Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: Perception Is Reality?

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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Total votes: 19
Total votes: 27

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Comments

Better perception? More like better projection. The bikes go round the track very fast 20 odd times a race, just like MotoGP. Riders crash, swap paint, throw tantrums, survive humongous tumbles, win and lose just like MotoGP. The bikes look gorgeously unaffordable, just like MotoGP. So why is MotoGP so much bigger? Mostly, in my humble opinion, because it’s marketed better. It helps that it has had a run of top riders with telegenic personalities and egos the size of an airbus, but there have been a good few of those in WSBK too and it’s the marketing that turns this into bums on seats and sofas.

Having said all that, JR winning so often does make it less interesting. If for for some reason you miss a race you kind of know what probably happened, but hey ho, that’ll pass sooner or later.

 

Total votes: 17

Any advertising exectutive will tell you that perception is far more important than reality, and they'd probably (sadly) be correct.

There's two things that frustrate me about WSBK, but neither will stop me from watching it. The fact that I'm commenting on this article on David's fantastic web site tells you I'm not the kind of fan Dorna needs to worry about.

First: Jonny Rea is just far too good for WSBK, and it's Dorna's mistake not to have somehow forced him into MotoGP years ago. The one person you cannot blame for this is Jonny Rea.

Second: MotoGP is a series to find how good it's possible to make a motorbike. WSBK should (in my opinion) be about how good it is to make a motorbike that you or I can go out and buy. It's getting better, but it still doesn't feel like that yet. MotoGP should, and is, the unobtainable space-age glamourous product, wheras WSBK should be for you and me. Right now it's too professional, spends too much money, and I can't really identify with any of the riders, who are all now finely-toned athletes with personalities to match. That series already exists, it's called MotoGP.

Total votes: 14

WorldSBK is suffering from domination from one rider. Just like Doohan back in the late 90s.

Looking at MotoGP you could say that Marquez is dominating too, but it is the nature of the domination that makes it different. Marquez is battling to the end of each race before sneaking a win, making it worthwhile to watch the whole race unfold, never really 100% sure if Marque will pull it off.

Rea has already won the race by lap 3 which makes the next 20 laps pointless to watch as all the tension has been lost. Going back to the battle for 3rd or 4th just isn't as exciting, no matter how good a battle it is, because it isn't for the win.

Total votes: 8

I agree the series isn't marketed well enough. Plus that JR is so much better than anybody on the grid, takes something out of the fan experience. I am thrilled that WSK added Laguna Seca, though. I'll be attending there for the first time since 2012 MotoGP. Here in the States, we have American Flat Track on the rise, while MotoAmerica Superbike is barely hanging on. Maybe all three series can help eachother.

The old Indy MotoGP was much maligned by purists, but that was a truly great trackside fan experience, not only because of the layout with its grassy viewing mounds, but because we also had the night time Indy Mile flat track race right in the middle of MotoGP weekend. And the dirt track was a short drive to the other side of town. It was the greatest motorcycle racing event I've ever been to. I'd like to see that weekend come back.

MotoAmerica, American Flat Track and World Superbike should combine for one weekend in Indianapolis. We would get to see all three championships in the same city on the same weekend. They should post a big purse for each event along the lines of Pro Golf or Tennis. The venue is well equipped to host a big show and television should be a big part of it. I think they would get large fan participation and inject something special into all three series. Maybe even from social media. 

I attended the 2005 MotoGP at Laguna Seca. It had been more than a decade since the series had visited Laguna. The day it was announced, I bought tickets for my entire famil and rented B&B rooms for them in Carmel. I knew once the word got out that 2005 MotoGP weekend would be slammed... And it was! I think the Indy weekend described above could be something like that.

Total votes: 15

I've been an advid WSB fan from the beginning. Since Dorna took over and especially the last few seasons it's hard to watch. I remember when WSB rivaled and even bettered GP in my opinion when Fogerty, Chili, Haga and company were going at it.

In WSB the motorcycles themselves were stars as well as the teams and riders. The entirety of the series was special. Now the message is, hey there is nothing special here. You can have this exact bike and with 200 hp stock motorcycles in the show room, they aren't lying.

So if the bikes, teams or series aren't anything special we are left with the personalities. Nice chaps all but there is no outward passion. Ben Spies vs Mladin. Foggy vs the world. All this, we'll get em next race isn't bringing in new fans it's losing current ones like me. And for those that say, bye Falicia, I'm already finding things to do. I love the sport by its my time and money. Hopefully they figure out the right balance. 

 

Total votes: 4

I think it comes down to a few basic things:

  • As good as WSBK may be right now, MotoGP is in a golden age. I've heard time and time again that the racing has never been closer or better in MotoGP. Can the same be said about WSBK?
  • Ultimately MotoGP is the highest level of motorcycle racing. So it's going to generate the highest level of interest, regardless of how good or bad it is. Look at how many people, for whatever reason, still watch F1.... when you can see better racing at a local club Miata amateur race.
  • MotoGP has some outsize characters that don't take long to get invested in. Can the same be said of WSBK?
  • Johnathan Rea.
  • People only have so much bandwidth. Some people can spend a whole Sunday watching racing, but I can't.

