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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.