a factory rider in 2022 will be 26 when he does. Garrett Gerloff enters his personal WorldSBK season three at 26.
Thankfully, as we can see, WorldSBK has not fallen under the MotoGP spell of casting riders away for a younger model with bewildering regularity, but even in this day and age, it also seldom grows riders from inside until they had left their teens behind.
The youngest and easily one of the best prospects for even greater things in 2022 is Axel Bassani. Already a cheeky single podium plucker on a privateer Ducati he came so close to another one or two in Villicum, the first time he saw the joint on a Superbike.
The best news WorldSBK has given itself recently is that most of its newer factory or Independent Teams’ talent is largely home grown. These things are never exclusively self-raising, but Razgatlioglu, Baz, Rinaldi, Bassani, Mercado, VDM… all of these have their racing roots and boots firmly embedded in the soil of the WorldSBK nurseries.
The rookie of the year is already Locatelli. His showings on the second factory Yamaha, since his first podium in Assen at least, are usually assured and competitive. Bassani is next best rookie, and how, already ahead of Bautista, Sykes, Haslam, Davies in the points, with one round to go.
Not everybody with even a big MotoGP rep makes it in WorldSBK. Tito Rabat, for example, had a relatively coveted ride on a Barni Ducati and left it mid-season. He almost improved upon riding the Kawasaki Puccetti bike recently. Still a few WorldSBK places left for keen riders to gobble up in privateer world but that is, almost by definition, a secondary destination.
What about that last factory team in 2022? You know, the other guys in red? We finally, definitely, just got the official news of the worst kept secret in racing earlier today (26 October). Honda’s official HRC WorldSBK team has added Leon Haslam to their outgoing mail tray and will bring in absolute WorldSBK rookies Iker Lecuona (21) and Xavi Vierge (24).
The presence of a full-on WorldSBK HRC Honda team is important to WorldSBK as it simply shows that even the biggest and best cannot ignore the ‘other’ world championship. Not for ever, at least. WorldSBK is still the fountain of bike development and focus from which all other Superbike championships flow.
Except the Suzuka 8 Hours race, of course, which although nominally an EWC championship round (not that there has been one in Japan for two years), is probably the biggest Superbike-based thing for Honda and at least two of the other Japanese factories. You could make a case for there being more spend and effort put into the last two non-existent Suzuka 8 Hours races than a few championships that have actually taken place…
After two years of - let’s face it - getting their technological and race result backsides kicked Honda is the only manufacturer not to have won a race this year, even in the wet like BMW did with their new (nearly new?) M1000RR model. But, the big balanced view compels us to say that bringing that once all-new CBR1000RR-R to the winning boil has been about as difficult as it could have been for them, with Covid striking the way it did and almost all staff stuck in Japan for too long, disrupted test plans. But even in year two, marginal gains at best.
You can't get there from here
But from the outside… Well, the general consensus of opinion inside WorldSBK is that you wouldn’t have started many things from where Honda did either. Bringing in Bautista and Haslam as the riders in 2020 was as good a choice as any, with huge MotoGP and WorldSBK experience in two pocket rockets, and with race wins in year one by no means a crazy ambition. One podium in 2020, then two more in 2021 - the second year of development, cannot be anywhere near what Honda expected, no matter what is said now.
Bringing in Leon Camier this year to be Team Manager, and more importantly a kind of performance lighting rod between riders and Honda, was a good idea. But the year before, they had staffed almost the entire backroom with ex-Moto2 and other GP technicians, decision makers and mechanics.
Maybe there is still some lingering hive thinking in the MotoGP paddock that being a 1000cc formula for ‘race bikes’ with the same basic alloy chassis, swingarm and front fork conventions as MotoGP, Superbike is actually a real step down, with results guaranteed in an easier and very similar class.
Obviously the top talents, the biggest spend and weight of engineering development in all areas (except maybe electronics) is and always will be reserved for MotoGP. But WorldSBK is inherently different from MotoGP. They are not different breeds of dog anymore; they are different species of animal.
