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.
It has been such a great start to the WorldSBK championship in 2022 that even last year’s two-pronged fight to the last round flag has been obliterated by the early season action. In a championship with five competing manufacturers there is also a distinct top three machine fight in 2022; Yamaha, Kawasaki and Ducati.
The Honda is nearly there. And nearly is where it may stay, but, an early Iker Lecuona rookie podium is still a great achievement already. The BMW is behind the 8-ball every week it seems, as much for bad luck as anything else. A fit Michael van der Mark alongside an inline four rookie in Scott Redding would probably accelerate things, in all possible ways.
But, providing the entertainment as well as leading performance now we are three rounds and nine races in, are top three top factory riders. In fact, it is an unmistakeable ‘Big Three’ title race.
They are doing all the winning and almost all the podium scoring. Those guys are championship leader Alvaro Bautista (Aruba Ducati), current third place man Jonathan Rea (KRT) and 2021 World Champion Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha). Were it not for Rea and Razgatlioglu colliding and then both no-scoring at Assen, we would probably have been looking at a clean sweep of podiums for that ‘Big Three’ before this weekend at Misano.
Great racing makes for great stories
It is also great that five different riders, on four different makes of MotoGP machine, are winning ‘over the road’, but has the race action been quite as enthralling as WorldSBK, even with only three clear leading riders in WorldSBK? According to voices inside MotoGP itself, maybe not. Mistaken last lap countdowns and a horrible first lap crashes were the most talked about takeaways from the most recent round, despite Quartararo’s repeating sheer brilliance.
The reason that WorldSBK is getting much more public and media attention than most recent season is that it’s providing rivalry and drama all the way on track, with three very different characters, riding styles and bike characteristics attracting and repelling to deliver crazy levels of competition and entertainment.
Last year’s brilliant Razgatlioglu/Rea and often Scott Redding sort-outs really primed us for 2022. Those wee Superbike scamps are often racing corner-by-corner, and those three leading forces are almost overtaking more often than they following line astern.
Even MotoGP, with its generally closer lap times, has an issue with this mid-to-late race overtaking nowadays. So it seems.
It’s compelling stuff all the way in the production-derived world; an updated complication of the past three seasons in WorldSBK, with a full-on 2022 twist.
A plan coming together
We are actually witnessing more than the sum of the parts of the last three seasons. In 2019 Bautista was clearly going to be the most dominant WorldSBK champion ever with Ducati’s new wonder bike, the Panigale V4R. A MotoGP refugee, he went about destroying the competition for the first part of the year at every single track. Then it went wrong, for Ducati and Bautista, and Rea won the title again.
Two years ago Redding was Rea’s biggest challenger, again on that Ducati, but despite some awesome challenges, it was Rea’s sixth title in a row. For both him and his ageing but capable Kawasaki.
Last year Razgatlioglu really took the season to Rea once he had had overcome his own bad luck at Assen. He eventually pushed Rea so hard that mistakes and overriding crept in, even from the GOAT. Rea was as determined as ever, but on a package that was just 1% not quite fast enough anymore, he was maybe too determined. They swapped wins and DNFs. Razgatlioglu looked wild but stayed cool, and deservedly won his first title with Yamaha.
This year? They all still have something major to prove, and maybe just this year to do it in? OK, only Rea and Bautista have scored race wins so far, not Razgatlioglu, although only Bautista’s low mass and hyperdrive Desmo engine stopped Raz winning one race in Estoril, of course.
In theory, 2022 WorldSBK sounds kinda dull, if you look at the Bautista/Rea winning duopoly over nine races - yet it is anything but. It’s been flat out wrestle-mania from the start, in a first round that Michael Ruben Rinaldi added to with his harrying of Razgatlioglu. Aragon’s races went to Rea, Bautista and Bautista again. Winning margins of 0.090, 5.141 and 4.393 seconds respectively. That big downhill straight eventually told in Bautista’s favour… But the action all through? Peerless.
In Assen’s Race One, it was Rea, from Bau Bau from Raz, with just 0.103 to second place and just over one second to third. In the Superpole Race a controversial few millimetre track limits penalty for Bautista saw him eventually third not second, but even Razgatlioglu in the initial bronze medal place was only 0.267 seconds from Rea’s second win.
The final Dutch race went to Bautista, by miles from Andrea Locatelli’s Yamaha and Iker Lecuona’s HRC Honda. Those interlopers’ results were in no small part due to Rea and Raz having ‘that’ collision, and a no-pointer apiece. But even that was a talking point for weeks. Who was to blame?
