Thursday, June 19, 2008

BSB Series trundles on after rules farce

I haven't said much about the British Superbikes lately, which is mainly because there has been nothing much worth saying. Shakey Byrne is walking off with the title, winning most races and coming second in those he loses. This year's BSB has somehow become more and more tedious as it trundles on. The thing everybody has been talking about has been the recent farce with the minimum weight rules.

Before the season started, GSE Airwaves Ducati spat the dummy and claimed they were withdrawing from BSB and closing down. This was because the MCRCB, who set the rules for BSB, had refused to let Ducati run aftermarket pistons as is allowed in WSBK. In Britain, Ducatis would have to run with stock pistons, the same as the 4-cylinder Japanese bikes have to. GSE claimed that there was a safety issue with this, although later on they agreed to return to the series having miraculously discovered that it would not be unsafe after all. This left a bitter taste in a lot of people's mouths. Nobody likes to hear the boy cry wolf.

After the season started, Shane "Shakey" Byrne started to win everything on the Airwaves Ducati, and waltz off into the sunset with the championship. The teams running Japanese bikes were starting to grumble, and these grumbles turned into bitching and moaning when Tom Sykes's Rizla Suzuki engine exploded at Brands Hatch, spewing oil over the track and causing a red flag. The 4-cylinder teams started complaining openly that the Ducati 1098R is so fast that they have to tune their bikes almost to the point of destruction in order to keep up.

This might have been a fair point, but the grenading of one solitary engine was hardly slam-dunk evidence. However, it was enough for the MCRCB, who, doing a very good impression of a panicking organization coming out with a knee-jerk reaction, suddenly announced that 1200cc V-twin motorcycles (i.e. Ducatis) would now have their minimum weight limit increased by 10kg. This would put 4-cylinder Japanese bikes at 165kg and Ducatis at 175kg.

Surprise, surprise, GSE chucked the toys back out of the pram. Claiming there was a serious safety issue, they threatened to pull out of the BSB series. Journalists were shown how many bags of sugar you need to make up 10kg. Fans exploded into furious arguments between the Ducati lovers and Ducati haters, dredging up all the tedious old arguments.

The one problem with this was when the actual bike weights from post-race scrutineering on the earlier rounds were revealed. Ducati had been averaging over 170kg and peaking at over 175kg. The 10kg penalty would actually be approximately a 4kg penalty, which is nothing much compared to the difference between the weights of the riders. The claim that adding 4kg to a bike would turn it into a death-trap stretched credulity to the limit.

The MCRCB backed down, saying that Ducatis could race at 170kg until the issue was decided. After that race meeting, the weight limit was confirmed at 175kg, but with a 2kg tolerance. Most of us would call that a 173kg weight limit. It was also confirmed that the practise of adding on up to 3 laps to the race distance when the safety car was deployed was to end. This means that Ducati effectively have 3 laps more fuel in the fuel tank to act as ballast.

Now, the question of whether Ducati should be penalized with heavier weight limits is not one that I'm going to dwell on. The MCRCB had no system in place to adjust the relative performance of 4- and 2-cylinder machines. (It should be pointed out that the WSBK does have such a system, but it is blatantly rigged so as not to penalize Ducati too harshly.) However, it is well within the MCRCB's rights to impose such a limit, as they are the sole arbiters of technical rules in BSB. Whether they are right or wrong to do so is a judgement that I will leave to you.

The problem has been that the whole story has degenerated into farce. Panicking, disingenuous half-truths and face-saving have been the order of the day. Neither the MCRCB, nor GSE, nor certain 4-cylinder teams have emerged from this with anything to crow about. Caught in the crossfire were the NorthWest 200 Ducati team, who had worked wonders to reduce the weight of their bike and were then forced to scrap everything and add ballast, despite having no obvious advantage over the 4-cylinder machines. They did this in the good old-fashioned British way, without complaint.

Fortunately, the riders have kept their heads and stayed out of the argument as much as possible. HM Plant Honda's Leon Haslam described the weight rules as "a pile of crap", said that they will make no difference to results, and that it is his job to beat the other riders on track. No blame can be affixed to Shakey Byrne. He is paid to ride his motorcycle as fast as possible and that's exactly what he has been doing. He will keep doing so regardless of the rules, as will his fellow racers. If only their puppet-masters could act with the same kind of dignity.

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