Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race. And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action. When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.
Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed. Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?
If only World Superbikes were racing at Brands again, British fans say. Frankly, I think the fond memories of Brands were colored in large part by the fact that WSBK visited Brands in August, when the chances of a hot, sunny summer day are much better than the Midlands in the middle of May. Good weather is a proven draw for any outdoors sporting event, and motorcycle racing is no different.
But a spot of sunshine and a few degrees of temperature can't explain the massive drop in attendance over the past fifteen years. There has always been a very strong British presence in World Superbikes, and the Brit contingent is now stronger than ever. But still the crowds stay away. The racing is excellent: fans often compare the WSBK races favorably to MotoGP, in terms of close battles and unpredictable winners. So that can't be it either. The bikes are perhaps not as trick as they were ten years ago, the formula simplified in pursuit of cost-cutting. Justifiably so: this is supposed to be production racing, after all, and not prototypes in disguise. The balance is pretty good, though. Five of the series' eight manufacturers got on the podium last year, four of them racking up wins.
Great racing, great riders, home talent to cheer for, and yet the stands are only sparsely filled. BSB, the series where most of the current crop of World Superbike riders came from, races less sophisticated bikes, held its round back in April, when the weather is even less dependable, yet drew twice as many fans to the track as WSBK did. What is their secret? How come BSB is thriving while WSBK is in the doldrums?
2015 Austin Friday MotoGP Round Up: Postponed Sessions, Stray Dogs, and The Final Word On Casey Stoner
The day did not start well. It was not just the high winds and the rain which created problems at the Circuit of the Americas. An absence of track staff – apparently, a lack of medical marshals when the first session of the day was due to start – meant that FP1 for the Moto3 class was delayed by three quarters of an hour. Conditions were pretty miserable once they got underway, but, it turned out, things could be worse. That became apparent when the MotoGP session was red flagged, after a stray dog ran onto the track – that's on the track, not along the side, but actually on it. It took a good fifteen minutes to chase the dog off the track and towards safety, making the old cliché about herding cats seem strangely inappropriate.
By the time practice resumed, the original schedule had gone to hell. The qualifying session for the MotoAmerica Superbike class was rapidly dropped, and the lunch break dispensed with, getting the event quickly back on track.
Despite the weirdness, it turned into a good day. The rain all morning meant the track was at least consistently wet for all three FP1 sessions, as well as FP2 for Moto3. Rainfall stopped towards the end of that practice, with MotoGP starting on a wet track, but the surface drying rapidly, bar a stream of water crossing the back straight. That was a little unsettling, several riders finding themselves in trouble with aquaplaning through it. Overall, though, the consensus was that the track offered pretty reasonable grip in the wet.
It has been a relatively quiet week in the world of motorcycle racing, with much of the focus on preparations for 2015 rather than actual on-track action. The past week has seen riders spending more time on stage than on track, as many teams have presented their 2015 racing programs. This is but the calm before the storm, however: from Saturday, there is another bumper period of world championship action, with MotoGP testing at Qatar from 14th-16th March, Moto2 hitting Jerez from 17th-19th, followed by the second round of World Superbikes at the Chang circuit in Thailand from 20th-22nd.
There have been some bikes from other series circulating in the past week, however. The British BSB series has been testing in Spain, the MXGP championship has raced in Thailand, two weeks ahead of the World Superbike series' first visit to the country, and in the US, Florida is gearing up for the Daytona 200.
A piece of history?
That race will be a rather peculiar affair. When Daytona Motorsports Group lost the contract to run the AMA road racing series, tough negotations began with MotoAmerica, the new sanctioning body for AMA. The DMG overestimated their bargaining position, and MotoAmerica were happy to pass up on the Daytona 200. Once a historic event with a big name line up, the race has slipped gradually into international obscurity and domestic impopularity.
The JR Racing Team appears to be on the verge of collapse. The team, set up with financial backing from the Dominican Republic, ostensibly to promote a circuit to be built on the Caribbean island, was set to run BMW S1000RR bikes in the World Superbike championship, with Ayrton Badovini and Toni Elias as riders. The team had enlisted the support of Troy Corser, and had strong backing from Alpha Racing in Germany and BMW. However, team manager Gemma Voces Pons today issued a press release stating that they have yet to receive "a single cent" from the team owners, Yoselyn Robinson and Manfredi Lombardi.
The FIM today announced the provisional rider line up for the 2015 season. The grid will see up to 26 riders line up for the start, on motorcycles from 7 different manufacturers. The list includes one TBA, in the Pedercini Kawasaki team, which could end up going unfilled. The other question mark is over the JR Racing Team of Toni Elias and Ayrton Badovini. Though the team is on the entry list, persistent reports of financial problems suggest that they will struggle to race at all this year. They will not be present in Australia for the season opener, and suppliers report not having been paid.
The provisional rider line up is as follows:
Though tracks around the world have fallen silent over the winter break, testing is due to resume shortly. From mid-January, the World Superbike teams will resume their preparations for the 2015 season at circuits in Spain and Portugal. Testing starts at Portimao, where the Pata Honda team will be the first to hit the track on 14th January. The team then moves to the Motorland Aragon circuit near Alcañiz, where they will be joined by Kawasaki and Grillini, before the action moves back to Portimao for a test including Ducati, BMW Italian, Suzuki, MV Agusta, Althea Ducati and EBR.
