Ruben Xaus and the WSB paddock is wondering which way the series is going
It was just three short years ago when the World Superbike series was reaching the zenith of its popularity, full of factory support and rabid fan support. Meanwhile the World Grand Prix series was as stagnant as a bong-sniffing trust-funder, with 2-stroke bikes that seemed to have hit an invisible technical wall.
My, how times have changed.
Now with the MotoGP moniker, the Grand Prix class has been infused with life-giving plasma in the form of a plethora of differing 4-stroke machines with wider manufacturer support than ever.
Currently, the WSB championship has been given the derogatory title of "the Ducati Cup" by armchair racers, this after just two major manufacturers continue to support the withering series. In an effort to resuscitate its weak pulse, organizers have announced sweeping changes to the class for the 2004 season.
Highest on the proposed changes, according to a press release issued by the FIM, is to "bring it as close as possible to series production motorcycles to be found on the retail market and as identical as possible with the existing regulations used in the U.S., UK and Italian Superbike national Championships," according to the SBK Permanent Bureau.
"Adopting a unified rule structure will allow us to globalize the marketing opportunities for Superbike racing as well as stabilize rules in both the medium- and long-term," said Maurizio Flammini, President of the FGSport Group, in the press release. "This will encourage the participation of teams and riders from all over the world to the Superbike World and national Championships."
So far, so good. But then the release also says there will no longer be a choice in tire brands, instead going to a single-make spec tire at the request of the Superbike World Championship promoter, FGSport Group, "to create fair and equitable conditions to all."
Also troubling for some manufacturers is the decision to abandon the current WSB air restrictor rules designed to keep performance parity between different engine configurations is now being dropped.
"In order to maintain a sufficient level of performances, notwithstanding the limitation of the air-intake, the air-restrictor rules requested from the Manufacturers, need much freedom in the engine tuning," read a WSB press release. "This gives green light to the use of sophisticated technologies which cause high costs to the participants and diminishes the availability of tuned motorcycles in the market. It is also important to underline that already during his press conference on the 21st of May, the FIM President, Francesco Zerbi, at the presence of the MSMA Representatives and the Promoters Representatives, announced the need to adopt different rules in order to safeguard the interest of the sport. The new set of rules that will be adopted, by allowing an easier and wide access to the Superbike class, which will be nearer to the production motorcycles, will certainly represent a major step forward in the development of the motorcycle sport worldwide and in the general interest of all the parties involved."
Singer Jim Croce once wrote, "You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind." Well, it seems like FGSport has either tugged or spit, because the Motorcycle Sports Manufacturer Association (Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha) have dropped a bomb following the sudden announcement of the 2004 rules changes.
"The six manufacturers that are the members of the MSMA feel that this sudden change does not conform with the quality and status of a World Championships, and does not meet basic requirements for technical rules, such as enabling large numbers of teams and companies to compete under fairer condition," read a press release from the MSMA.
"It is sad," continued the MSMA press release, "but it has to be said that this is not the first time that something like this has happened. In 2000, the kit-part rules for World Championship Superbike were suddenly changed only half a year before implementation. On that occasion, too, each of the companies that were the members of the MSMA had already incurred the costs of development, the costs of manufacturing actual components, and the costs of components already ordered. The companies suffered a great deal of damage on that occasion, but had come to believe promises that the same thing would never happen again.
"Despite that, the same situation has recurred after less than three years. This time too, substantial damages have been incurred through loss of investments in development costs, etc. In addition to this, the basic incentive for competing is substantially reduced as described above. As a consequence, the large majority of the MSMA member companies who were considering entering World Championship Superbike have reviewed their positions and decided not to enter World Championship Superbike at all.
"The MSMA member companies feel that for racing at the World Championship level, quality and status need to be maintained, and that fair rules need to be introduced and kept steady. That is a prerequisite for competing."
Chili to Pirelli?
In response to the MSMA's shocking announcement, FGSport hastily put together a press conference at Laguna Seca on July 11 to further explain to the assembled media its position.
"Superbike has reached the stage where we must have fair conditions for everybody," said Maurizio Flammini, one half of the Flammini brothers who control FGSport. "We really would like to have the teams to compete with the same possibility to win. Maybe you remember three or four years ago when, instead of having three or four riders that can win like today, we have 10, 12 or even 14 (with) in one second. This is something we really want to go back (to).
The Flamminis believe one sure way to level the playing field is to have everyone use one make of tire, believed at the moment to be Pirelli. This not only puts all the riders on equal footing, but it also would have the added financial benefit of an influx of money from whichever company is chosen to be the official tire of WSB.
"We like what Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli are doing right now," said Flammini. "But unfortunately there are very different performances caused by the performances of the tires - not from the performance of the motorcycle or the performances of the rider. We are going to decide very soon which manufacturer will be the provider of spec tires for everybody (in 2004). We will solve a big problem for the medium-level, low-level teams.
"We want this to be the championship for the motorcycle manufacturers and for the riders."
The full 2004 rules package is expected to be announced by the end of this month. Expect many more dueling press releases to follow.