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.
Our timing – eventually - was surprisingly good. The old racers’ Highland bike trip had been planned before the C-word virus came along to cast doubt on any of us even getting out of our houses before 2021 came around. As weeks then months on the calendar got crossed off, as the lockdowns endured, as the prospect of hotels and restaurants not being opened at all in the now relatively cautious Covid-clattered Scotland, the stars and public health officials all got into alignment just before an annual bike outing that is a highlight of each summer.
It was even nice weather right up there when the rest of the UK was drowning. Fortune favours the… Bravehearts?
Long story short, my old Caledonian mate from my ‘racing’ days, Iain Macpherson and I used to go on an annual bike trip ‘Up North’, in the wilds and wonders of Scotland. Then Iain expanded the adventure to include many of the old Scottish - and then other UK - racers that dominated the scenes in the 1980s and 1990s… plus tuners, mechanics and simply pals-of-pals, at times. And, as I had been there all along, me too - bimbling along as an oversized mascot, pathfinder, organiser and enthusiastic road rider who occasionally used to head north even on a 125cc bike as a learner rider, way back when. It's my manor, as the London contingent would say.
Riding with racers
Even a relative duffer like me has his uses at times, and it is as much of a joy as you can imagine for journo me to be riding on the best roads in Northern Europe, especially with an eclectic bunch of greying desperados. Listening to the reminiscences and future plans of local racing legends, all intent on having a good time both on and off their Multistradas, Beemers and KTMs, is priceless.
(And this year there was even a Bonneville with too small a petrol tank for the more remote parts of the Western Highlands, but the less said about that the better. Well, let’s just confirm that after 27 finely balanced miles and one sacrificial tie-down strap found in the bowels of a BMW top box, the concept of ‘getting a tow’ from a team-mate is not confined to the racetrack for these ex-racers anymore).
Sitting in a bar/restaurant/gas station or café just listening to their insights into racing is often fascinating. No mere pub banter either, given their pedigrees.
Capturing the imagination
Several years ago, when Marc Marquez first came on the MotoGP scene with a whole new way of riding to win way over the limit, the late afternoon coffee stop before the hotel check-in on the Isle of Skye suddenly became enthusiastically animated. Even in the frankly bizarre setting of a rural café/dress hire and alterations shop, run by a lady who owned a Ducati herself, the first mention of the name ‘Marquez’ had some GP podium finishers, WorldSBK achievers, big time roadracing winners and British Champions up on the edge of their seats, babbling and grinning about the exploits of the new great one. Logically, compared to the ordinary fans at home, they had a much more analytical and insightful viewpoint because they literally used to do this sort of thing for a living.
WorldSBK has been the subject of some coffee discussion in the past, as it was again with some of them this year. The many reasons for why WorldSBK is not seen as favourably as it once was have been the subject of more than occasional discussion by your scribe here before, too.
Some of those who used to do entire championships in a van, with their own bikes and locals sponsors in the back, or as wild cards with bikes almost as good as the factory boys from their BSB contracts, bemoan the fact that you cannot do it that way any more. Their ‘answer’ is and was to go back to the grass roots, to less complicated bikes, etc. That cannot really be done anymore, for many reasons, but ironically the accessibility to - basically - the same bikes the factory guys have in 2020 is actually more open, regulated and cost-capped than it was in almost every previous era in WorldSBK.
Why they race
Fewer electronics needed, was a complaint you could hear at the post-ride dinner table too. But, once you realise (from inside the viewpoint of the modern day paddock at least) that relatively free electronics are one of the reasons the factories still support WorldSBK in the absence of big name global sponsors, this argument is another that time and modern day realities have probably passed by.
(The suspension adjustment by button and ECUs stuffed full of rider aids gracing the most modern bikes in the car park outside our hotel prove that electronics are here to stay for all riders. In fact, it is one of the genuinely few areas where there is endless scope for advancement in racing, given that chassis and engine design is still basically the same as when WorldSBK and MotoGP settled on alloy beam frame and big four-stroke engine uniformity. Unless you are Italian, of course).
On roadbike race bikes ‘aero’ is of course limited, as is should be. So no great leaps forward for WorldSBK there.
According to a very loose straw poll with these one-time top riders, most of whom made their bones on production bikes not pure bred race machinery, remember, how does Superbike become the utterly engaging, multi-competitive rolling warfare that once put MotoGP in the shade. In terms of sheer entertainment, at least. This is, after all, the series that used to burst Brands Hatch at the seams, pretty much fill Laguna Seca and other venues, and make the whole racing world sit up and take notice, even those who didn’t want to?
What would the former racers like to see?
- A right good public rivalry between top riders.
- Real characters.
- Talking points beyond the 20-laps.
Now, all that is entirely possible, because race series can change their reputations, of course. When 500GPs and then MotoGP got all corporate, tamed and businesslike, riders became encouraged to tow party lines, not upset the sponsors and so on. Flare-ups would of course happen, but there were lots of people around running about putting out those fires, not fanning them.
In WorldSBK, as it became more organised, professional and simply a more viable (if smaller) long-term rival to MotoGP exiting the 1980s, these fiery exchanges and rivalries were positively encouraged. The early years of WorldSBK, right through to the turn of the Millennium and onward, were characterised by not just competitors so wilful and mouthy that they actually almost ensured they would not get berths in the more perfumed PR garden of the GP paddock. Some of them even had a real enmity at times, and they were not afraid to say so.
