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.
Everybody’s a pundit when it comes to who will win the championship each time the WorldSBK season starts. Especially in a season that will kick off in its regular late February time slot, making it the first of the big championships out of the traps.
This soothsaying by the masses is fair enough, because without the fans and citizen-chatterati who are all excited by WSBK again since the resurgence of Alvaro Bautista and the growth of Toprak Razgatlioglu into a World Champion, the WorldSBK championship would probably still be languishing under a dusty awning in the largely green-tinted fringes of two-wheeled awareness.
It may well have been almost as much fun for the true racing anoraks to watch Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki provide a masterclass for six season in a row as it was to have serious challengers show up every year. But like the almost endless domination of the 500cc Grands Prix (remember them!) by Mick Doohan and Honda, you had to be a special kind of minority to truly appreciate the subtleties of what was playing out in front of you. I could watch five-times champion Mick lapping all day and find something else awesome to look at, but it was hardly a group activity. It’s supposed to be racing, of course, not a 40 minute flat hill climb.
Mass market viewer interest in WorldSBK was stirred up previous to 2022 by the eventually failed rocket-man act of Bautista and Aruba Ducati in 2019. It was then adrenalised by too-tall Toprak on his Pata Yamaha in 2021. But it was the first half of last year that saw the three-way fight for men and machines once again become the talk of all the racing towns. Highly animated and excitable talk, to boot. The early rounds provided some real motorbike racing greatness between the three modern hyper-riders in Superbike.
MotoGP may have had its ‘aliens’ a while back, but in WorldSBK we have had three remarkable earthlings probing their showroom missiles for every extra joule of juice. Their bikes look quite unlike MotoGP’s aero experiments (although that new BMW features an Aprilia-esque ironing board at the front now). Whatever tuning is allowed, under the strict tech rules and because the bikes have to look just like their roadbike parents, WorldSBK features relatable roadbike hearts rather than unobtainable prototype souls. MotoGP is astonishing and exciting on many levels but all the wing things and scaly stegosaurus protrusions are not every enthusiast’s cup of warm Castrol R on a Sunday afternoon.
Personally, I love the whole whacky tech stuff in MotoGP, for the simple fact that it makes it unique - the diamond on top of the two-wheel pyramid for tech as well as rider talent. If you (specifically Dorna) wanted something approaching two-wheeled F1 racing, you got it in modern MotoGP. In all ways, MotoGP really should go prototype or go home. But not everybody likes the direction of very fast tech travel that the blue ribbon class sometimes ties itself in knots with.
Superbike exists, in various forms, as the premier class in every single other discipline of global (WSBK and EWC) and national racing, whatever different shades of technical grey are chosen by each ruling body. So the WorldSBK should, in any season, be a focus for everybody who is not only in it for the engines pushing 300bhp, ground effect aero protrusions and ride height devices.
Hence, the ground was already theoretically fertile for the Bautista/Razgatlioglu/Rea rollerball express and the 2022 racing proved to be epic almost every single time. WorldSBK took a step change upwards in its popularity with the fans. And the racing year ended that way too, even if the three way wrestling match out front became a game of chase the Ducati contrail as the season rotated through the halfway point.
At the end of last year, the Spanish/Italian package that proved to be an acceleration effort across all the venues, finally delivered. This was in marked contrast to how 2019 turned out for the same combo of Alvaro Bautista and the Ducati V4R.