Paolo Flammini has been a guiding force behind the World Superbike Championship’s success since the early ’90s.
As the World Superbike series continues to run strong into its third decade, its prestige in motorcycle racing has never been higher. Where Grand Prix struggles to fill a sparse grid with limited manufacturer support, the SBK paddock is flush with seven different OEMs contesting the premier class. The product on the track is exciting as well, featuring a mix of steely vets extending careers against young talent on the way up. In terms of its impact on the sport, SBK has taken the lead in many areas, such as embracing a spec tire a half decade before GP. And as the world’s premier production-based road racing series, motorcyclists see the direct results of SBK rules manifest with the engine displacements of the Superbike class.
Infront Motor Sports CEO Paolo Flammini is the man behind World Superbike. The Italian has overseen the growth of the SBK franchise since the mid ‘90s. Motorcycle USA was privileged to engage in a one-on-one interview with Mr. Flammini when WSB paid its lone visit to the U.S. at Miller Motorsports Park. MCUSA already reported Flammini’s position on the still simmering brouhaha over production engines in MotoGP (Production Engine GP/SBK Dispute Update). The SBK boss also answered questions about other key SBK plot lines, including the long-term relationship with spec tire supplier Pirelli, as well as the expansion of SBK internationally and hopes for improved access for American fans.
WORLD SUPERBIKE EXPANSION IN THE US AND ABROAD
The 2011 season marked the fourth consecutive visit of World Superbike to Miller Motorsport Park. In many ways the Utah circuit is an unlikely destination for a market as big as the United States. We asked Flammini about the current evaluation of the Miller partnership, and why SBK stops in Utah and not a more popular circuit.
“Miller Motorsport Park is a very good facility. It is probably, if not the only one, one of the few, very, very, few that can host a World Superbike event here in the States. Also the staff is very professional. In the last two years the Miller family made a big effort in giving this circuit a very strong management structure, and really the results are there. I think they are handling it in a very professional way at this venue.”
The snowy peaks of Utah’s mountains make for a scenic backdrop, but Miller Motorsports Park seems an unlikely strategic location for WSB’s lone American stopover.
So will Miller be more or less a more permanent stop on the schedule?
“Let’s say that as far as we can judge for the first four years, this is a positive experience for us. There is a lot to build up, because clearly maybe this is not a motorcycle area. Not like California or Florida, where you have a natural market for motorcycles. But for sure we will be happy to continue our relationship here.”
Rumors have placed multiple US stops for future SBK schedules, with World Superbike having most recently held rounds at Laguna Seca before the return of the USGP. We asked about the likely candidates for a second SBK US stop, including Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.
“For the moment I don’t think there is anything we can see as a concrete opportunity for the future. Obviously, what I can tell you is that the United States, being such a big country could technically host a couple World Superbike rounds. But so far I don’t think there is anything on the table that we can say.”
Surprisingly, Miller Motorsports Park was only the second round outside the EU on the 2011 calendar (the other being the Phillip Island opener). SBK has run recently in South Africa, and Turkey has also been considered, so what are SBK’s immediate plans are for international expansion?
“At this moment our target is to develop the calendar more in the Eastern Europe countries. We have now a plan to bring Superbike to Russia in 2012. And also Southest Asia is a very important region, meaning India/Malaysia, and this is mainly because the motorcycle industry is seeing a good development of their business there. Obviously, being the Superbike link with production, we would like to bring at least one round there in the next year or two years.”
PRODUCTION ENGINES IN MOTOGP
We already reported Flammini’s position on the use of production-based engines in MotoGP with the 2011 CRT (Claming Rule Team) rules. At Miller Flammini said: “The move to a 1000cc capacity is something that for us is no problem at all. Obviously, MotoGP can be any capacity they choose, this is not our business. It is not quite clear whether it is possible to use production-based engines or not. So that is what we are asking the Federation [FIM] to clarify and it is something that is becoming very urgent. So we open a table with the FIM in February and expect some results in the next months.”
The president of the FIM, Vito Ippolito, later issued his clarifying statement on June 12, saying: “Any complete motorcycle model derived from series production, homologated or not for the FIM Superbike/Supersport/Superstock is not eligible and will not be accepted in the FIM Grand Prix World Championship classes.”
MotoGP CRT machines, like the BMW-powered Marc VDS Racing entry, have already started testing. It seems inevitable that Grand Prix production-engine machinery will move forward unimpeded despite protestations from World SBK.
The operative words in that FIM clarification were “complete motorcycle” which presumably gives GP sanction to go ahead as planned with its production-engine CRT rules. Flammini and the IMS contend its contract with the FIM retains exclusivity for production-based motorcycle racing. Asked back at Miller whether there was a degree to which IMS would accept production-based engines, Flammini stated:
“I think it is very important, irrespective of what contracts say, it’s very important to maintain a clear distinction between prototype racing and production racing, so the two championships will retain their own personality, which is crucial in order to have a combination of efforts, in order to promote the motorcycling sport. And not maybe internal problems, which will not give advantage to anyone.”
