Rumors: Superbike, GP1, and You

Elliot Strong
by Elliot Strong
Elliot the Intern is learning by doing, and wishes to benefit from the knowledge of all the MOs out in MO land. Here's what he thinks about the state of MOTORCYCLE RACING!

Rumors, rumors, rumors. The latest one has Honda Europe rumbling and grumbling about reducing their involvement with WSB next year. Could this be so?

To me, it all started with Yamaha pulling out of World Superbike racing after the 2000 season. It seemed a little childish at the time, but in retrospect it seems like it was a portent of things to come.

Kawasaki has been dead in the water at the world competition level for some time now. I won't even bother to waste space arguing that point, but their lack of motivation seems to mirror a deeper sentiment.

Suzuki's commitment to racing the GSX-R750 in the world arena can be considered lackluster. While regularly dominating in the past in the US, their involvement (or lack thereof) in WSB is marginal at best, laughable at the worst.

And as of this season, Aprilia has scaled back their involvement in the RSV Mille racing program from a two-rider factory team to a one-rider satellite team. Haga's obviously a skilled rider, but why, at the cusp of victory, did they bid a hasty retreat?

Enter the Dragon that is GP1. Dedication to a race series is a matter of priorities in technological development, money, manpower and innumerable other resources. With the advent of the GP1 series, most of the manufacturers' attention has been shifted to it. Even WSB traditionalists like Ducati have been wooed by the prospect of newfound glory, glamour and drama, and consequently, mo' money in such an endeavor.

Who can really blame them? The rules for Grand Prix racing are clearly delineated and make for some fascinating machine configurations, greater manufacturer involvement and the emergence of the dynasties and the underdogs. (No matter what you think of Honda's domination, it probably is keeping you interested in the entire series to root for the underdog if nothing else.) Who would have guessed three years ago that we would be watching a V5 four-stroke utterly dominate GP racing in 2002? If I managed to step through a time/space portal to 1999 and asked various moto-fans what they thought about the chances of a V5 racebike being successful, it probably would have garnered laughs.

GP's rules seem to be laser-etched into military-grade titanium, while WSB's rules could be compared to being molded in silly-putty. Who knows what the future holds for Superbikes? Rumors have the displacement cap raising to 1000cc for all bikes in the next few seasons, but this also raises the grim specter of (cue scary music) intake restrictors (aieeee!).

Intake restrictor plates often conjure up images of NASCARs and other horrific spooks that roam around in my nightmares, but they aren't always bad; take the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) for example. Their use of restrictor plates has allowed a wide variety of engine types and differing technologies to compete alongside one another. From a twin-turbocharged, dual overhead cam V8 screaming Audi R8 to a roaring Panoz utilizing a Ford 427 pushrod engine, the field is a technologically diverse and (consequently) interesting one. It would be the motorcycle equivalents of seeing a very fast Firebolt chasing down a YZR-M1. If the reason behind the use of restrictor plates was to foster innovation, creating a technologically diverse field and to reward innovation rather than to punish it, I would be in favor of it. It's possible to use them without punishing performance and trying to create an artificially level playing field.

A critical problem that faces WSB is the apparent indecision of the ruling body that governs it- just make up your mind! For a while there, there were even rumors of banning slicks, a la Formula One. But if you don’t even know where you stand with engine rules, why even bring up the question of tires? It seems so far out of left field that you never know what to expect next. "In recent developments, the sanctioning body of WSB has decreed that all bikes may no longer incorporate afterburners into their exhaust design." Huh? Exactly- I don't know what to expect next. And if I'm confused, I can only imagine what the manufacturers are thinking.

To us lowly riders, it seems like such an easy proposition to introduce a new sportbike to the market, but Carl Fogarty's recent setbacks with the Foggy-Petronas FP1 race project illustrates this point well. Fogarty has been a rider for his entire career and has been quite unrealistic in his managerial approach to the FP1 project. To anyone with any bit of foresight or management instincts, the notion seemed outlandish that he could have sold 75 road-ready units and bring together all the logistical concerns that are necessary to compete with a two-rider team by the Laguna Seca round of this year. His ego caught up with him, and the project is faltering.

I use that only as an example in how crucial long term planning and management skill is in any venture. Look at one of the largest, most successful racing programs in the world- Honda. They race to win. But in order to put everything together in time for a successful campaign, they need to know well in advance of any rule changes. There have been rumors of a 1000cc V4 replacing the RC-51, but why would Honda want to build such a machine if they didn’t know that they compete with it? They knew of the 990cc 4-stroke rules years ago, giving them plenty of lead-time to build a race bike. Companies that jumped in later have consequently suffered; Aprilia and Suzuki jump to mind immediately.

So, the rumor of Honda Europe either scaling back or pulling out of World Superbike competition really doesn't come as a surprise to me. They have a lot of commitments in the competitive arena and probably need to decide where they want their focus to be. If Honda is kicking butt in an established series that won't be changing capriciously anytime soon, why keep investing in shifting sands?

I like World Superbike for many reasons- don't get me wrong. I like the idea of competing with production based bikes and the racing is quite entertaining. I've gone to Laguna Seca for the last 2 years and had a great time at each event. I don't want to see it lose ground in popularity or manufacturer support, but they need to get their act together to not only attract new teams and money (such as Petronas, which I am anxious to see compete) but to keep the existing ones.

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Elliot Strong
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