Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: New Lamps And Old Flames

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.

Assuming we really do have a full 13 round WorldSBK Championship in 2021 (and we all know what assumption is the mother of, don’t we?) then we will be starting new racetrack romances and rekindling old paddock flames from now until we arrive in the tropical idyll of an Indonesian Island racetrack, just in time to get some global Christmas shopping in. Well, mid-November, in reality.

Maybe my memory is misfiring but that seems very late for WorldSBK to park the Covid testing bus for a well-earned rest. But if we get all 13 rounds in without any changes from now until then, we will not be doing just well, we will be doing better than MotoGP, as they are having to change as they go, it appears.

Our principal 2021 changes since the last WorldSBK calendar released on 29 April have been more related to new and returning circuits, when we compare 2021 to the weirdest season of all time last year.

The thrill of the new

Personally speaking, I love to visit a new track that I have never quite been able to get to before. Maybe that down to some inner need to look for the fresh and new after over 20 seasons of chasing bike race meetings across the globe. Only an anecdotal self-observation, but for sure I seem to get more excited about circuits in general, and new circuits in particular, than most people.

I have seen a few all-new ones in my time, especially as WorldSBK has recently broken-in the likes of Chang in Thailand for MotoGP (Portimao also, which was WorldSBK only right up until last year). We’ve also raced for the first time on an old MotoGP stalwart like Catalunya. Or found new ones of WorldSBK’s very own. Through necessity or otherwise, WorldSBK will have gone through three new tracks at this level of racing by the time we finish this year.

The reason I bring this up is that after we go to Assen, we then to Autodrom Most, which will be an all-new WorldSBK venue in the Czech Republic, although not a new track per se. Then it will be Circuito de Navarra, in north Eastern Spain, which again is a new track for WorldSBK, but been around as race asphalt for ten years, they tell us. Even the Argentinian San Juan event, if it goes ahead in October, is relatively new, and WorldSBK’s very own one (occasionally troubled but otherwise magnificent in its design) in South America. It is not Termas de Rio Hondo, like MotoGP uses. Controversies of its own notwithstanding, some say that is a good thing. Some don’t.

Last up this year will be the new and fully short circuit compliant road circuit, Mandalika International Street Circuit. The clue is in the name, I guess? Now that really will be all new this year, the latest track-cum-nation-building exercise modelling in asphalt that follows loads of big investment to generate or regenerate local economies. Or such is the overall idea.

Happy returns

Whatever these places turn out to be like for real, for WorldSBK the excitement of going to a new track adds a frisson to proceedings. And in a mini-me version of that idea, due to the restrictions of Covid in 2020, we will actually have a little extra special sauce spaffed over the returnee WorldSBK weekends this year too.

We missed too many good venues last year, but some are prodigal funs in 2021.

I mentioned Assen earlier, but even before we get there we have already gone back to close-reading two old love letters to the gods of speed, Misano and Donington.

We got to Aragon (twice) and what was a new/old WorldSBK track at Estoril last season, so the 2021 races there were very nice, fine, especially welcome after such a long enforced winter break, for Rounds One and Two.

But going back to Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli and then ‘where-all-this-WorldSBK-malarkey-first-started-in-1988’ venue Donington Park were just magical weekend experiences.

Not going to Italy for the best part of two years was like a pain in the soul for WorldSBK, a championship that spent the biggest (and occasionally best) part of its lifespan wrapped in the warm embrace and cultural influence of its Italian rights owners, the Flammini Group. And then Octagon, which was similarly headed up and sorted out on the ground at least via Italy and Italians.

Sun, sea, and speed

Misano may not have the grandeur and royal connects of a Monza speedbowl, the sheer Parkland intensity of Imola, or the impossibly scenic and unchanging aspects of Mugello, but it makes up for it with a seaside warmth and unmistakeable Italian spirit, right by the seaside. In the overheated cauldron of the stadium style circuit, it is hardly a holiday race for the workers and racers, but it is also a keenly anticipated holiday race after hours, one it is usually worth getting to early or staying behind late to enjoy. Nearby beaches, slick tyres and sun cream, a great combination.

Donington, no offence to a perfectly nice part of the world, is not exactly giving the Italian one a run for its money in terms of its location, cuisine or weather conditions in any given season. But going back to WorldSBK’s literal on-track birthplace, with half the competitive field being British in the biggest production class of all, was just as satisfying (maybe) as going back to Misano.

