First, last and middle World Superbike is doomed as a standalone series because no one wants to watch it.
How Good Could Superstock World Superbike Be?
Riding the HM Plant Superstock Honda Fireblade was not only a wonderful experience on the track but in the paddock it stimulated my synaptic forks in a quite serious way. And the reason for the vastly heightened neuron activity? I was thinking about the future of the World Superbike Championship.
Let’s start with the absolute certainties and then work back from there. First, last and middle WSBK is doomed as a standalone series because no one wants to watch it. I am all too well aware that some readers get very cross with me for saying this but nevertheless it is fact. A good crowd for a WSBK round is 10,000 and you can’t promote and organize an international event with a take on the gate of $800,000 – less the 20% sales tax all European governments take.
Even the two British rounds, with Brits dominating the racing, attracted tiny attendances and in the rest of the world the situation is far worse than this.
Dorna needs the crowds not because anyone at the organization likes race fans. In fact, Dorna couldn’t be less interested in the ordinary customer if they tried. No, the key reason for Dorna’s interest in customers on the ground is the franchise fee they can charge circuit owners.
The situation is potentially even more serious than merely reduced franchise fees. The received wisdom is that circuit owners should be deeply, almost penitently, grateful for hosting any World Championship round. There is a strong element of truth in this idea. Very often it’s a case of the boys’ changing room syndrome at High School. “Hey guys, if you think you’ve got a big event just look at the size of my world championship…”
This is fine as far massaging, or destroying, teenage egos goes but it’s a fundamentally bad business model if the circuit doesn’t make money. Even Che Guevara would have found this particular situation a hard sell because it’s not a question of foul and evil capitalist circuit owners exploiting the underclasses, but rather one of sinking ships struggling to stay afloat. Believe me, if your favorite Aunt has just left a relatively small sum of money to you – say $50 million – you could be the proud owner of half a dozen major circuits within a week.
Though not as large a draw as in the mid-90s, fans still packed Brands Hatch to watch World Superbike in 2004.
The problem for Dorna will be when the circuit owners turn round and not only refuse to purchase a franchise for World Superbike but then send a $400,000 invoice to Barcelona for the use of the track.
Well, clearly this could never happen – except that it already has. The biggest attendance of any World Superbike round, anywhere in the world, was at Brands Hatch in the mid-1990s. The actual, hardcore accurate attendances during the golden days of Carl Fogarty will never be known but stick a pin in somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 paying customers – about the same number of fans as currently watches the whole World Superbike series worldwide during the season.
Brands Hatch is owned by Motor Sport Vision and is controlled by Jonathan Palmer. I have met Mr. Palmer on several occasions and he comes across as what he is: a tough businessman. He is accused of being abrasive and ruthless but he was polite enough to me. Regardless of how he is viewed, there is no question that Palmer has done a vast amount for motorcycle sport because MSV owns three of Britain’s biggest circuits and they are managed well, and profitably.
When it came to running a WSBK round Palmer simply said no and explained, very briefly and without any acrimony, that the business case didn’t make sense. Instead, MSV owns, through their subsidiary MSVR, the British Superbike Championship and this series does make money and it does bring in the paying customers.
One day soon, other circuit owners will take the same stance regardless of how important are the bragging rights to hosting a world championship event.
Inevitably, Dorna has mis-understood the problem and instead of addressing the root problem have tinkered, albeit extensively, with the technical regulations in an attempt to make the series more attractive.
Dorna’s view of MotoGP is terrifyingly simplistic but its understanding of Word Superbike will take naivety to new levels next year. The raft of new regulations is vast – too detailed and too complicated even for Single Track Mind to offer for your delectation. However, from the morass does appear the tiny green shoot of what could be a quite wonderful idea. For 2014, there will be a new class within World Superbikes called EVO. It will, to quote Dorna “…be the CRT of World Superbike.” Arrrrghhh. Melling falls on the floor and begins foaming at the mouth.
The idea, predictably, is to cut costs. Hmmmm…. Never heard that one before.
There will be heavy restrictions in the EVO class, but you will get spectacular racing from motors in this state of tune.
The core of the concept is that the EVO engines will be heavily restricted in terms of tuning and the number available to a team for the whole season will be restricted to six. Since the Honda technician I was chatting to, about the HM Plant bike I rode, was confident that a Superstock engine would go all season with one refresh this isn’t the problem that it might seem.
There are also restrictions on the number of gear sets and the ECU. The ECU software, and the associated data logging, are also tightly controlled.
EVO will become the standard in 2015 because you can get spectacular racing from motors in this state of tune.
However, the idea is doomed from the outset – utterly guaranteed to fail. The reasons will be identical to those which killed the CRT experiment: no one wants to pay a huge amount of money to see their bike finish in 15th position. Truly, marketing babies are not made in failure land.
The EVO bikes will not be far behind in terms of power – nor were the CRT machines in MotoGP – but they will lack the ultra trick suspension, and accompanying technicians, which play such a part in allowing the top WSBK riders to go very fast.
For example, a set of top rate World Superbike front forks are surprisingly affordable – something in the region of $30,000 will buy you the best kit. However, the clever techie who will make the fork work during the season, and without which it is little more than a piece of expensive modern art, will cost you a further $150,000 or so.
So, what is the answer Dorna, asks Single Track Mind respectfully?
The EVO engine is definitely a major step forward but it needs an EVO chassis for the whole concept to work. Superstock bikes use stock forks but with tweaked internals and these work fine. No, I am not arguing the case that they are as good as full on Ohlin World Superbike suspension but if a pair of forks costs $2000, and your own team can re-use the internals from the wreck, this has to be better than $30,000 a crash and the cost of renting an expensive suspension technician for the trick fork manufacturer.
As for the racing, it will be brilliant. The best racing I have seen all year was World Superbike at Silverstone – far better than either British Superbike or MotoGP.
If times increase by five, or even ten, seconds a lap so what? No one will notice. If a Superstock bike can tramp round the Isle of Man, and on treaded tires, at over 131 mph there is nothing wrong with these motorcycles in terms of race spectacle.
The really major change to reduce costs would be so simple to do that it is incredible. Rather than have the immense costs of each team having individual hospitality units Dorna should provide a centralized center either for free – I really am one of life’s optimists – or at a fixed cost. A rich team can have a deluxe area and a poor team, and that’s an oxymoron when it comes to any World Championship race, a smaller space. Each area would be divided off for privacy and exclusivity. Now this would reduce costs in one dramatic swoop.
Will EVO, centralized hospitality or ladies in spangly outfits riding on white horses while juggling fiery torches save World Superbike as an independent series? Absolutely not. For that matter, once the excitement of the Marquez vs. Lorenzo clash of the titans has abated – then MotoGP will be in the same sad state as ever.
The way forward is a unified series with true international appeal and flavor. In particular, the stranglehold the Spanish have on GP racing needs to be broken so that many nations are represented. The achingly dull Moto3 series would be replaced with World Supersport which in itself would be the perfect feeder class for World Superbike. WSBK, with 200-hp engines, would be the perfect preparation for MotoGP, which would rid itself of the stupid restrictions on the number of engines and fuel and instead be the no-holds barred Premier class of motorcycle racing.
With three brilliant, nail biting classes to watch, the crowds would flock in and Dorna would have circuit owners fighting for franchises. Just watch this space.