It is the fate of the World Superbike class to be ever surrounded in controversy. At the heart of the problem lies the so-called parity rules, the rules which have been drawn up to ensure that the different engine configurations can compete on a more or less level playing field. Each time these rules have been modified, there has been an outcry, and the latest switch - the expansion of the rules for twins to allow Ducati's 1200cc 1098 to compete in 2008 - was no exception. When the capacity for the four cylinders was raised to 1000cc, the Japanese factories raised an outcry, over the limited tuning they were allowed to do to the engines. But the expanded capacity made it much cheaper to run a four, making the (then 1000cc) Ducatis incredibly expensive to run, as they were full of lightweight components and needed constant revision.
With this experience behind them, when the capacity for twins was expanded to 1200cc, the parity rules were not set in stone, but a set of parameters were set out under which adjustments could be made to the rules, based on a simple and elegant scoring system. Under this rule, if an engine configuration of one type was leading the championship, and the two highest scoring bikes of that configuration had outscored the other configuration by an average of 5 points per race weekend for three races in a row, then first the weight limits, and then air restrictors would be adjusted for the twins, to make the racing more even.
That milestone was passed this weekend, when despite Michel Fabrizio's clear victory in the first race at Kyalami, the leading four cylinders scored an average of 5 points per event better than the leading twins over the past three races, and the Superbike Technical Director has taken the first steps to return to parity, by reducing the minimum weights for the twins from 168kg to 165kg, to be allowed from the next World Superbike round at Miller Motorsports Park on May 31st. The weight reduction is the first of two possible reductions, the next step being to reduce the minimum weight for the twins from 165 to 162kg.
The weight reduction is likely to meet with a mixed reception, for although the Ducati teams have clearly been at a disadvantage this season, none of them have been calling for a reduction in weight. Instead, the cry has been for the 50mm air restrictors to be enlarged, a move which will not be permitted under the rules unless the Ducatis continue to score badly for another 6 races in a row. Only once the restrictor size has been upped from 50mm to 52mm will the Ducati teams be happy, as the problem the bikes have is a lack of horsepower compared to the four cylinders, rather than an excess of weight. Indeed, neither the fours nor the twins are believed to be anywhere near their minimum weights, and efforts to get down to that weight would involve spending exorbitant amounts of money on components made from exotic lightweight materials.
But as elegant and clever as the parity rules are, both the 2009 and 2010 season demonstrate just how great the human factor still can be. In 2009, an American called Ben Spies came into the series, and dominated from the moment he got on the bike. The exceptional nature of his talent was apparent from the state of his teammate Tom Sykes, a BSB front runner, and a rider who has impressed since moving to the Kawasaki. Take away Spies from 2009, and the Ducatis would probably have received at least one weight increase last year, if not two.
And Spies appears to be responsible in part for the reversal of fortunes for Ducati, as his defeat of Xerox Ducati's Noriyuki Haga has left the Japanese rider a mere shadow of his former self. With Haga - formerly a rider who could be counted on to consistently win races, and compete at the top of the championship all season long - completely out of form, the baton has been passed to his teammate Michel Fabrizio, who is fast but notoriously inconsistent, and the privateer Althea Ducatis of Shane Byrne and Carlos Checa, whose bikes have been detuned slightly to ensure reliability and keep down costs.
There's a saying that motorcycle racing is still about 80% rider and 20% bike, and World Superbikes' parity rules seem to underline the truth of that aphorism. For though the rules focus only on the bikes, the exceptional form of Leon Haslam, and the revival of Max Biaggi suggest that it really is about the rider, and not so much about the bike.