Over the past couple of years, attention has been focused on the sparseness of the MotoGP grid, with just 17 permanent entries in 2009, and most likely the same number in 2010. The comparison was always made with the World Superbike grid, which had a bumper crop of 31 entries for the start of the 2009 season. Such a well-filled grid meant that the worryingly large number of teams and riders dropping out of World Superbikes throughout the season was largely ignored. The World Superbike grid for 2010, however, is looking disturbingly thin, with only 17 riders entered so far, and little sign of that number growing by any significant amount.
News emerging from Japan, however, suggests that at least one team is to swell the ranks of World Superbikes. More significant than the number of riders this team will bring is the name involved: It is not just any old team which is to make the jump from the All Japan Superbike championship, the team under discussion is Yoshimura Suzuki. The team has a long and rich history in the Japanese Superbike championship, with several JSB titles to its name, as well as wins in the prestigious Suzuka 8 hour race and a host of international events.
According to the Italian website Bikeracing.it (which reached us through the excellent Dutch site MOTOR.nl), Yoshimura Japan President Fujio Yoshimura announced that the legendary performance parts supplier had made the decision to move up to the World stage after spending many years in the Japanese national series. "Despite the period of economic crisis for us in Japan," Bikeracing.it reports Yoshimura as saying, "racing has been part of our sporting culture for some 60 years. For this reason, we have decided to take up a new challenge, a leap forward for all of us: To race in the World Championship. It will be a whole new challenge for Yoshimura, and we hope to have the support of all our sponsors and supporters in our attempt to become number 1 in World Superbikes." The move would see Yoshimura Japan switch its current All Japan Superbike team to the World Superbike championship, reportedly taking at least one of their riders - Daisaku Sakai is being named as the most likely candidate - up on to the world stage.
The move is no real surprise. There have been rumors that Yoshimura would make the switch to the World Superbike series for the last year or so. The difference, though, is that much of that previous speculation revolved around the team that had previously been running in the AMA series, and featured Ben Spies and Mat Mladin. After the DMG takeover and rebranding of the US Superbike series into AMA Pro Racing created an almost unbridgable river of bad blood between the manufacturers and the DMG, who had the rights to run the series, it was widely thought that the American branch of Yoshimura would make the leap to World Superbikes.
This appears not to be the case, though the two events are probably not entirely unrelated. American Suzuki, along with Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, have all withdrawn factory support for the DMG-run AMA Pro series for 2010, ripping the guts from the US series. The withdrawals were made for reasons both of fundamental disagreement over the direction of racing, and for reasons of costs, as motorcycle sales have slumped in the wake of the financial crisis.
However, even in times of economic crisis, racing remains in the blood of many of the factories involved in the US series, and not all of the money saved by axing support for the AMA series will find its way back to the balance the manufacturers' balance sheets. Yoshimura has almost certainly used some of the funds freed up from supporting the American series to bump up its Japanese program to allow it to run in WSBK. Whether the input from the AMA program is large enough to see an American rider on a bike alongside Sakai remains to be seen.
Yoshimura's entry in to World Superbikes may also be a warning for Francis Batta's Alstare Suzuki team. Batta has spent every winter so far trying to squeeze more money out of the Hamamatsu factory to help support his race program. Meanwhile, rumors persist that Suzuki is unhappy with Batta's running of the Suzuki World Superbike team, which has seen a string of mediocre results, the highlight being Troy Corser's World Superbike title back in 2005. Even the hiring of the triple 250cc World Champion Max Biaggi - who was reportedly extremely well paid by WSBK standards - only landed the team a 3rd place back in 2007. With Yoshimura also entering the championship, this could be a prelude to the factory switching backing, from Alstare to the Japanese team.
So far, no official statements have been forthcoming from Yoshimura, though reports indicate that an official announcement could be made some time during the coming week.