And that was just fine with Sky TV, the media companies, the organisers, the manufacturers (within limits) and for sure with the fans.
Enemies, not frenemies
The paddock was stuffed with outspoken and very human characters, not scared to be caught letting their hair down or firing verbal barbs around in public. Pissing in each others’ crash helmets, calling their pet pigs after their rivals, and never missing a chance to twist the verbal knife in pitlane just as hard as a real-world pass on the final lap at some often lairy and downright hairy racetrack GP racing had often shied away from… It was all a bit louche and scandalous.
Who could not pick a favourite rider, or a villain or two, before they had even tuned in or rode to a race on their own race replica?
Add in wildcards in every major country, some who regularly upset the established order in the most disrespectful and entertaining of ways, and you almost expected to see unscripted Mad Max scenes played out in brightly coloured attire in WorldSBK.
Even when Michelin really got around to dominating the planet vulcanisation, we still had classic rider fights like Edwards v Bayliss, or even finally Hodgson v Xaus, neither of whom were sparing of a sting in their media comments, despite being Fila Ducati team-mates.
Yes, whatever may or may not have been lost from the glister of WorldSBK in recent times, what can come back any time is riders getting knee deep in public rivalry, allowing grudges and personality clashes to fester and suppurate, then start to seep back into the on-track action.
Of course, racers always really want to win, and some will always be better than others irrespective of their personal rivalries, but for the fans there has to be as much off track interest as on, even if they are now stuck in their armchairs at home.
This is especially important for the Supers mob when MotoGP has clearly become wide open to real characters again. Edwards was a breath of tornado-strength fresh air in MotoGP, and he had been a ‘Superbike guy’ right down to his brace of world championship Sheriff’s badges and his Stetson hat. Before him, Scott Russell, Anthony Gobert, others, were not really accepted in the perfumed garden, whatever their other abilities or liabilities. Edwards was a pathfinder, in a way, and got to stay in.
Arguably Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller would not have got anywhere near long term full-on MotoGP rides a couple of decades ago, but now they are more popular than their already impressive results, simply because they have retained much of their own distinct character and ability to quip as they go quick.
Think about the biggest stories of even just the Rossi era in MotoGP and we can remember the post race stunts, the remarkable wins, but it is also about serious fallouts. Rossi v Biaggi. Rossi v Gibernau. Rossi v Marquez. Didn’t go so well for Rossi that last one, but people still bring it up again and again. However compelling the racing, everybody likes a good verbal scrap in pitlane, print or digital media.
A bit of aggro
But what of WorldSBK of late? That former unique selling point has been lost too often. Jonathan Rea has dominated for so long in WorldSBK – not his ‘fault’ that he’s simply the best ever – that some people have been turned off, like they were when Doohan became the final great one of the two-stroke era.
But think of the highlights of the past few WorldSBK years? Those first few immediate memories? It’s fall outs.
Chaz Davies and JR clashing then getting all verbalist on camera in the Superpole pitlane at Assen, maybe? Sykes and Loris Baz having a terminal fall out after Baz and his own team-mate clashed at Sepang. Sykes and Rea colliding at Brno.
Last year, we had a truly bizarre season, with Alvaro Bautista and Ducati’s combined fall from an early pinnacle so high not even Rea and KRT could reach it. Until they did. Ducati and Alvaro somehow managed to implode and allow the never-give-up elements inside the green tents to ensure Rea won another record-breaking world championship in succession.
Toe-to-toe races between the two really big guns in 2019 were not common. But if the entire production-derived season-long psychodrama did not grab your attention then maybe motorbike racing, of any kind, is not for you. The crazy, compelling 2019 swing in fortunes made WorldSBK a focus of attention again, because it was so unexpected and dramatic.
The general consensus of the experienced former racers on the Up North bike run was that we need not only more on track competition in WorldSBK, but more characters, more rivalries, more bust-ups and dramas of all kinds. We do get them, as we have seen, but we also need to make the most of them. Regain a reputation for them.
What it needs right now is exactly what is seemingly brewing inside the paddock already, as the remains of our never-gonna-feel-normal ‘New Normal’ season begins again real soon.
Wind of change
We are firmly in the era of level rules, have five well equipped and major name manufacturers (now fighting the effects of Covid-19 as well as each other, of course) and we have had several disruptions in the established order of bike and rider line-ups for 2020.
We did manage one opening round in the current season, long ago of course. Phillip Island often delivers astounding action but we got three doses of teeth-rattling stuff that were an early tincture we hope to see swigged on greedily again – whoever the main actors are on any weekend – at the next intense run of overheated races all through Iberia then into France.
By Magny-Cours we can hope that the combination of the old guard - some fighting for their factory lives and careers - the old fashioned WorldSBK-shaped character of long-time MotoGP rider (but WorldSBK rookie) Scott Redding, the new internal Lowes challenge for Rea to take on inside Kawasaki – HRC truly back in too, remember - and the sheer expansive riding approach of new Yamaha man Toprak Razgatlioglu will combine to make each weekend a dramatic series of televised temper tantrums for the fans back home. Ideally, both on track and off.
In other words, anyone for afters?
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