Ultimately I think WSBK's heyday occurred when the racing was much better than MotoGP. Until then I think it will always play second fiddle. Dorna needs to work the same magic it did on MotoGP

Total votes: 6

I pretty much agree with the above, but need to point out that the biggest bummer for me this past season was not JR's total dominance.   It was the two month hole in the middle of the season!   here's the marketing problem -- sell the WSBK series to all those tracks around the world that are begging for action.   Break out of the mostly Europe mentality.  Realize that there is a limit to how many races a highest level rider/team combo can run in 12 months.  

There is another hole this season.  Dorna's lack of filling this hole is the major black eye to the whole series.  The rest hardly matters.

Total votes: 8

Mr. Ritchie,

Words do not express how elated I am that you & David have reached agreement to bring your thoughts here on a regular basis.  Very much looking forward to your views in the coming months.

Total votes: 3

I think one part of WSBK's problem is the fact that it's owned by Dorna.  It's a bit of an "elephant in the room", really - that often seems to go unmentioned in articles like this.  Dorna certainly wants WSBK to be successful....but they're never going to want it to be too successful..

Ownership that didn't have a stake in MotoGP, like it was back in WSBK's heyday with the Flamminis, would have more incentive to grow the series however they saw fit, regardless of any possible "consequences".  They wouldn't have to play this game of trying to make sure WSBK doesn't do anything to harm their "premiere" property.  (A game I believe Dorna indeed plays.)  They could do as they please with efforts to lure sponsors, teams, riders, etc. away from MotoGP.  They'd be more than happy to see their superbikes turning laps as fast as MotoGP bikes.  And so on.

I think in Dorna’s hands, WSBK has always been (and will always be) the red-headed step child.  And whatever their other efforts, that will hinder it's success.

Total votes: 3

The WSB heyday from the mid 90's to the early 00's was caused by a few factors.

1) 500 GP in a slump. Doohan's dominence, Honda clearly the best bike, no compelling rivalries. Doohan was not the most exciting personality either. 2-stroke bikes that many casual fans couldn't relate to or didn't like. Lots of reasons to look to another series for good racing action.

2) Huge factory involvement in WSB, and very cool and trick bikes. 

3) Incredible riders, rivalries and personalities. Foggy, Slight, Gobert, Edwards, Koscinski, Haga, Bostrom, Bayliss, Hodgson...the list goes on.

4) The wildcard riders from the national series. At least for the US, British and Japanese rounds this added a lot of excitment and interest. I was at Laguna Seca in 98 and 99, the atmosphere was absolutely electric.

5) Great on-track action. The two races at Imola in 2002 are still probably the best I've ever seen.

None of this is true nowadays. MotoGP is incredible, factory involvement in WSB is limited, the bikes have very little to make them obviously special, the riders (with the exception of Rea) don't generate any buzz, the national series are irrelevant and the racing itself isn't that great. 

It also used to be that there was some space in the calendar, but with MotoGP now racing 53 weekends a year it's tough for WSB to get any mind share.

It pains me to say it, but I could see WSB just fading away in a few years.

Total votes: 4

Those nine riders you mentioned made for very memorable racing. Even today many of us reflect back on those incredible days with wonderful machines and thier colorful riders. Today it is hard to recall much about last season!

You voted 4. Total votes: 2

The sad thing is that there's truth in all of the above comments. WSBK had a fantastic period that many us were lucky enough to see. But then again, the same is now true for motogp so perhaps we should just be grateful for 20 odd years where there has always been at least one edge of your seat series.

Happy Christmas all!

Total votes: 4

Whilst many things in motorsport are Kafkaeske, none perhaps bends one's perception as WSBK's stick on headlights. Yes, yes, yes...inconcequention overall, however it's a race bike, with race fairings.

Stick on lights are what we call a 'chocolate teapot'. I would have loved to have been a fly in the wall when the esteemed people had that meeting; "WSBK? we need stick on headlights". 

I jest.

Total votes: 1

A few years back, the local motorcycle magazine here in Australia ran an end of season comparison. Both the Yamaha R6 Supersport and R1 Superbikes were shown.

The R6 was clearly a roadbike converted to a racebike. It looked like I could go to my dealer, buy a crate bike and some race kits and go racing...and have a chance at success. As demonstrated by Ant West over the last two years.

The R1 was clearly a prototype. Argue the semantics, but it looked like a MotoGP bike...as do every Ducati Corse bike, and as is the Kawasaki GP Team spending it's retirement in the WSBK paddock. But this level of prototyping is only needed due to 1000cc, +240hp bikes and most importantly, >80ft.lb torque at the rear tyre. Those with the cash can make the tyre last to the finish line...perhaps causing less entertaining racing in the preceeding laps.

WSBK 'lost' it when it tried to supplant MotoGP. WSBK needed to keep it's 'mongrel' element. It needs to find it again.

Total votes: 1