Since inception, controlling costs of participation in motorsport has been a highly complicated and tricky endeavour. Despite attempts from governing bodies and promoters to control spending and thus grant wider opportunity to compete, racing teams can easily become carried away as they over indulge in their relentless pursuit for victory. Much like an ever hungry Labrador, who has broken into a room containing the delights of a fortnights worth of food, racing teams often need saved from themselves.
In 2011, series organisers, MSVR, announced new British Superbike Championship (BSB) technical regulations for the 2012 season onwards. In the face of challenging economic circumstances and dwindling sales of road going, 1000cc, superbike machines, the series had to take drastic action to safeguard the future of the sport, by reducing costs.
Prior to the 2012 season, BSB teams were permitted to use their own choice of electronic control unit (ECU) hardware and software to run their sophisticated superbike machines. Traction control, anti-wheelie and launch control systems were common place in this domestic championship. BSB top man, Stuart Higgs, became increasingly uncomfortable with teams flying over factory engineers to start a bike with a laptop computer and other unnecessary extravagances. Such sophisticated and therefore outrageously expensive electronic systems, would eventually erode the number of bikes on the grid and eventually sink the series if this culture continued. In a championship where it is not uncommon for a privateer bike to be entered and ridden by a valiant amateur who will be back to the day job on Monday, radical change was necessary to reduce costs and protect future participation.
Under the pre 2012 rules, only a small number of teams with the colossal budgets required to run these complicated superbikes competitively, would be seen racing at the front of the field. A lack of legitimate contenders for race wins was strangling the series from realising its full potential and producing the close racing, between a plethora of manufacturers, that we now see today.
Over a two year period, the organisation had consulted with teams, manufacturers and other stakeholders in the series to consider the best approach for the new rulebook. What Stuart Higgs and his team came up with, was revolutionary for the British Superbike Championship. Electronics, the most expensive and complex components of a racing motorcycle, were the main target for the series organisers when drawing up the new rulebook for BSB.
Under the new rules, all entrants would be supplied with a standard specification electronic control unit (ECU) from the series chosen supplier, Motec. This ECU hardware would be mandatory and the software system that it would run would also be equally supplied to all competitors. Complex systems, requiring teams of electronic engineers, like traction control, anti-wheelie and launch control were all banned. In principle, this radical initiative to reduce costs, would also improve the racing spectacle. With a common electronic system operating every bike on the grid, plucky independent teams could fight for victories and a wider variety of motorcycle brands would be able to compete too.
In the seven seasons since the new BSB rules were introduced, four manufacturers with a broad variety of bike configurations, have won the championship title (Kawasaki ZX10R, Yamaha R1, Ducati Panigale and the Honda Fireblade). In the current 2019 season, an independent team from a UK Ducati dealer, Moto Rapido, have been able to consistently climb onto the podium and go into the season showdown with a chance of clinching the title. Such giant killing heroics, from a small but ambitious team, simply would not be possible under the old BSB rulebook.
Over the last seven seasons, it would be impossible to argue that the BSB technical regulations have not been anything other than a roaring success. Grids are bulging with competitive entries, ex grand prix and world superbike riders are joining the championship and crucially, racing is close and unpredictable. In stark contrast, over the same period, the World Superbike Championship (WSBK) has not been so fortunate. Entertainment value at the world championship level of superbike racing has been in downturn for too long and spectator attendance is almost non-existent at some races. Dominance of the imperious Jonathan Rea, the greatest superbike rider of all time, could be attributed to the predictability of the racing. However, over in the Moto GP paddock, supreme Spaniard, Marc Marquez, is enjoying similar dominance and yet, racing in the premier class of motorcycle racing is more dramatic and exhilarating than ever.
Like British Superbikes, Moto GP also runs a standard issue ECU for all competitors and this, initially controversial move, has transformed the sport. Electronic parity has brought new manufacturers like Suzuki to the grid and more importantly, to the front of the field. Independent teams like LCR Honda, Tech 3 Yamaha and Pramac Ducati have all been granted the ability to fight for podium finishes, historically a near impossible task for a satellite team.