Even the England football team were doing well in a major competition centred on Wembley for the most part. Their win over somebody-or-other on Saturday night added a bit of atmosphere to the Donington race weekend. Hard to not realise there was a big game on - as well as the racing earlier in the day - when the doors to the temporary Media Centre (located just down the corridor from the big paddock cafe full of Engerrrrlund fitba’ fans in WorldSBK T-shirts) were nearly bloody blown off when the three lions scored an early goal.

Such weirdnesses make a collective memory that extends beyond the race results, even on a weekend of momentous results, as Toprak Razgatlioglu took an unexpected championship lead on a bike that was not 25kmph faster than Jonathan Rea’s latest Kawasaki, nor a homologation special priced near 40,000 Euros.

One of the many reasons why tracks are - no, that’s not quite right - why tracks feel so important to the likes of me and hopefully you is that they are inextricably linked to personal and collective memory. The more awesome the track layout/location/atmosphere the more awesome the overall experience. The more memorable the memories.

Using an extreme example to try and prove the point, if the Isle of Man hosted a short circuit TT, built a modern and geometrically correct, fully sanitised circuit out near Jurby, would it be the draw it is and has been for well over a century? Despite its obvious and oft-discussed dangers?

The Cathedral

Well, we go to another type of TT soon, the TT circuit Assen. Now I am one of those people, like a few generations older than me, who bitched and moaned when they cut, trimmed and shaved some significant parts off the Assen layout. Losing the old North Loop (the main part of what was once a capital ‘Q’ shaped circuit, pretty much like Brands Hatch if you only observed it in a plan view TBH) was too much. They were gonna wreck Assen completely.

Of course, I was right, and also completely wrong. The track was definitely even more awesome and atmospheric with the North Loop as I remember it, but the new squiggle and twiddle first section aside, and despite so many other changes before and since, Assen is still Assen. Still feels and looks and rides like Assen. The old banked corners remain exactly as they were in a very few places but still you hear the modern riders waxing lyrical about slipstreaming in curves, not just straights, and the sudden arrival in front of the uplifted wall of humanity floating above and behind the sometimes career-defining Geert Timmer final chicane.

They have been hacking around with Assen, modernising it, defanging it, to meet the needs of new racing eras since long before an old git like me was even born. Which is one of the reasons it is still on both MotoGP and WorldSBK early roll calls in any season. Evolve or perish.

But, despite all that changing it has never quite lost itself; its feel, character and atmosphere. And note this paradox well. Assen is as flat as a stroopwafel, when arguably most really great tracks are undulating, following the folds of mother nature’s swaddling clothes as they lie, not mere zero incline slaves to the CAD computer’s yes/no logic gates on a bit of old field.

Unmistakably, the return to Assen is such a happy event for so many, especially the bike crazy Dutchies. Especially after no WorldSBK race in 2020. And even after the big-time Assen TT weekend has not long gone.

Holy ground

Is Assen really the Cathedral of motorcycle racing? Why, yes. Secularly holy, a place to come and commune with your tribe, with the track itself part of the attraction, not only the racing.

As I mentioned earlier, I love great tracks as much as any other aspect of racing. But I am a realist, and some magic venues in WorldSBK’s history are never coming back, so far are they removed from any acceptable modern safety standards. Those 1000cc bikes are not getting any slower over time, so the walls and other impediments need to move back as time moves on. If not… it’s an ex-WorldSBK venue.

I, like many, have never been to see the upcoming new tarmac boys and girls of Most and Navarra, but we are going to race for real at both this year. And Mandalika is so new nobody’s been there at all. I have to and want to hold my opinion of those new WorldSBK places until I’ve been there and we’ve raced there, not just had some teams test, and some of the midfield and local runners remembering it from their domestic championship days.

But I can tell you, I cannot be the only one who gets a little bit tingly at the prospect of going to Assen for the first time in two years, or Most and Navarra for the first time at all, and not just because we have what is shaping up to be a right royal season-long smackdown between the WorldSBK GOAT and the prime protege of the WorldSSP GOAT (Kenan Sofuoglu, who mentors all the top Turkish riders. Taken together it has all the hallmarks of a government-approved motorsport strategy, one that those who slagged off Razgatlioglu for not taking the supposedly offered Yamaha seat in MotoGP very soon may not be quite taking into account. Or maybe not.).

After the rest of the known WorldSBK venues in the season have followed Most and Navarra, we may well end up with the only race that could rival Misano as a holiday race right at the end. A week - maybe two - in balmy Indonesia, in November, when Europe is cooling down and getting miserably grey overhead? Another few reasons to get excited about yet another new WorldSBK track, even with all the uncertainty that is ruling our world still.

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