Momentum for a technical shake-up in WorldSBK has increased but the manner to instigate that change is a big question
The Imola paddock was full of rumor and discussion about changes to the technical regulations for 2018. With Kawasaki and Ducati having shared all but four wins since the start of the 2015 season there have been calls to grant other manufacturers some avenues with which to improve performance. Discussions between the manufacturers took place once again in Italy to lay down a framework for the future.
No answers were forthcoming but with Yamaha and Honda having brought all-new Superbikes to the series in the last year and struggled to compete with the front runners it is clear that the winds of change may be in the air. For 2017 Aprilia increased their involvement with the Milwaukee Aprilia bikes built and prepared in Italy. The former title winning marque has thus far failed live up to preseason expectations.
Spec ECU for WorldSBK?
A unified electronics package with a standard ECU (Electronic Control Unit) is one step that is being discussed, but that is far from a silver bullet with which to cure all ills in the WorldSBK paddock. The biggest reason for Kawasaki and Ducati dominating proceedings is manpower and resources. With more people in the garage and more resources spent on electronics and overall bike development they have proved the class of the field. Regulating that all bikes run the same specification of electronics will close the gap but not eliminate it.
That is one of the reasons why some teams, such as the Ten Kate team, have called for more drastic changes. Speaking over the weekend Ronald ten Kate said, “The ECU would be a start but bringing in some concessions similar to MotoGP would be a better solution.”
While MotoGP has developed a unified electronics system that is shared by all teams on the grid it has been the concessions offered to manufacturers that has, arguably, had the biggest influence on improving racing. These concessions range from having unlimited testing, allowing engine development mid-season and in the past a softer tire to offer improved performance. These allowed manufacturers to short-cut their development cycle by making large performance gains in a shorter time frame.
With Honda clearly struggling with a poor bike and a lack of experience with it they desperately need track time to be able to understand the all-new Fireblade and make improvements.
With resources clearly lacking at MV Augusta the team has precious little to test but opening some of the restrictions on bikes could help the Italian manufacturer. The team's rider, Leon Camier, crashed out of second position in Imola last weekend but knows the struggle facing the team.
“Right now if you're not on a green bike or a red bike you're not going to win,” said Camier. “At the moment Yamaha, MV, Aprilia, BMW and Honda all have good riders but at best we're really fighting for fifth or sixth position. It would be great if we could see some help to improve our performance or open the regulations somehow to help make it more competitive at the front because fans at home want to see more bikes at the front.”
To bring about such a change in the regulations the manufacturers would have to be in agreement. While Yamaha, Honda, BMW and Aprilia would be able to form a majority finding agreement is another issue entirely. The biggest stumbling block to that would appear to be Kawasaki who have said consistently in the past that electronic development is one of their key reasons for racing in WorldSBK.
With electronic development restricted in MotoGP the only series that allows manufacturers to flex their mental muscles with software development is WorldSBK. It is one of the single biggest reasons why Kawasaki races in the championship and puts huge resources into it. As a result the Japanese manufacturer is against the series bringing in a unified electronics software package.
Ducati are also likely to oppose any motion to restrict their performance but the Italian manufacturer will have a new bike on the market in the next two years. Their all-new V4 engined machine will be their flagship bike once again and the importance of WorldSBK as a marketing tool will not be lost on Bologna as they make the transition from twin-cylinder bike to the four cylinder. Kawasaki are in a comparable situation to Ducati, though there are key differences. With no MotoGP team, and no desire to race in prototype series, Kawasaki need a championship series they can showcase their Superbike in.
While their feelings on the potential change are not set in stone at the moment both manufacturers would be against restricting their performance on track, but equally, there is leverage against them in negotiations over the regulations.
Fresh from dominating at Imola Chaz Davies said, “I've not heard much about any changes to the regulations other than a few questions but in principle I would think that the best approach isn't to penalize Ducati or Kawasaki for being successful, but rather to help bring the other teams forward. If that's with granting them more testing, more engines, or some different parts, then that would be the best solution.”
It would also be the simplest solution for keeping all manufacturers happy. With seven manufacturers on the grid for 2017, and Suzuki likely to return in the coming years, it is clear the value and importance of WorldSBK holds for each manufacturer. Keeping them all happy and competitive in the series is an almost impossible goal but offering ways to improve their potential certainly isn't. Racing improves the breed, and the brand, but finding the best way to accelerate that improvement now appears to be a key challenge facing WorldSBK.
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