Last week, the debate over the role of rider weight was reignited by a post on Instagram by BMW WorldSBK rider Scott Redding, comparing his own weight to that of Aruba.it Ducati's Alvaro Bautista, and asking whether there needs to be a minimum combined rider/bike weight in WorldSBK. To back up his claim, he posted some video clips and sector analysis from the San Juan Villicum circuit in Argentina. "I just think it should be as fair as possible for all of the riders," Redding wrote.
Though the sentiment is admirable, the thing about motorcycle racing is it is fundamentally unfair. Somebody else's bike will always be better than yours. Some other rider will be lighter, stronger, have it easier than you in one way or another. That is of little comfort to those racing in a particular class at a specific event, but it remains true nonetheless.
The way this has traditionally been dealt with is through what is usually called "the package". The combination of bike, team, and rider is different for each competitor, and rule makers have attempted to create space in each class to allow riders and teams to find multiple ways to be competitive.
Horses for courses
That does mean that each class requires a different set of specifications, depending on the philosophical starting point for that class. There are combined weight rules in Moto3 (152kg), Moto2 (217kg), and World Supersport (between 239kg and 244kg, depending on the bike). The reason for having a minimum combined weight in those classes comes down to a single, simple factor: in one way or another, the bikes in those classes are restricted from producing enough power to overcome the difference in combined weight.
The Moto3 bikes themselves are very small and light, and the technical rules are so tightly formulated that big differences in outright horsepower between manufacturers are almost impossible. The KTM may have a couple of extra horses one year, the Honda the next, but those differences are not sufficient to offset a difference in rider weight of 5kg, or 10kg, or more.
In Moto2, the riders are assigned identical engines, prepared by an independent party (Externpro), and distributed at random. Any power differences that exist fall within very tight tolerances agreed between Dorna and Triumph/Externpro, and the only part which the teams are allowed to change is the exhaust. Again, finding power to overcome weight difference is impossible.
World Supersport functions within the very narrow confines of production racing rules. Much effort is put into balancing bike concepts, but at its core, a World Supersport machine is never going to produce the kind of massive power that could overcome a weight difference.
Freedom to compete
Compare this to MotoGP. There is no minimum combined rider/bike weight, despite frequent calls for one to be introduced. The reason for not doing so is simple: the technical rules are free enough that manufacturers can design their bikes to produce more power to overcome a rider weight disadvantage, if they are willing to accept the compromises that entails.
The evidence backing up this philosophy is clear. The numbers 1 and 2 in the 2022 MotoGP championship are on motorcycles which differ by perhaps as much as 30 horsepower, and maybe more. And yet, Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo are separated by just 23 points after 19 races, a difference of just 1.2 points per race.
How is a 270-ish hp bike capable of competing with a 300+ hp motorcycle? Because there is more to going fast than horsepower. The Yamaha is much better at carrying corner speed, better at braking on corner entry, and is faster out of first part of the corner. The Ducati is good on braking in a relatively straight line, and thanks to the gains made in aerodynamics and the ride-height device, has greatly improved traction on corner exit.
Traction is everything
And traction is the key to 80% of MotoGP. Traction is what determines how early and how hard you can accelerate out of corners. The sooner you can get on the gas, and the more of the power and torque you have you can convert into forward drive, the faster you end up going. Or more precisely, the quicker you cover the distance between corner exit at the start of a straight, and corner entry at the end, as KTM crew chief Paul Trevathan explained to us on the Paddock Pass Podcast over the summer.
This is why there is no real need for a minimum combined rider/bike weight in MotoGP. There is enough freedom in the technical rules to allow manufacturers to build engines so powerful they can easily overwhelm the rear tire, and for them to design a chassis and everything around it to maximize the amount of power they can actually use. Rider weight does become a factor in acceleration at some point, but that is long after it has been an advantage in increasing traction.
Being heavier is not solely a disadvantage in MotoGP. A decade or so ago, I interviewed Mike Leitner, at that point in time, crew chief to Dani Pedrosa. He pointed to the fact that it was easier for taller and heavier riders to move their weight around the bike in search of traction, something which was much more difficult for the short, light Pedrosa to do.
That disadvantage becomes an advantage once the bike hits fourth, fifth, sixth, and the tire can handle the full power of the engine. Then the physics becomes simpler, the translation of energy into velocity a more direct equation. That also applies to braking: with less mass to stop, braking can start later.
Speed vs drive
What does this mean for the World Superbike class? Is WorldSBK more like MotoGP or World Supersport and Moto3? Does it need a minimum combined weight limit?
It is tempting to think so if you look at the way Alvaro Bautista is ripping up WorldSBK on the Ducati Panigale V4R this season. With two rounds to go, Bautista has a nearly unassailable lead of 82 points over Toprak Razgatlioglu on the Yamaha YZF R1 and 98 points over Jonathan Rea on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR with 124 points still in play. That impression is reinforced when you see the way in which Bautista is able to pull away from both Razgatlioglu and Rea out of each corner.
Yet here is where we return to traction. Watching the races from the San Juan Villicum round in Argentina, the advantage which the Ducati has is quite clear. Both Bautista and Aruba.it Ducati teammate Michael Ruben Rinaldi pull away in the first part of the long back straight in Argentina. But Rinaldi is unable to hold off Razgatlioglu, Kawasaki's Alex Lowes, and Jonathan Rea on the brakes and through the corners, and so goes backwards. Bautista, on the other hand, is able to maintain the advantage he has getting out of the corners down the straight and into the corners as well.
