One of the more telling differences of the 2011 World Superbike series has been the relative change in grid sizes between the World Superbike and World Supersport classes. Last year, WSBK had 30 entries, while WSS had less than 20. This year, the situation has been reversed, with just 22 full-time entries in the World Superbike class, and 30 or more lining up for every WSS round.
Paolo Flammini, head of Infront Motor Sports, the organization that runs the WSBK series, puts that reversal of fortunes down to a single factor: the limiting of World Supersport riders to having just one bike scrutineered, exactly as is the case in Moto2 and 125s in the MotoGP paddock. As a result of that switch, PTR - the organization behind Simon Buckmaster's Parkalgar and Bogdanka PTR racing teams - has been able to run two teams instead of one, using the spare bikes that the Parkalgar Honda team had last year and making them available to the newly-formed Bogdanka team.
So convinced is Flammini of the success of this approach that, according to reports over on the leading Italian website GPOne.com, the Superbike Commission (WSBK's rule-making body) is considering introducing the rule for the World Superbike class from next year. The rule, Flammini believes, would save some 300,000 euros for each two-rider World Superbike team, a significant amount on a WSBK budget. It would also allow one-rider teams to expand to include a second rider at a cost of around 200,000 euros; given the greatly improved media exposure a two-rider team allows, raising that amount extra in sponsorship looks like an entirely viable. And of course with a sudden glut of extra machinery - all of the second bikes suddenly being freed up - Flammini hopes that this will allow some teams to either expand their participation or sell the machines to new teams entering the series.
Though the reasoning behind the move to a single bike is sound, it also contains a number of dangers. The first is that although riders are restricted to having a single bike in the garage at one time, that does not mean that bike costs will be cut in half. The rules will be such that damage to a machine must be taken into account, and a rider must be able to get back out on a repaired machine either in the same session, or at least in the next session. Though only one bike may be scrutineered at a time, it does not preclude the teams having a second - or even a third - bike ready and waiting in the truck. Such is the case in Moto2, for example, where despite the one-bike rule, Marc Marquez has two complete spare machines in the race truck, waiting only for the official Honda engine to be removed from his damaged machine before being presented to scrutineering for the next session.
But a single machine carries a much bigger danger, one that some Moto2 teams have also complained of - though only off the record. With one bike and limited practice time, it is imperative for a rider to get back to the pits as quickly as possible, to allow his team to fix his bike so he can get back out again. Though there is no suggestions that he did it knowingly, when Alex Baldolini toured round in the pouring rain at Assen with his engine spewing oil all over the track, he did so partly in response to the pressure from the team to get back to the pits. He had no knowledge that he was dumping oil on the track, he merely knew there was something wrong with his bike, and he needed to get back to the pits to get it fixed. Had he had a 2nd bike waiting in the garage, he may have headed off the track as quickly as possible to the nearest scooter, and got himself back into the pits to head out on a second bike.
That situation caused an entire afternoon of practice to be abandoned at Assen on the Friday. Had it happened on Saturday, with TV ready and waiting to show qualifying, then it would have been far, far worse. It is not unthinkable that a similar situation could present itself in World Superbikes, with engines letting go and riders oiling the track in their haste to get back to the pits.
Though restricting riders to just one bike is aimed at cutting costs, the most obvious course - limiting electronics and reducing the amount of modifications allowed to World Superbike machines - is not something that Flammini and the Superbike Commission are prepared to countenance. The teams, it appears, would not have accepted a reduction in electronics, as it would have penalized some of the more successful teams. And a reduction in modification was also rejected - a move that has been successful both in the US in the AMA series, and in the UK with BSB - as changing to a formula similar to Superstock (such as is the case with the BSB's EVO class) would punish the manufacturers whose standard production bikes (which form the basis of all World Superbike racers) are more road-biased, and require more work to get them up to racing spec, whilst favoring manufacturers such as Aprilia whose road bikes are already very nearly ready to race on the dealer's floor.
No rule changes have been finalized, with further meetings expected at Silverstone in two weeks' time. An announcement is expected shortly afterwards.