The right starting point
The limits on what you can do to a WorldSBK machine are many and unchangeable. Adjustments/alterations of key chassis elements are incremental or banned. There is no new chassis to get around a problem, and even the handicapping, rev limiting, concession and cost-capped parts regimes brought in by Dorna ensure that despite all those changes for racing use, you are in a kind of high level run-what-ya-brung contest. And if what you brung isn’t right on the prize money first time, life is hard. If what you brung is irredeemably off target, even in too many small areas, then you are fighting a lost cause.
It looks like that is what Honda riders Bautista and Haslam have been doing for the past two years; chasing results as they have chased a repeatable and confidence-inspiring front end feel. It seems Bautista’s few podium finishes have come from riding up to a limit that he doesn’t really feel coming. If he does not cross it too often then he can take a podium. Haslam has not been able to do that once, but few in the paddock feel that Honda’s major issue was ever rider line-up.
Raw rookies the right choice?
Clearly Honda does put their 20120-21 rider choices high on their worry list, as they have just signed two younger riders with zero WorldSBK experience. The thinking is that Honda will now have two undoubtedly talented young riders who, because they have no Superbike experience, will take the bike at face value and not try to turn it into something familiar. It’s a profound change of tack.
You may be thinking that this is some kind of gamble, but gamble suggests a suck-it-and-see approach which would be very un-Honda like. This is strategy. Good or bad we will find out, but it is strategy.
Other strategies were available. They had the chance to sign, for example, Tom Sykes or Loris Baz, yet baled on that idea. More of a surprise is that if they wanted a great rookie they could have signed Bassani, a podium capable 22-year-old.
Or how about a ‘rookie’ with Superbike and Honda experience at the Suzuka 8 Hours - on the podium even - the 2021 WorldSSP Champion, Dominique Aegerter? He was even a Honda Superbike test rider fairly recently. Or even Tarran Mackenzie, the new BSB Champion?
But no, two complete rookies from Spain for next year. It is just very difficult to think that after two years of almost everything in the team being MotoGP ‘inspired’, from the details of the bike itself, the radical bore and stroke, the bulk of the technicians, the team headquarters and even the overall control from Alberto Puig, that the solution to any immediate competitiveness issues will once more be MotoGP-shaped, emanate from Spain and have no WorldSBK experience.
The grass is not always greener
Predictably, the MotoGP twitterati, and even more serious voices from inside the biggest paddock are saying it’s such a shame that Lecuona did not get a MotoGP ride again, and that WorldSBK will be a great step for him or Vierge to get back into MotoGP. They are gonna smash it, more or less. Well, so far in WorldSBK’s recent memory only Alvaro Bautista truly did that, for half a season at least on the new V4R Ducati, and then it all went wrong.
There had been talk in the early ‘happy time’ of Bautista showing the WorldSBK riders how to do it, but talk is what it remained when the full tally of championship points got totted up. But that Ducati must have been working better than the Honda seems to be now, as Bautista will leave Honda to go back to the same factory Ducati set-up where he won 16 races. And where Redding and Rinaldi have won ten this season already.
The late, great, former MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden had a good go at WordSBK racing in his ‘rookie’ season on a pretty uncompetitive Honda, winning a race, taking four podiums in total and finishing fifth overall. But he started out as a Supersport/Supersport rider in the US, of course. And was, y’know, a MotoGP champion.
To get back to MotoGP any time soon means that the still-young Lecuona will have to blow the bloody doors off WorldSBK and he apparently only has one year to do that. Vierge is a Moto2 man, and his logical new place would straight into the new look WorldSSP class, for which Honda has no obvious bike. What he is going to make of a Pirelli-shod 1000cc four-cylinder he can’t really change if he doesn’t like it, we have no idea of knowing. So let’s hope he likes it, because almost everybody in the paddock - maybe even the rival manufacturers - wants to see Honda have at least a turn at winning again, if only sometimes.
It is possible of course. In engine performance Honda’s bike is a missile - apparently unguided at times. From where we all stand now, from the evidence we have to hand, Honda’s 2022 rider signings will be either a radical strategic masterstroke or the exact opposite.
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