Gordon Ritchie has covered World Superbikes for over a quarter of a century, and is widely regarded as the world's leading journalist on the series. MotoMatters.com is delighted to be hosting a monthly blog by Ritchie. The full blog will be available each month for MotoMatters.com subscribers. We are making the first in this series available as a taste of what is to come.
Perception Is Reality?
In the ever-whacky race series that is WorldSBK, watching it all from up close for over two decades allows a very different perspective from those who comment on it from afar.
Whether that remote viewpoint comes from all along MotoGP's ivory watchtower, or the ramparts of lower altitude national series', the view of WorldSBK through foreign field glasses shows a perennially distorted and often negative image.
But closer inspection always allows a greater level of clarity.
Simply put, what those outside 'the scene' believe are the few assets and multiple liabilities of WorldSBK are frequently different from the realities that make up the other World Championship.
Now that social media posts often determine what is 'true', simply by having more people agreeing with this belief rather than that opinion, you don't need to examine things too closely in our post-truth age, do you?
Whatever people's opinions of current era WorldSBK, or how they came about them, we have to go along with the old saying that perception is reality. It is a perfect phrase to illustrate some of the reasons why the WorldSBK Championship is going through a tough time in one hand, even though it is also holding a lot of strong playing cards in the other.
You can also argue convincingly that modern era maestro Jonathan Rea winning his latest championship in quite peerless fashion is everything that is good and bad about the championship right now.
Good in that Rea and co. are doing a near perfect job, like none have done before in some regards. It is living history, nothing less.
Bad in that few others can match him or his package in these cash-strapped days for SBK, so not difficult to predict who wins most of all.
But remember, take away Rea from the whole equation and we would have had four recent championship fights that would have gone to the wire each year, without any kind of shoot-out. Pair up the best and most versatile rider with the last Japanese factory team standing, however, and you get records broken and one metronomic winner.
So all WorldSBK races are boring, right? And the other teams have no chance?
Anybody who says this about WorldSBK did not go to Donington this year to see VDM score a double, and to watch Razgatlioglu get a first podium. Or go to Assen to see Sykes break into Rea's private Dutch trophy cabinet. Or watch any WorldSBK race at PI in living memory.
Or see Alex Lowes score a first ever win at this level at Brno. Also at the same event, you could watch Rea and Sykes clash then crash, leading to an internecine mouth-off that was a boxing promoter's wet dream.
Even watching Rea do his winning thing is awesome in its own context.
WorldSBK has itself to blame for some of its real problems, but its main issue is the negative perception of those outside. Some are even getting increasingly tribal and isolated within their own chosen favourite categories. Social media can do that to people.
Maybe the biggest thing that some people are missing from their external field of vision is the realisation that the fewer changes all the manufacturers are allowed to make to their road bikes in WorldSBK, the greater the advantage the better teams and riders are able to take from what's left.
People outside WorldSBK hate even the idea of that. Some inside even now don't seem to quite get it - or want to admit to it – because they have been screaming for greater cost caps and parity of parts with the gradually dwindling number of factory teams, season-after-season. It's a 'Give me what those guys have got and I will show them…' kind of attitude.
Not been working out for many of them, has it?
In the relatively recent past the quiet 'performance equalisation' philosophy in Superbike meant allowing extra tuning, split throttles, extra trick bits - if only after proving each manufacturer or team really did need more oomph to keep up to podium muster. The rules reacted to realities on the production-derived ground.
Now the opposite has happened. Cost-capped parts abound, limited testing, limited tuning, concession parts, allowable parts lower revs, less peak power to chase for are all recent innovations. Limits, borders - less will provide more. Top race results were almost guaranteed to all via a strict rulebook and lots of science at the front end.
Stats show it's not working at the very top, not with Rea and Kawasaki being pretty near perfect in approach and execution at least.
You can even make a good case that recent rules like rev limits have been brought in to actively disadvantage Rea, but all that approach has done is allow Rea – and only Rea – to eventually overcome them and then dominate more than ever… Whatever your opinion, results don't lie.
And yet still people outside WorldSBK say that the bikes are too much like prototypes, too expensive, it can all be fixed if they get further away from 'MotoGP' technology.
Most manufacturers bar Kawasaki may be obsessed with their MotoGP endeavours, but look behind the Twittersphere follower numbers and Hollywood scale of MotoGP and you will find the WorldSBK still offers much to manufacturers. The competing brands are actually highly focused on a solid WorldSBK future. But the perception is that WorldSBK has been at death's door for years.
WorldSBK's detractors can tweet, twit and even twat all they like, but the awesome new Ducati V4R factory bikes and Bautista are a marked re-investment for the main factory with serious MotoGP and WorldSBK credentials. What about the new Japanese Honda/Moriwaki/Althea team, as they try to make the Fireblade a global force from the top down again? Or consider Kawasaki, again with a slightly new bike, plus a recent BSB champ to bolster their existing world champ's efforts. How about a returning full factory BMW squad, with a proper new bike - and 2013 champion Sykes too? Yamaha also has four factory bikes in 2019, not two, now that they know that they can at least win races once again.
It's far from as dire as many think it is.
There are of course real perils, both internal and external for WorldSBK to face in 2019 and beyond, but the basics are in much smarter nick than many from the outside imagine.
WorldSBK's reality just needs a better perception.
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