The new season is upon us and, as the riders go against the clock in anger for the first time this year, let’s catch up with who is riding what bike and on which team, and just because nothing challenges the fates like scrying the future, we will make some bold and inaccurate predictions. There are twenty riders, ten of whom have won a world title while three of the rest have a national title under their belt.
When opportunity comes knocking, it is a fool who does not open the door. That is especially true when the opportunity is as unique as the chance to race at a World Championship level event. Given the chance to shine on the world stage, you have to take that shot. So when Cameron Beaubier was asked to replace the injured Sylvain Guintoli inside the Pata Yamaha team for the Donington round of World Superbikes, I cannot imagine that he hesitated for very long before jumping at the chance.
As commendable as Beaubier's choice is, it comes with some considerable risk. Not just to the reputation of Beaubier himself, but also to the standing of American motorcycle racing in the world. As arguably the best motorcycle racer in MotoAmerica, the US domestic championship, his performance will be weighed on a silver scale, and used as a yardstick for the standard of racing in the US. The hopes and dreams of many a young American racer may lie fallow if Beaubier falls short.
Farewell, MotoGP penalty point system, we barely knew you. In a press release issued today (and rather bizarrely, leaked to a Spanish journalist two days ago) the FIM announced that the Grand Prix Commission had decided to modify the penalty point system. From now on, the only penalty to be imposed will happen once a rider accrues a total of ten points, at which point they will be disqualified for one race. The penalties for four (starting from the back of the grid) and seven points (starting from pit lane) have been dropped. At a stroke, the penalty point system has been emasculated.
New rules, new bikes, new teams, new riders and a new weekend schedule, the World Superbike championship is very different for 2016.
With races on both Saturday and Sunday, adjusting to the new format could spring a few surprises. The 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden joins the Ten Kate Honda team and current British Superbike champion Josh Brookes brings his Milwaukee team to the world stage with stunning looking BMWs. Yamaha returns at the hands of Paul Denning’s squad, fielding Alex Lowes and Sylvain Guintoli.
If the Movistar Yamaha launch at Barcelona made one thing clear, it is that the feud between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez will be just as bitter in 2016 as it was in 2015. In Barcelona, Rossi once again repeated the litany of charges he leveled against Marc Márquez at the end of last season. Márquez had decided early in the season he would try to stop Rossi from winning the title, had played with Rossi at Phillip Island, done far worse at Sepang, then stayed behind Lorenzo at Valencia to hand him the title. For Valentino Rossi, nothing has changed since Valencia 2015.
A new year is upon us, and with it, a new season of motorcycle racing, full of hope, opportunity and optimism. What will 2016 hold for motorcycle racing fans? With testing still weeks away for World Superbikes, and a month away for MotoGP, it is far, far too early to be making any predictions. But why let common sense stand in the way? Here are some wildly inaccurate predictions for 2016.
1. Doubling down: Honda falls into the horsepower trap again
The problem of waiting on the racing line for a tow in Moto3 is an intractable one. Race Direction have tried just about everything to stop them. First, they tried issuing warnings. Then they started handing out penalty points. When that made no difference, they brought everyone in for a stiff talk.
Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race. And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action. When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.
Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed. Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?
If only World Superbikes were racing at Brands again, British fans say. Frankly, I think the fond memories of Brands were colored in large part by the fact that WSBK visited Brands in August, when the chances of a hot, sunny summer day are much better than the Midlands in the middle of May. Good weather is a proven draw for any outdoors sporting event, and motorcycle racing is no different.
But a spot of sunshine and a few degrees of temperature can't explain the massive drop in attendance over the past fifteen years. There has always been a very strong British presence in World Superbikes, and the Brit contingent is now stronger than ever. But still the crowds stay away. The racing is excellent: fans often compare the WSBK races favorably to MotoGP, in terms of close battles and unpredictable winners. So that can't be it either. The bikes are perhaps not as trick as they were ten years ago, the formula simplified in pursuit of cost-cutting. Justifiably so: this is supposed to be production racing, after all, and not prototypes in disguise. The balance is pretty good, though. Five of the series' eight manufacturers got on the podium last year, four of them racking up wins.
Great racing, great riders, home talent to cheer for, and yet the stands are only sparsely filled. BSB, the series where most of the current crop of World Superbike riders came from, races less sophisticated bikes, held its round back in April, when the weather is even less dependable, yet drew twice as many fans to the track as WSBK did. What is their secret? How come BSB is thriving while WSBK is in the doldrums?
Rather perversely, a lot of the talk at the World Superbike test at Jerez has not been about World Superbikes at all. Which is a shame, as the 2015 World Superbike championship promises to be particularly fascinating, with testing times very close indeed.
In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.
What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.
As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.
Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?