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?
Press releases from the series organizers and some of the teams after Sunday's World Superbike and World Supersport races at Donington Park:
Press releases from the teams and series organizers after qualifying at Donington Park:
Press release previews from the WSBK teams and series organizers ahead of this weekend's World Superbike round at Donington Park:
It is ironic that now we are getting into the meat of the motorcycle racing season, there should be so little news to speak of. But perhaps it is a matter of perspective: there is plenty of real news to be found in motorcycle racing, but it is to be found and read where you would expect to find it, in the middle of every race weekend. That is especially true now that MotoGP and World Superbikes have returned to a more fan-friendly schedule, the two world championships alternating weekends again, with BSB, the CEV and MotoAmerica filling in any gaps when they appear.
Then again, at this stage of the season, all of the focus is on the coming races, rather than next year. It is too early for silly season, especially as all the factory rides are locked up for 2016, and even Jorge Lorenzo's option to leave early removed. There are plenty of attractive seats to be filled for 2016: the contracts of both Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders are up at the end of the year, Cal Crutchlow is on a one-year contract, Yonny Hernandez has a one-year deal at Pramac, and the seats at Forward and Aspar are all being filled by riders with one-year contracts. Speculation about those seats will only start in earnest around mid-season, once team managers have half a season's worth of results to start drawing conclusions, and see who might be available to make the move up from Moto2.
Press releases from the series organizer and the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after Sunday's races at Imola:
Press releases from the series organizer and from some of the teams after qualifying for Sunday's World Superbike and World Supersport races at Imola:
Press releases from the series organizers and the teams after the first day of practice at Imola:
Preview press releases from the teams and the series organizer ahead of this weekend's Imola round of World Superbikes:
Four rounds into the World Superbike season and the contours of the 2015 championship are starting to become clear. Some of the things we expected to happen have unfolded much as predicted, but there have also been a fair few surprises. Time to take a quick look at the state of World Superbikes so far.
New technical regulations have been put in place aimed at reducing cost and leveling the playing field somewhat. Their effect so far? Despite the protestations of the Kawasaki and Aprilia riders, all of whom have been complaining of a loss of horsepower, neither top speed nor overall lap times appear to have been affected much. Taking Tom Sykes as perhaps the best example, as he was on the Kawasaki ZX-10R both this year and last, his lap times were half a second slower at Phillip Island, half a second quicker at Assen, the only two tracks at which it is possible to compare. Chaz Davies on the Ducati Panigale was a second quicker at Assen, and eight tenths quicker in race one at Phillip Island, but in race two lapped just as fast in 2015 as he did in 2014. Overall, the Phillip Island track was a little slower in 2015, while conditions at Assen were definitely improved this year over last. The jury is still out on the new rules, but there are definite rumblings audible from the jury room.
Perhaps the biggest effect of the new rules is on the expectations of riders. The Kawasaki is among the most affected of the WSBK bikes by the new rules, with claims that the ZX-10R has between ten and twenty fewer horses than it had in 2014. That has had a bigger impact on Tom Sykes than on his new teammate, Jonathan Rea, Sykes struggling while Rea has come in and cleaned up. Sykes finds himself with a bike that is down on power to what he is used to, a development which is not good for a positive mindset. Rea has come off a bike which he knew to be incapable of winning a championship, and hopped onto one which has been proven capable of doing just that. It's easy to go fast when what you have is better than what you had, and you see opportunity looming.
Press releases from the teams after Sunday's thrilling World Superbike races at Assen:
Press releases from the World Superbike teams after qualifying at Assen:
Press release previews from the organizers and some of the teams ahead of this weekend's round of World Superbikes. Includes Pata Honda documentary of Michael van der Mark:
Press releases after Sunday's WSBK round at Aragon:
Racing season is now truly upon us. MotoGP kicked off ten days ago at Qatar, last weekend the British Superbike championship had their first race of the year at Donington Park, and this weekend sees a bumper crop of racing. MotoGP is at Austin, where MotoAmerica also kicks off its inaugural season since taking over the AMA series from the DMG. World Superbikes heads to the Motorland Aragon circuit in Spain, where they are joined by the Superstock 1000 and Superstock 600 classes. It is going to be a busy weekend.
Despite the bustle of action, the amount of real news emerging has been limited. Teams and riders are too busy racing, absorbing the lessons of the first races while preparing for the next races, to be plotting and scheming beyond that. Here's a rundown of things you might have missed this weekend anyway.
And you thought the Stoner return was a surprise...