In Estoril the margins of victory were squeezed into 0.126, 0.174 and 0.194 seconds - mere fragments of spacetime. (And remember ‘that’ save… Toprak at peak WTF levels of transcendence).
But the bare stats presented there - merely to help us remember how mad it has all been - do not even hint at how much passing, fighting, race craft and sheer will-to-win has been going on. Good old fashioned motorcycle racing, with bikes that feature vestigial wings and small aero ducts at best - and almost none at all on the championship-winning Yamaha.
The biggest motorcycle racing championship of all is - of course - MotoGP. Should be until the end of time, really. But Dorna’s other 1000cc four-cylinder four-stroke venture is truly delivering after nearly ten years of ownership.
This is the culmination of fair rules, a strong regular grid, five big manufacturers (eight if you go down the classes to find MV Agusta and Triumph in WorldSSP, plus KTM in WorldSSP300), true championship ambitions from the top three, and lots of riders who are by no means merely ‘extras’ right behind…
Good times have come back to WorldSBK and people you would hardly expect it from are excited about it.
Weird then, especially for anybody like me who concentrates on WorldSBK racing almost to the exclusion of anything else, to see that the MotoGP season seems to have been littered with bad news stories and negativity - from within.
There are some pretty funky happenings going on in MotoGP looking in from outside, as well as the Rossi-free, and encroaching Suzuki-free, dark side. Contrary to what some may think, the people bowling along busily inside MotoGP’s wee brother, WorldSBK, are not looking over at MotoGP and its perceived problems with any great level of Schadenfreude.
When WorldSBK has been publicly flourishing as it is now, and MotoGP started feeling even a little sorry for itself, the alarm bells always rang inside the heads and hearts of the old WorldSBK war horses. Because even though WorldSBK has got nothing to do with MotoGP day-to-day, some people immediately start looking for solutions inside the WorldSBK paddock. They did it before, in numerous ways. But things are very different now, aren’t they?
Race what you build vs build what you race
Dorna has owned both of these big championships since 2013. After so many years and changes of format, regulations and classes, modern day WorldSBK is largely Dorna’s own doing, as they are the leading partners in the Dorna/FIM name over the door stakes. It is they who have arrived at their own more technical and rules based version of the performance equalisation philosophy that preceded the big revolution in 2013. The racing is wide-open, on bikes that are still basically breathed-on showroom models. This is not easily done.
WorldSBK in every era has had to run what others have brung, which is much more difficult to police and ‘level-up’ between manufacturers. In MotoGP the bikes are prototypes so the organisers have more control via the rulebook. In WorldSBK the manufacturers build what they want their commercially available Superbike to be, and Dorna/FIM have to find a way to make things competitive between them all. And only then hope the manufacturers will all join in. Five is plenty in WorldSBK, as we are seeing now. More would be nicer…
The freshly deployed Next Generation category inside WorldSSP racing is also panning out quite well. WorldSSP300 is technically isolated but just as thrill-a-minute as ever, and now more sane in numbers of entries and (sometimes) rider approaches.
So… big re-building and modernising jobs done, just keep decorating, massaging and onward, onward, onward for the House of WorldSBK? Assuming Covid behaves itself, of course.
More Asia, greater spread of rounds across Europe, maybe one day a dramatic return to the forbidden lands of America and Japan? Well, maybe all those things, maybe none… But it is not always ‘our’ choice anyway.
Footing the bill
All of us in global racing are often guilty of forgetting one simple thing. We are not truly in control of our industry. We are all here because other people are prepared to pay for our business to continue.
In motorcycle racing, from nationals to MotoGP, the manufacturers are the ones who provide the bikes, the bulk of the internal money, and the desire to use racing as a marketing, branding, customer relations, engineering and technical development exercise. Very often, national, regional, and local governments help underwrite the costs of putting the global races on, to stimulate tourism and local commerce. We are very manufacturer dependent, and not just in WorldSBK.
MotoGP is not two-wheeled F1, where even now it is a car racing specialists’ industry, with genuine engineering and racing headquarters remote from the production lines and boardrooms for most manufacturers. It is a ‘pay the bills, market the glory’ arm’s length scene for many of them. MotoGP in 2022 could be half full of Ilmors, KRs, Petronases, WCMs, Cosworths and the like, but it’s not. MotoGP only contains regular motorcycle manufacturers and their prototype offerings.
In WorldSBK, the complete reliance on manufacturers is built-in, as only the manufacturers can provide and homologate their own machinery. If the manufacturer refuses to homologate specific models, those models cannot be raced at this level.
Making motorcycles and more
Another simple fact of business life we need to understand is that all the mass manufacturers are way bigger companies than MotoGP and WorldSBK race series combined. And the manufacturers mostly have even more humongous parent companies in final control - however their balance sheets are formatted.
To the outside world, the whole commercial globe? Powered two wheelers in a racing context are our big business, not really anyone else’s.
Some examples? The two biggest official car dealerships in my area sell Suzukis. Kawasaki is a sprawling industrial complex with so many different theatres of operation. Honda… well, have a think if there is a person anywhere in the world who does not understand Honda - but usually in terms of cars, lawnmowers and other small engines, not just motorbikes. Yamaha… makes loads more commercial things than just motorcycles.
Ducati is a largely independent offshoot of the vast VW/Audi Group. (But what’s bigger, Ducati or VW/Audi?). Aprilia is a subsidiary of Piaggio - but how many track focused RSV-4s street bikes do they sell? KTM is a successful bike manufacturer in its own right, but doesn’t have a single WorldSBK/WorldSSP homologated sportsbike in its sales range. Their MotoGP project is an often successful outlier in relation to their core business of Adventure bikes/naked bikes and off-road sporting product.
In some cases, if it was a strictly business decision (i.e., not one taken by ex-racing engineers who eventually end up at the board level of some companies) they may not bother with big time bike racing at all.
The bigger picture
Because we are all so passionate about racing, because it consumes and brightens our lives 24/7 in many cases - because MotoGP has grown so far in comparison to where it was a couple of decades ago - we often make the mistake of believing the whole racing scene is bigger than it really is to the full outside business world. Bike racing is the apple of our eyes, not Apple.
With that reality check now made - optimism all round please? Be happy that we are where we are, still riding the big waves of adrenaline, but looking to grow wherever possible.
Speaking more specifically, now that WorldSBK has become a brighter light again, where is the next opportunity for its growth in the hard economic conditions the world finds itself in?
I think I know, and it’s got nothing to do with motorbikes, per se.
A very high production value behind-the-scenes series, along the lines of F1’s ‘Drive to Survive’, would have a field day inside WorldSBK right now. Yes, it would have to be done exactly right, and be vastly well resourced, but look at the human source material, from GOAT-man Rea, stuntman Toprak, hair model short range rocket Bautista, obsessed bicyclist and social media major Redding… The competing manufacturers are all household names, too, with a lot to gain from the exposure outside their current base.
Plain old terrestrial and even digital TV may well be getting swamped by social media and the online world in general, but the only way for WorldSBK to truly grow, especially under the shadow of MotoGP within our own racing-obsessed world, is to spread out into a broader stage. To show more than just the wildly exciting races.
Is that even feasible?
Why, yes. The box-set/online/streaming ground is certainly fertile for something as mad a watch as WorldSBK racing. Think about it. Everybody was talking about that F1-based ‘Drive to Survive’ series. Everyone.
Sunday newspaper supplements, non-racing celebrities, general TV shows, social media, people with no ‘previous’ in F1 at all. The whole connected modern world was at least mentioning its existence, and that netted vast numbers of new customers.
Don’t believe me? A true story follows.
My niece on my wife’s side of the family, with no motorsport background or inclination, became so captivated by F1 after watching ‘that’ online series that she and two mates paid a relative fortune to travel to Imola for all three days of the Italian F1 GP. Hotel in Bologna, train in and out every day, bit of a holiday in Florence after - loved every expensive second and will be back for more. Sunday is F1 day for her now.
From sports-bypass chick to mega F1 fan in just over a year. All from watching some online TV show that made it all impossibly human, glamorous, immersive and moreish. (So I hear, I never really watched it).
Telling the story
OK, WorldSBK is not the already huge bling-fest F1 is, but as we all know, the backstory, controversy, drama and risk factors inherent in motorcycle racing knock any kind of four-wheel staged play straight into the wings (pun intended).
If I were a big time ‘TV’ producer looking at doing a behind-the-scenes personality-led series based on the most entertaining racing spectacle around, I would probably be more interested in WorldSBK than any other global category right now. Especially as Toprak really is staying around for a while longer.
And, practically speaking, there are only 12 rounds to film, not a much more expensive and logistically challenging 20-or so. Three main characters, endless plot-twists and a cast of thousands of a second, WorldSBK 2022 sure is Hollywood again, even without the mini-series.
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