After Portimao, the teams head east to Jerez, where from 26th January the circuit will see Ducati, Red Devils, MV Agusta, BMW Italia, Honda, Suzuki, Althea Ducati and EBR joined by the Kawasaki World Supersport team and Ducati's MotoGP test team. A day later, the Kawasaki World Superbike squad will take to the track. From then, they pack up ready to fly the teams and equipment to the Southern Hemisphere, ready for the start of the season at Phillip Island. Testing for the MotoGP class resumes on 4th February at Sepang.
Full private testing schedule for the World Superbike class, as announced so far:
What is the biggest problem in motorcycle racing today? Is it the predominant role electronics is playing, ruining the racing? Is it the ever more restrictive rules imposed, killing bike development and the spirit of Grand Prix racing? Is it the lack of competitive machinery, making it impossible for anyone but a factory rider to win a race? Or is it the dominance of the two top manufacturers, driving costs up and discouraging wider manufacturer participation?
You can point to all of those and more as being an issue, but they pale in comparison to the real problem the sport of motorcycle racing faces at the moment: Money. Specifically, the lack of it, and the inability of almost everyone involved in the sport to find ways of raising any. All of the ills of both MotoGP and World Superbikes can be traced back to this single failure.
The root of racing's problem is well-known. Once upon a time, when advertising tobacco products on TV and radio was banned, the cigarette companies needed some way of reaching potential customers. Spotting the loophole in the law, they immediately leaped on sports sponsorship as a means to promote their product. They went for sports which were glamorous, exciting, and had an edge of danger, exactly the image they want to project, and came up with motorsports.
Governments around the world saw the loophole they created, and started to close it down. After some clever negotiating by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, motorsports were given an exemption until 2006, at which time all visible promotion of tobacco products in the sport's major markets was completely banned. The good times were over.
As the 2013 World Superbike season ended, the question was how the series, now owned by Dorna, could once more fill the grids. With some races rewarding every finisher with points, while the cheaper Supersport and Superstock championships raced with full grids, it was clear that more seats were needed.
One part of the solution was the new EVO class. Essentially Superbikes with Superstock engines, EVO bikes are much cheaper and, from 2015, will be the standard specification of all bikes, and over a third of the full-time entries in 2014 are EVO bikes, with familiar riders taking some of the seats. Another part of the solution was the addition of several new and returning manufacturers to the series. Alongside Ducati, Aprilia, Honda, BMW, Suzuki and Kawasaki, we now have MV Agusta, Buell and, hopefully, Bimota bringing the number of marques to nine.
Dorna has revealed the pricing for its online video pass for the World Superbike championship. The price for a full season of coverage via the WorldSBK.com website is to cost €69.90, or around US $95. Included in the price is live access to all World Superbike races, as well as the ability to play them on demand after the race is over. There will also be access to a highlights package of each race, and rider interviews and exclusive features. There is also an archive of race and season reviews going back to 1993.
The online package is very similar to the one offered by Dorna for the MotoGP.com website, with suitably revised pricing. Since Dorna was handed the running of the World Superbike series by Bridgepoint, it was only a matter of time before WSBK would also be available via some form of online video streaming. Leveraging both the experience which they had gained in TV rights negotiations and in running the MotoGP.com video streaming platform, Dorna could put the World Superbike races online with relatively limited effort.
The addition of the EVO category to the World Superbike class has had the hoped-for effect on the grid. From a modest entry list of 19 riders last year, the grid is up to a healthy 27 entries for 2014. The number of manufacturers has increased as well, up to 9, with MV Agusta, EBR (Erik Buell's latest venture) and Bimota all taking part, racing this year under the EVO banner. Bimota's entry is still provisional, subject to homologation of the BMW-based BB3 being approved.
The gamble of introducing a cheaper, lower-spec form of racing appears to have paid off, with 12 riders entered in the EVO category. Like the CRT class in MotoGP, the EVO category makes competing cheaper, with tuning restrictions closer to Superstock levels on engines, while chassis regulations remain the same as for the full SBK class entries.
The expansion in the World Superbike class has been partially at the expense of World Supersport, with teams such as Team Toth and Yakhnich using the opportunity to move up to WSBK. The World Supersport field is down to 23 entries, after years of fields of 30+ riders. The list of manufacturers in WSS is shorter, with just Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and MV Agusta represented. The World Superbike and World Supersport entry lists are shown below.
The 2014 World Superbike rider line up:
After rating the top ten finishers in the championship, it is time to turn our gaze to those outside the top ten worthy of note. Here is a view of Colin Edwards and Danilo Petrucci, two riders who both exceeded expectations in 2013.
|Colin Edwards||NGM Mobile Forward Racing|
Colin Edwards was thirty-nine years of age when he lined up on the grid for the first race of 2013, and facing questions over his ability to keep competing. His performance had been slipping since losing his spot in the factory Yamaha team, reaching a low point in his first year with the NGM Forward team on the Suter BMW. Was he perhaps too old? Did he really have the motivation to compete at this level?
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the race on Sunday at Valencia: