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.
In the greater Superbike firmament there has been an endless reduction in the kind of special parts and technologies that allow a flagship streetbike to become a true championship contender. And only if you get the right crew, set-up and riders on board of course.
Bike racing is truly a team game, as those few people who do most of the winning would recognise, publicly or privately. It escapes some others at times, especially those who think they should be doing more winning. There is no escaping the fact that WorldSBK being such an equipment sport means you have to have all the right tech stuff, fettled and then ridden by people who also have the right stuff.
In an effort to even things up, reduce tech costs and then cut costs some more, we have seen either an endless dumbing down of WorldSBK’s technical packages or a increasingly realistic approach in what is fundamentally a production derived category of racing. The net results has been more and more rules to level things up in terms of tuning and performance.
This has of course just led the manufacturers to create ever more and more race-oriented special showroom-ready machines to stay in the potential race-winning game. This winter has been no different.
With so many parts inside the engines needing to be stock, strict cost caps and handicaps on racing parts that are available, and of course the real biggie of single make Pirelli control tyres being not far off 20 years of age in WorldSBK usage, then the main performance increase available to the competing manufacturers is the donor road bike itself. Everything goes back to the road bike now, as it has done through a few cycles of WorldSBK’s existence, to be honest.
This starting-point factor is especially important after the first few years of rules that limit peak race revs to the same percentage of real road bike revs. Make a higher revving roadbike for your homologated WorldSBK model and only then can you have more top end to stay competitive on the straights.
Ducati has taken this to the highest extreme, since 2019, when the diminutive ex-GP matador that is Alvaro Bautista took the Panigale V4-R to a revvy early season domination. It all fell by the wayside when Jonathan Rea got his mojo back and the whole Ducati effort collapsed in an unimaginable manner, but the tech goalposts were moved for everybody from then on. Even the Number 8 Rugby forward that is a slimmed down Scott Redding has shown that the Ducati can still be a real contender in V4 guise.
Next to make a showroom engine sing to the stratosphere was Honda last year, despite it being ‘just’ another inline four Fireblade. Internally, it is jewel-like and revvy.
This year we will have two major revamps of a base model to allow BMW and Kawasaki to keep up with the figurative Joneses.
BMW has even christened their new M1000RR with the evocative ‘M’ from their sporty car ranges, and backed it up with a more powerful base engine, internal improvements to carry more revs and even full-on external wings on a roadbike. Any wings, by WorldSBK regulation, have to be basically the same as on the ‘real’ model, so if you want wings, you have to bring them from the showroom.
The Kawasaki, as it has been since the first of the current model shape showed its pointy face at race winning pace in 2011, is an evolution of something that clearly works well enough to win every rider’s world title bar one since 2013, and the last six Manufacturers’ titles to boot. More base engine revs for 2021, naturally, subtle changes to some chassis elements and a fair bit of work on the bodywork (up to and including internal front wings and vented rear seat unit). For Kawasaki this is a significant array of changes to a winning package.
With Jonathan Rea running away with the title every season since the day he joined Kawasaki in 2015, and Tom Sykes nearly winning three world championships not just the real one for Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ chosen ones KRT (Provec Racing under the factory clothes) before that, it’s easy to think that Kawasaki produces the most race-focused, the shiniest hyperspace missile in WorldSBK.
That repeating success is, however, more accurately the result of every element of the entire system working the closest to full performance more consistently than any of their peers have done. And for most of the last ten years, amazingly. Remember, before the Jonathan Rea and Pere Riba side of the garage really got going the Tom Sykes and Marcel Duinker partnership was on the winning side of the green lanes. Rea’s consistency of final race-day performance, under any set of rules that Dorna/FIM have put in place to even things out, is the real reason why Rea is a six-times champion who still thinks this next year could he his too.
Behind those podium topping scenes, however, there is a bike that works pretty much as well as it can do each time, has an overall design that has seemingly only been improved rather than messed with each season, and has a small cadre of people behind it who keep it on the straight and narrow in a fashion that ranks at least alongside the great repeating achievements that Ducati used to earn in WorldSBK. And nobody seriously thinks that the Kawasaki has any inherent design or technological advantage over the others. They are, as a group, just doing the best job possible most often, with the greatest modern day WorldSBK there is. The statistical GOAT of this class, in fact.
Understandably, the neutrals and non-specialist WorldSBK fans may miss the niceties, especially in a world now completely dominated by MotoGP, hence we still hear the refrain ringing out that ‘something must be done’ about levelling up WorldSBK. (Nobody moaned about MotoGP being a Márquez fest every year before 2020, but hey, double standards exist in bike racing as much as any other form of human endeavour).
The biggest differences between the competing WorldSBK manufacturers, even though they are almost all using Marelli ECUs, is in electronics, where they can devise their own strategies, software and updates. They have to share these (after a short period but sometimes immediately and even track-to-track) with the other teams using the same model of bike.
As we have said many times, relatively free ‘custom’ software compared to locked down single make software is also the biggest point of diversion between the teams inside WorldSBK and also most other Superbike based major national championships.
Spec ECU, again?
Introducing control electronics is back on the map table of the great Superbike powers once again, however, now that the Italian Superbike championship, the CIV, has introduced a form of the BSB control ECU protocol with just a few traction control settings beyond those used in the UK series.
Yes, potential electronic changes have been whispered about in WorldSBK again. After CIV’s first round being voted a success by many it seems a good time as any to unpick the warp and weft of the wiring looms.
One round down at Mugello and CIV had some close races (for a few of the few) although non-scoring soon-to-be-WorldSBK-rider Lucas Mahias was the class act in all regards except the final results, which he was excluded from despite winning. Them’s the local rules for WorldSBK-spec bikes.
Globally speaking, in many ways the last few freedoms in engine tuning, electronics and chassis tweaks are the only thing keeping five whopping brands in WorldSBK right now. BMW, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha is a more than fair hand in poker, so maybe best keep them all topped up with free electronic drinks in the WorldSBK Casino for now? Who’s gonna replace them if they leave, taking their budgets with them, BTW?
When cost-cutting doesn't cut costs
BSB racing requires a big truck, plus a fistful of Travelodge and diesel receipts, to participate in. Be you winner or backmarker. WorldSBK requires - even in a heavily European-centric condensed season like 2020 and surely 2021 - logistical expenses and travel costs that dwarf the spend anybody has to put in to their team budget for electronics. Because of stringent cost and other caps, plus the manufacturers themselves doing all the heavy software lifting, private teams just need a good electronics person and they are at less disadvantage than almost any time in WorldSBK history.
Those for whom the new CIV experiment and the long-time BSB reality of heavily controlled single make electronics are an instant fix for WorldSBK’s current ‘problem’ of one rider winning it six years in succession, may of course be entirely right in calling for control electronics.
The right package
But my bet is that even after six world titles, Rea and his Kawasaki guys would still be the ones to beat, no matter what level of control you introduce to the paddock.
Would the racing be any closer with control electronics? Well, maybe lower down, but if nobody worthwhile is out there to race Rea and KRT in the first place, thanks to the modern day sponsor vacuum caused by a million factors beyond the control of WorldSBK itself, how does that control electronics grid look if you were the organisers trying to fill it even to its current 20-22 reality? We will never get to 30 teams again, simply due to costs and lack of sponsorship pool for private teams.
All that said, if you appease the manufacturers enough to stay, if you underwrite the travel and other global costs for the best teams in the UK, Germany, America, Italy, etc, etc, to come and do battle for a full 13 round season, then we are probably all up for a bit of control electronics. Some important figures inside the WorldSBK community advocate it even now. And, of course, WorldSSP is already there.
It could still happen, for those reasons as much as any others, but the current strong yet still-fragile reality of who pays for WorldSBK from inside - the manufacturers - could well bite sooner or later. If you remove even one of the factory teams and their semi-supported satellite efforts from the WorldSBK grid, simply gambling on control electronics to trim Rea’s seemingly endless winning sprees risks WorldSBK becoming much less attractive. Remove two manufacturers and it is a much more serious task to sell the spectacle, half fill the grid and then uphold WorldSBK’s status.
Ultimately, JR. KRT and Kawasaki only keep winning because nobody else can make their rider, bike set-up or one side of a factory team garage work as consistently at full pace as Rea and co. Not even all Rea’s highly talented team-mates. It is that simple, honest.
And in any case, as last year proved, lots of people can beat Rea on occasion. And all the evidence suggests they have not been losing the WorldSBK crown to him for all these years because there is or is not a control ECU package in town.
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