A similar conflict was raised when Grand Prix launched its Moto2 series, which uses production-based Honda CBR600RR engines as the spec powerplant. Asked at Miller if he worries that the CRT rule will improve the GP grid by depleting his own, Flammini said no. While there is a natural rivalry between SBK and GP, Flammini instead maintains a strong Grand Prix championship is good for business.
“We are very happy if the MotoGP will be more successful, this is not the problem. I think if we have two successful championships that will benefit each other and most of all will benefit the motorcycle movement in the world. So we would be only happy about a more successful MotoGP. The point is, again, this must be obtained without depriving Superbike of its character – so that is our only preoccupation.”
DUCATI’S “WITHDRAWAL” FROM SBK
The lack of official factory support hasn’t stopped Ducati from securing a strong candidate for the rider’s championship in Carlos Checa on the Althea Ducati.
One of the big stories in the off-season was Ducati withdrawing official factory support from the SBK series, yet entering Miller a Ducati leads the championship. Carlos Checa still leads the series well past the halfway mark. Asked for his thoughts on Ducati’s decision, Flammini said:
“At the end of the day, the factories have their own strategies, and mainly the factories produce and sell bikes. Then they race, if they believe it’s convenient for them. I think that for Ducati, having seen that through private teams they could have good results, they made a choice which we fully respect. As long as we have competitive Ducatis on the track, for us it’s good, no problem.”
ON CONTROVERSIAL RACING INCIDENTS IN GRAND PRIX/SBK
Arriving at Miller Motorsports Park, the road racing paddock was flush with controversy from the French Grand Prix, where MotoGP riders Marco Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa had notoriously collided. In the WSB series Max Biaggi had been the focal point of controversy as well, having been penalized earlier in the year for slapping fellow competitor Marco Melandri. Biaggi was also at the time reeling from being penalized with a ride-thru penalty at Monza for cutting a chicane, the penalty forfeiting a likely race win. We probed Flammini regarding his stance on where race organizers must draw the line in officiating on-track rivalries.
“Motorcycle racing is a sport which is dangerous, so the position of the judges must be always careful when there are dangerous situations. At the same time we cannot forget the nature – it’s a competition. The riders want to compete, they want to prevail on the others. And I think that you must be reasonably flexible when there is a duel, like in any sport where you can have contact, etc. to make a judgement which should not penalize in too tough a way somebody who was just trying to fight for himself.”
After that interview, Miller was the source of a related controversy when Jonathan Rea and Biaggi came together during the opening lap of Race 1. Post-race Rea claimed Biaggi had Simoncelli’d him. Biaggi held to his position that it was Rea who had crashed into him. Officials took a hands off approach to the incident.
OPENING OF WSB SPEC TIRE CONTRACT
The partnership of Pirelli and World Superbike has aided development of production tires like Pirelli’s Diablo Rosso.
Pirelli has been the spec tire supplier to World Superbike ever since 2004. The Italian tire manufacturer has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with its SBK compatriot, but World Superbike announced in April that it had opened the spec tire contract for 2013 through 2015. When questioned about the status of the tire contract, Flammini said:
“I think that this [implementation of spec tire] was one of possibly the most successful initiatives we’ve ever made. We believe that still the tires represent too much of a crucial element of differentiation of the performance for the participants. So it’s absolutely correct given the current technology to have all the participants on the same tires, so that the only elements will be the motorcycle and the rider.
“…After eight years of work with Pirelli, I have to thank Pirelli for the way they implemented the rule. Because clearly you can have a good result or bad result according to the commitment that the supplier puts into the project. And Pirelli did a wonderful job, because not only [did] they give really the same materials to everyone in every race, but they guaranteed it. And a fantastic development, too. They managed to build tires that have been working very well on two, three and four-cylinder bikes, which gives, I think, a very clear idea of how sophisticated the technology is that Pirelli can put on the table.”
UPDATE: On July 27, 2011 Infront Motor Sports announced Pirelli will continue to be the spec tire supplier through the 2015 World Superbike season.
TELEVISION CONTRACTS AND INCREASED ACCESS FOR AMERICAN FANS
Will American fans get live streaming of World Superbike races? Not in the immediate future, it seems…
The Speed Channel has been partnered up with SBK from the beginning, but American fans are lucky to see delayed same day coverage here in the States. This stands in stark contrast to WSB’s prevalence on the European airwaves and other international markets. MotoGP fans in the U.S. have it a little better and benefit from the voluminous video content on MotoGP.com, which includes live streaming racing coverage for subscribers. While SBK has improved online video content via its free SBK energy zone area http://energyzone.worldsbk.com , it still lacks streaming race coverage. We asked Flammini about the status of the Speed partnership and if Americans can expect improved real-time access via the Internet.
“For us Speed is a very long-term partner, we are together with them since the first day – I think ’94. We have to thank Speed for all they have done, what they are doing for Superbike in the U.S. I am sure that our relationship will continue in the future. And also I know that this problem of the website, there is a lot of frustration for certain World Superbike fans in the U.S. But sometimes the broadcasters need protection, need the possibility to guarantee themselves a level of exclusivity that allows them to recoup the investments. So we will see for the next hopeful renewal we will make, if a solution can be found, but overall I think the job Speed has done, and is doing, is outstanding.”