The British Superbike Championship has clearly displayed that their rulebook provides the best solution for a global formula for superbike racing. Adoption of these rules by the World Superbike Championship, in my opinion, would be an ideal solution to improve the ailing spectacle that the remaining fans of the series are having to currently endure. Victories in the championship have been almost exclusively shared between Kawasaki and Ducati over the last five seasons, with other manufacturers making far too occasional appearances on the podium. A switch to the simplified BSB rulebook would not only improve the spectacle of the racing but would deliver a much needed cost saving for teams entering the championship.
However, as is often the case in any form of motorsport, implementing a rulebook which appears to be logical, can often be hampered by politics. Manufacturers entering any form of motorsport, usually have two main objectives to fulfil as a result of their participation, marketing their products and/or developing the technology through competition and filtering this through to their range of products.
Superbikes are based on a motorcycle that any member of the public with a full license can buy from a showroom. These models are usually the jewel in the crown of any product range and performance levels of today’s machines are scarcely believable with power outputs of 200bhp. In the 2018, Isle of Man TT Royal London Superstock race, Peter Hickman broke the class lap record with a sizzling 134.403mph average speed around the notorious mountain course. An identical specification, BMW S1000RR, with a few very small alterations and a road spec tyre, could be acquired in any BMW Motorrad showroom.
In order for customers to control their new fire spitting race replica machine, highly sophisticated electronic safety systems, are now common place on these types of motorcycles. One key element of the development of these rider aiding systems, is competitive World Superbike racing. With a more open rulebook permitting greater freedom on the use of sophisticated electronic control systems, manufacturers can justify their participation in WSBK by attributing R&D budget to honing these systems for their road bikes. Without this opportunity to develop electronic rider aid systems to implement in road products, manufacturers have little justification to attribute R&D budget to World Superbike racing. Therefore, this leaves the marketing spending pot as the only source of funding for a WSBK programme. Motorcycle manufacturers are selling less road going superbikes than ever before and with this trend set to continue, applying marketing budget to a series promoting this type of product is a hard sell to any board of directors.
However, it is not just BSB that global superbike racing can learn from. GT3 car racing, created by enigmatic entertainer, Stephane Ratel, has been a phenomenon in endurance racing around the world and could teach a few relevant lessons that would apply to superbike racing. GT3 specification cars, compete all over the world, across a variety of series. Teams have a choice of nearly twenty different manufacturers to buy their new GT3 car from and once they take delivery, the opportunities for competition are boundless, due to the common worldwide GT3 regulations.
GT3 racing could be referred to as a ‘customer racing’ category. Independent racing teams will purchase the car of their choice and will be given varying levels of technical support from the manufacturer. Manufacturing and selling GT3 racing cars, is big business for certain car manufacturers. So much so, that teams running cars may be ‘leant’ the services of a manufacturers prized, highly paid, contracted driver to assist in their efforts to win races. For the manufacturers, they can take a hands off approach from the day to day running of a race team but also reap the marketing benefit of their latest supercar winning races at iconic venues like Spa or Bathurst. Also, a tasty margin will no doubt be taken on the sale of these half million euro machines.
So, what does this have to do with global production bike racing? A common GT3 global rulebook, has proven that grid numbers can be significantly boosted by ambitious local, one off entries, supplementing the existing, full season entrants. World Superbike racing, running from a common rulebook in line with the BSB rules, could also profit from wildcard entrants from domestic series who would be granted the ability to enter a bike that could be competitive. Picture it, on their annual visit to Donnington Park, the WSBK regulars being challenged by BSB hopefuls, desperate to make their name, on closely matched bikes.
GT3 cars have also proven to have exceptional residual values when they are sold on from a team at the end of a programme, due to the fact that there is such vast availability of competition around the world for GT3 machines. If superbikes were to run from a globally unified rulebook, this would undoubtedly help teams wishing to sell their existing bikes for a stronger price with the benefit of a global market rather than being limited to within their own paddock or a private collector.
Commercially, heading towards more of a customer racing model with superbikes, may be very attractive indeed to a motorcycle manufacturer. For manufacturers to sell racing superbikes to the global market and profit from the marketing activation of their bikes competing at the highest level around the world, without having to co-ordinate an official programme, may be an easier sell than once thought. If a cost effective rulebook would be implemented, emulating BSB, independent teams could run bikes in WSBK with some manufacturer technical support and manufacturer works riders provided to ride the bikes to their maximum potential.
Although this may appear to be quite a radical solution to step backwards from the sophisticated machines we see in WSBK but it may be just what is required to safeguard the future of superbike racing as we know it today.