Tuesday, October 07, 2008

WSBK: What Snobs Don't Get About World Superbike

There has been a great deal of wailing from the MotoGP snob crowd lately on the issue of their new single tyre rule. One thing that has often left their lips is the plaintive cry: "But it's just another step towards World Superbikes!" This is usually followed quickly by "Not that there's anything wrong with World Superbikes, of course." (Meaning that there is.) So here's what the hardcore MotoGP snobs just don't get about WSBK.

World Superbike has a control tyre. But that's all. No control electronics. No control engines, or gearboxes, or chassis, or suspension. Nothing. Just the tyres.

Listening to the snobs, you'd think WSBK was some kind of single make series, which completely misses the point. World Superbike is all about keeping a connection with the road bikes that the general public buy. Each WSBK machine starts out as a road bike, or at least all the components of a road bike. (Full factory teams like Ducati, and next year Aprilia and BMW, take a chassis and engine from the production line, while semi-factory and privateer teams start with an actual road bike, removing the lights and all that stuff.)

World Superbike is all about differences. The fact that the racing is close is because the donor 1000cc 4-cylinder road bikes are all fundamentally of similar performance (and since you can't compare apples with oranges, the 1200cc Ducatis are handicapped to be close enough to the 1000cc 4-cylinder machines with weight ballast and air inlet restrictors). That's what's special about WSBK, and that's why there will be 7 manufacturers in the series next year. Because they get the chance to demonstrate the actual machines that you can buy from the dealerships, not just a control chassis and engine with a badge slapped on. (Cough! Nascar! Cough!)

But these road bikes undergo major changes to turn them into racing machines. Engine modifications (racing camshafts, pistons, con-rods), racing gearbox and clutch, racing exhaust, racing brakes, suspension modifications (full race forks, rear suspension and swing arm are used, so long as the mounting points remain the same), carbon fibre fairings (the same shape as those of the road bike) and trick electronics (no restrictions whatsoever) are all allowed. The chassis, cylinder head and engine block must remain fundamentally the same as the road bike.

WSBK machines produce anything up to 220bhp and can top 200mph at a circuit like Monza. The main reason why they race so closely is that there is a control tyre. Yes, they race cool circuits that promote good racing, like Assen, Brands Hatch, Monza and Phillip Island. But the bikes are in no way identical, except for the black, rubbery things wrapped around the rims. The control tyre rule works incredibly well, considering how different the bikes are. There are generally two tyre compounds which are realistically usable on each circuit, and people manage to have a great race on one or other of them, even though the way a tyre is used on a thundering, torquey, 200bhp 1200cc V-twin Ducati is very different to a screaming, peaky, 215bhp 1000cc inline four cylinder Japanese bike.

The best teams and riders win, and that is partly because with a control tyre, the rider can make the difference, he doesn't have to vainly try to compensate for a set of tyres that are 8 tenths slower than the leader's. And it is partly because, with rules that are far more open than most people realize, teams and manufacturers can alter their bikes to get the most out of the tyres.

So say what you like about World Superbikes, but don't look down your nose. These are real race bikes, the rules are surprisingly open, and while the single tyre rule might not allow prototype tyres specifically made for each top rider, it just works.


Kropotkin said...

Great piece. I'm about as hardcore MotoGP as they come, but World Superbikes is a fantastic series, and contains some of the best riders in the world. It fully deserves all the respect it gets, and more. And it is fantastic racing.

That doesn't mean that I agree with your conclusions about a single tire, though. The close racing in World Superbikes doesn't have that much to do with the spec tire, it has much more to do with the technical regulations.

The bikes are limited in what they can have done to them, and have to rely on the road bike being good enough in standard form. And because standard road bikes have to be usable by actual human beings, rather than riding gods, they can't be too radical. This limits development to some extent, and keeps the bikes within a narrower performance band.

Still, some excellent points, well made.

Jimmy said...

Well, you weren't watching WSBK in the days when there was still a tyre war! The racing wasn't in any way close, the "haves" disappeared into the wide blue yonder while the "have nots" were left in the dust. BSB was similar when the factory Honda bikes had posh Michelins, Ducati had posh Dunlops and nobody else got close.

Anyway, you might be hardcore MotoGP but I wouldn't accuse you of being one of the snobs, who would never say that WSBK is a fantastic series!