As many of you will have spotted, this was in fact an April Fool's story. While discussions about the future of the World Superbike series are ongoing, there are no proposals at the current time to switch to naked bikes. The sales trend of the sport bike market segment is true, as are the numbers for bike sales in Belgian (I wrote a column for the Belgian magazine Motorrijder on this very subject, which is to appear in the April issue). The idea was sparked both by the current market trends in motorcycle sales, and by pictures of former greats like Eddie Lawson and Freddie Spencer muscling Kawasaki Z1000s and Honda VF750s around the track. For another year at least, all of the stories on the website will be as accurate as possible. Normal service has now been resumed...
The news that Dorna had been handed control over the World Superbike series struck terror into the hearts of WSBK fans around the globe. The fear was Dorna would use their position of controlling both World Superbikes and MotoGP to widen the technical gap between the two series in an attempt to cut costs. With Dorna having so often complained that World Superbikes was encroaching on MotoGP territory, and with MotoGP's technical regulations becoming ever more restrictive, the logical step would appear to be to severely restrict the level of machinery used in WSBK.
Over the winter, and during the first round of the 2013 World Superbike series, talks between Dorna, the Superbike teams and the manufacturers involved in the series failed to make much headway. The factories could not agree among themselves what level of modification to allow, while the teams were unimpressed by Dorna's demands that a WSBK machine should cost 250,000 euros a season, stating that the money saved in the bike would only be spent elsewhere.
Talks had continued at the IRTA test at Jerez, with Dorna's new World Superbike boss Javier Alonso present, and engaged in private discussions with the bosses of HRC, Shuhei Nakomoto, Yamaha Motor Racing, Shigeto Kitegawa, and Ducati Corse, Bernhard Gobmeier. MotoMatters.com has learned that since then, further telephone discussions have taken place with Kawasaki boss Ichiro Yoda and Suzuki's Shinichi Sahara, while Alonso had previously spoken to Aprilia Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna at the Jerez circuit, during their test there.
Under discussion is a radical set of proposals which will revolutionize the World Superbike series, MotoMatters.com can exclusively reveal. With sales of sport bikes slumping dramatically around the globe, WSBK is to "return to its roots" as a truly production- and sales-based series. The fully-faired, near prototype machines which have sold so badly - some bikes, including the championship-winning Aprilia RSV4, have struggled to sell even the 2000 units required for homologation - are to be replaced by machines more like the ones which spawned Superbike racing in the late '70s and early '80s: big naked bikes.
With only Ducati and BMW selling serious sport bikes in any significant quantities, most of the manufacturers believe that it would be more profitable to race the bikes which they actually sell in large numbers. As the sales of sport bikes have plummeted, sales of naked bikes and roadsters have skyrocketed. The seismic shift is in response to a number of factors, not least of all the drastic increase in draconian speed policing. With modern sport bikes capable of breaking national speed limits in 1st gear, and barely comfortable at anything under double the widely permitted maximum, bike buyers in Europe and the US have moved away from buying machines like the Yamaha YZF-R1, the Honda CBR1000RR, Suzuki's GSX-R 1000 and Kawasaki's ZX-10R. Taking their place in the garages of ordinary motorcyclists are bikes like Kawasaki's Z1000 and Z750, Honda's CBF1000, Yamaha's XJ1300 and Suzuki's GSF1200 Bandit. In Belgium, for example, the Z750 alone sold 336 units in 2012, while the entire sport bike segment, comprising some 15 different machines, shifted just 683 units.
Dorna are very happy with the proposal, as it represents a clear differentiation between the prototypes of MotoGP and the clearly road-going bikes of what is to be renamed the World Streetbike Championship, retaining the WSBK logo. Having two such visibly different types of bikes racing will make the two series much easier to sell as different sports to TV broadcasters. In a throwback to the muscle bike years of the '80s, the naked bikes and roadsters will also provide even more visual spectacle than the current crop of WSBK machinery, bringing to an end the worrying trend of smoother, tighter race bikes which has so far reached its zenith in the 250-like Aprilia RSV4.
Two serious obstacles remain. The first, and most thorny, is the question of performance balancing. The naked bike segment is extremely varied, ranging from 170kg, 160hp stripped-down race bikes such as MV Agusta's Brutale and Ducati's Streetfighter S on the one hand, to bloated 1970s replicas like Honda's stunning new CB1100, which has a modest 90hp propelling a less modest 248kg. Proposals currently on the table will impose a horsepower limit of 130hp on the class, with factories and teams free to either choose to detune a powerful bike or beef up a less powerful machine, free of the many technical restrictions currently imposed. Minimum weight, too, will be set at 220kg, with teams free to add ballast or go on radical weight-reduction programs, as they see fit. Bikini fairings will be allowed, but fairing lowers will be strictly forbidden, though belly pans will be made compulsory, to act as oil catch pans.
The second obstacle facing the proposals is the response of the two manufacturers who do sell sport bikes in large numbers. Both BMW and Ducati manage to shift sizable volumes of their top-spec sports machines, despite both being priced at the very top end of the market. The power of their two brands is very strong, and this is what is giving their bikes such selling power, while others in the same segment struggle.
But at Jerez, Javier Alonso and Shuhei Nakamoto concocted an idea which they believe will help win both BMW and Ducati over. While replacing the top racing class machines with naked bikes is an easy and obvious move, the class to replace World Supersport presents a bigger problem. MotoMatters.com has learned that on Monday, Alonso will hold a conference call with Ducati's Gobmeier and BMW's Berthold Hauser to present the proposed support class: Adventure Bike Racing.
The middleweight sport bike segment has suffered almost as much as the upper end of that market segment, while in the meantime, the Adventure bike market has exploded. Having Adventure bikes - machines such as BMW's R 1200 GS, Yamaha's Super Ténéré XT 1200 Z, Honda's VFR1200X Crosstourer and Kawasaki's Versys 1000 - compete over a mixed course consisting of three-quarters tarmac with smaller sections of a dirt course, using unpaved parts of the circuit infield present at every track, and combining them with excursions through some of the larger sections of gravel traps, will add even more spectacle to a race weekend, Alonso and Nakamoto believe.
With both Ducati and BMW having models which are highly popular in that market segment - BMW's GS series has been a bestseller around the world for many years, while Ducati's Multistrada 1200 has gained a cult following among lovers of fast but versatile machines - Alonso believes that he can persuade both Gobmeier and Hauser to accept the deal. Offering them a class they can easily dominate should compensate them for the loss of the World Superbike class. With Ducati also believed to be working on a retro roadster in the style of the 750SS, using the engine from the Hypermotard - the 1200SS, as the bike is to be known, has been developed under cover of Ducati's so-called maxi scooter, which is being used as a decoy for the new roadster - the Italian factory could soon also have a bike capable of racing in the new World Streetbike class as well.
If the proposals are to be accepted, however, it is crucial that both Ducati and BMW get on board. If Gobmeier and Hauser reject the Adventure bike proposal, the whole house of cards collapses. By Monday evening, April 1st, the future of WSBK should have been decided.