This looks like it is just down to the package as a whole. Both Bautista and Rinaldi are able to use the advantage of the Ducati in the first part of the straight, but only Bautista is able to capitalize on that advantage for the rest of the lap. That difference can't be put down to the difference in height and weight: Rinaldi is only a couple of centimeters taller than Bautista, rather than towering over the Spaniard.
The difference is bikes, not riders
Looking at the bigger WorldSBK picture is more instructive of the problem. Alvaro Bautista leads on the Ducati, with Razgatlioglu on the Yamaha and Rea on the Kawasaki still close enough to threaten Bautista's coronation, at least theoretically. Then there's a massive 149 point gap to Rinaldi on the Ducati, with Alex Lowes on the Kawasaki 43 points behind Rinaldi in fifth, and Yamaha's Andrea Locatelli in sixth, 5 points behind Lowes.
There are three riders who are head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Alvaro Bautista, Toprak Razgatlioglu, and Jonathan Rea are capable of winning races and dominating the series. This should hardly come as a surprise, given that Bautista nearly the WorldSBK title at the first attempt in 2019, Razgatlioglu is the reigning world champion, and Rea is the greatest superbike rider in history.
The fact that the field behind the leaders echoes what is going on at the front shows that there is a structural inequality here. The Ducati's advantage over the Kawasaki and Yamaha is in traction and top speed. The Kawasaki and Yamaha make up some ground on braking and turning, but not all. And the position of the Hondas shows that speed isn't everything: the CBR1000 RR-Rs of Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge are clocking very similar top speeds to the Ducatis, around 312 km/h. Yet the Honda is clearly not competitive.
Here, it seems to me, is where the crux of the problem lies. Yes, rider weight and height (not discussed here, but relevant in terms of aerodynamics) make a difference. But WorldSBK's performance balancing rules seem to be falling short.
In that respect, WorldSBK has a much more difficult task than MotoGP. For MotoGP, the factories build bikes to fit the technical regulations and try to maximize performance based on that. In WorldSBK, manufacturers build bikes to sell in dealerships, with only one eye on maximizing performance, and the rule makers, led by Technical Director Scott Smart, have to find a way of balancing the various bikes to give everyone a chance at winning.
Scott Smart's approach has been meticulous and thorough, with constant tweaks to the rules to try to make them as transparent as possible. Yet that approach has obvious downsides: the vast majority of the technical regulations used to balance performance relate to the engine and intake system. But with severe restrictions placed on chassis changes (too many and too complex to summarize here), that is an obstacle for manufacturers who are building bikes that need more help with chassis or geometry changes.
Giving them what they want
Before the World Superbike championship was bought by Dorna and became WorldSBK, its previous owners Infront, and their predecessor FGSport operated a different system. Manufacturers would tell the series organizers what they needed to be competitive, and the organizers would weigh up the options to see what they could do. If a factory needed a swingarm, or a change to a frame, or different injectors or airbox, they would get it, within reason.
That is an old fashioned approach, and one which is completely opaque to outside assessment. How can fans and rival factories tell if the changes being allowed are fair? And is it fair if, for example, Honda are allowed to modify their frame, but Ducati are not?
That approach springs from a different philosophical view, however. For Dorna, the WorldSBK series is a championship where manufacturers can race the bikes that they sell. For the Flammini brothers, who owned FGSport and Infront, World Superbikes was a series in which manufacturers could bring the bikes they built and adapt them for racing.
Rules-based vs results-based
The issue, it seems to me, is that Dorna and Scott Smart are trying to operate within a very tight set of constraints. In part, due to the desire to be transparent and have the rules be completely clear. And also due to the cap on costs, with a range of parts being available for a fixed prices to anyone who wants them.
That has left them less quick to respond to rebalance the relative performance of the various bikes. Kawasaki are still operating without the extra revs they hoped they would get at the start of the season, but were denied due to the bike not being considered completely new.
To return to the original question: does WorldSBK need a minimum combined bike/rider weight? The answer is not self-evident. The bikes have enough power to break traction almost at will, with traction being the limiting factor, rather than horsepower. But controlling that traction with electronics, chassis, and aerodynamics is much more difficult in WorldSBK than it is in MotoGP.
Build to race, or build to sell?
This is the biggest difference between MotoGP and WorldSBK, and where things are ironically simpler for MotoGP. The bikes that race in WorldSBK are based on the bikes that manufacturers sell. But the decisions that go into building a road-going 1000cc sportbike can vary enormously for each manufacturer. Manufacturing costs, the degree to which they are designed to cope with rough and uneven roads rather than the pool-table smoothness of circuits, and how much attention they want to draw from legislators with outrageous horsepower and top speed figures, all these feed into the bikes which end up in dealer showrooms.
That means that the starting point for each WorldSBK manufacturer is very different. And each bike needs an individual approach to help make it competitive. In MotoGP, the factories start with a level playing field. In WorldSBK, the playing field is distorted by a wide range of manufacturing decisions.
A minimum combined weight may help address some of the inequities in WorldSBK. But the bigger issue is more fundament. WorldSBK needs to be able to address performance disparities faster and more flexibly, while still managing costs. That, however, is a good deal more complicated than deciding to introduce a minimum weight.
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