Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: The Past Is A Foreign Country…

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. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.

Can you complete the second half of the famous quote that forms the headline? I confess I had to look it up to make sure of the correct wording. It was L.P. Hartley’s book ‘The Go-Between’ that delivered its much-quoted opening line “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” into the language.

With still no racing in WorldSBK since the opener in Australia in February/March, and no more absolutely guaranteed for some time yet, everybody and their media outlets are looking into the past for their WorldSBK source material now. We gotta watch and read something.

May as well join the nostalgia fest here, but with the past being a foreign country and all, it may need a degree of translation when comparing early WorldSBK feats to the 2020 versions. Everything and everybody has a past, even if WorldSBK - now in its 33rd year - is decades younger than GP racing.

Maybe WorldSBK is old enough to justify some unashamed nostalgia, given that - after exhausting the last of the source material from the stunning opening round this year - I have been writing about nothing but the past for magazines, websites and other clients recently.

Cold, hard gaze needed

All the looking back at the so-called glory days of WorldSBK we are indulging in now needs to be done from a clear and truthful perspective, however. A clean interpretation and accurate translation of WorldSBK’s past, its own ‘foreign country’ culture and legends, is needed to understand the similarities or differences between then and now.

Not surprisingly, the legend that is Foggy and the awesome Edwards/Bayliss duel in 2002 have been popular and recurring subjects for nostalgia features. There is a lot more to the early days of WorldSBK than those guys of course, and even Foggy and his shark-nosed 916 Ducati was a relative Johnny-come-lately World Champion compared to the early greats like Fred Merkel, Raymond Roche and Doug Polen.

Those really early years in WorldSBK were both oversubscribed in their number of participants yet perilously unstable in terms of the business side of things.

Packed grids – blessing or curse?

Now the ‘business side of things’ determines everything about the relatively small grid sizes in 2020. Nowadays WorldSBK aims to get just a few permanent entries over the psychological minimum of 20. In the early years, at some rounds in particular, qualifying had to be run in two groups, with even the first few rounds featuring vast numbers of would-be competitors.

At the first ever meeting, in the UK in 1988, fully 43 riders tried to qualify. A massive 63 tried for a grid slot for round two in Hungary. It was 59 in Germany and 54 in Austria. ‘Only’ 40 in Japan. A lowly 25 in Australia and 20 in New Zealand was due to distant travel/costs at the end of the year.

In season two of WorldSBK, Donington’s opening round fielded 54 riders in qualifying - but the 77 aiming to start in Hungary for round two was simply a mind-blowing array. It was equalled in Germany come September that year too; 77 hopefuls again.

Speak to some riders from that time and they wistfully remember how you could do a full privateer season in a long wheelbase van, still qualify and fight for top tens or even top fives on a good day. If you were one of the best, that is.

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That was 2003, the year after Honda abandoned the VTR-1000 project and Ducati riders proceeded to win every single race that year. It was glorious if you liked the sound of V-twins.