Fred Merkel in the AMA Superbike Championship on Honda – this was the origin of WorldSBK, with the rider who would dominate the World Championship in its first two years. It was driven on only slightly modified series machines, which was the actual idea for one of the most popular series ever. In the golden 1990’s attendance was higher than in the Motorcycle World Championship (now MotoGP).
How sprint races and recent Ducati successes are distorting and jeopardizing WorldSBK

Of course, the discussions since 2019 about two serious innovations in the Superbike World Championship that started this year have not stopped. One of them was the introduction of the Tissot Sprintrace, which was very interesting and attractive for fans and visitors. We weren’t the only ones to question the other based on the observations made during the first 11 runs of that season. It is about the approval of a MotoGP replica for the WorldSBK. A series that was actually intended for sports motorcycles and has its origins in the AMA Superbike Championship introduced in the USA in 1976 and introduced as a World Championship from 1988. The mode has been changed several times, and some questionable constructs have been used in the process. One of these was the initial rule of awarding points only to pilots who saw the checkered flag in both races. Fortunately, this nonsense was immediately abandoned. Another rather questionable set of rules penalized the top nine of the first race, who then lined up for the second race on Sunday in reverse order of finish. As a result, Johnny Rea, as the most frequent winner, was forced to roll up the field from behind after the start, which of course involved high risks.

WorldSBK 2014 with Jonathan Rea in front of Leon Haslam – unlike Alvaro Bautista in 2020 and 2021, the Northern Irishman was often successful despite the clear inferiority of his Honda CBR-1000RR at the time. This is how he got his Kawasaki contract for the 2015 season, which changed everything for the exceptional talent in one fell swoop. His teammate and ex-world champion Tom Sykes soon had nightmares about his new teammate’s dominance.

Kawasaki Ass Rea’s sudden troubles from 2019 had a simple reason

A world champion who, thanks to his riding skills, was often clearly superior to his competitors from 2015 suddenly lost all chances of victory. Against Alvaro Bautista, who was new to the WSBK, and the new factory Ducati Panigale V4R, nothing could stand it in the first 4 laps. The power-to-weight ratio of the small and light Spaniard with his Ducati, developed directly from MotoGP, ensured a superiority in acceleration and top speed that had never existed before. For example, we were present in BuriRam (Thailand) in the grandstand when we, together with tens of thousands of spectators, watched as the little Spaniard literally flew past record world champion Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki) on the straights. He was able to make up for his handicap with a lot of risk in the corners and when braking for a while, but at some point he would have fallen if he hadn’t been content with second place as before in Phillip Island (Australia).

Anyone who considers Alvaro Bautista the main reason for the successes on the Ducati since 2019 should better compare his results from 2020 and 2021 with these numbers. Jonathan Rea proved every year what he was made of on the Honda, which was not very powerful at the time. Incidentally, Ducati icon “King Carl” Fogarty also won four races in his 1996 Honda year and finished on the podium a further five times. The Spaniard, on the other hand, has been little more than a fringe figure in WorldSBK in his two Honda years.

How an exceptional talent caused the turning point in 2019

That’s how it went on in Aragon and Assen before our eyes. Bautista was essentially riding in a category of his own and only the Imola riders’ circuit, where Rea won for the first time, and crash-leading mistakes at Jerez, Misano and Donington brought about the turning point. For the sixth time in a row, Jonathan Rea, the best WSBK driver of all time, won the World Championship. Ducati was sorely disappointed and, despite his many successes on the Panigale V4R, offered the little man from Talavera de la Reina a ridiculous amount for an extension to the following season. An offer from Honda came at exactly the best possible time, because the world’s largest manufacturer had decided to start over with the CBR-1000RR-R. Instead of working with long-term partner Ten Kate from the Netherlands, HRC (Honda Racing Company) should now do it themselves and finally turn back onto the road to victory with Bautista. The clear goal was the first world championship title since 2007 with James Toseland. The Englishman had won the title for Honda by a tiny 2 points ahead of crowd favourite “Nitro Nori” Haga and then switched to MotoGP.

James Toseland on a Ducati 999 F04 in the 2004 season – the Englishman became the last WorldSBK champion three years later on a Honda. Alvaro Bautista’s commitment for 2020 shouldn’t change anything to this day. On the contrary, the Spaniard was a disappointment for the world’s largest manufacturer.

The 2022 world champion and his previous two unsuccessful years

Anyone who claims that Alvaro Bautista’s riding ability was responsible for his successes on the Ducati in 2019 and into 2022 should definitely have a closer look at his results on the Honda in the two years in between. In addition, compare them with his successors Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge, who have since performed no worse than their compatriot. Despite Honda doing everything right and hiring an experienced WorldSBK pilot in Leon Camier as manager, the successes hoped for with Bautista in 2020 and 2021 did not materialize. Two third places in two years was simply underground for the 2019 Vice World Champion and the Spaniard’s 9th and 10th place in the World Cup was a bitter disappointment. Although the CBR-1000RR-R is superior to Kawasaki and Yamaha in top speed, it was overshadowed by the two Japanese rivals and Ducati with Scott Redding and Michael Ruben Rinaldi.

Our shot of Alvaro Bautista in Parc Fermé after a disappointing 14th place – because his crash on the 2nd lap in the second race at Misano significantly reduced his previously clear championship lead. Only one lap later, the little Spaniard made sure that Jonathan Rea was able to overtake him in the intermediate classification with the next crash in the second race.
The background of a questionable development to the detriment of racing

Ducati’s superiority today is no coincidence. You also have to know that Ducati and Honda were awarded a significantly higher maximum speed by the FIM than, for example, Kawasaki with their ZX-10RR, which was newly introduced in 2021. Since the 2023 season, the latest updates and findings from Ducati’s successful MotoGP rockets have been incorporated into their Panigale V4R, which, unlike all its competitors, has been designed purely for the racetrack, the competitors have been demoted to extras. FIM and Dorna watch and do next to nothing about it. It is also striking that a minimum weight for driver and machine that was actually decided jointly by all manufacturers, just like in WorldSSP, for example, was overturned by the top bosses of the FIM and Dorna via a questionable override clause. As at the beginning of 2019, there has been a two-class society since 2022. The Ducati’s are so superior that the factory riders of the competition often don’t even stand a chance against their private pilots.

Alvaro Bautista and his Ducati teammate Chaz Davies photographed by us at the autograph session in Imola in 2019. It was then the first round in which the Welshman was able to beat his new team-mate from Spain. However, Chaz had absolutely no chance against the exceptional talent Johnny Rea on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR.

WorldSBK’s second issue since 2019 – sprint race judging

The idea of sprint racing in itself is not a bad thing, and it was adopted for MotoGP as of 2023. In contrast to WorldSBK, there are serious differences there. On the one hand, the prototypes usually run twelve laps instead of just ten in the WSBK. At the Sachsenring there were even fifteen of them. On the other hand, a win in a sprint race does not count as fully as a Grand Prix prototypes win. Just as in the near-series world championship with only half points, this would of course also be wrong and there are therefore only medals instead of trophies for the three first-placed. However, at WorldSBK, FIM and Dorna made the serious mistake of fully counting wins in the sprint race and including full distance wins in the stats like regular wins. This is more than questionable and drastically distorts the performance of today’s pilots from 2019 compared to previous years.

From left Max Biaggi (Suzuki, second), winner Noriyuki Haga and Troy Corser (both on works Yamaha) are still absolute icons of WorldSBK today. The Italian was to become a two-time world champion on Aprilia, as was the Australian on the right. Unfortunately, the handling of FIM and Dorna in judging wins in the Tissot Sprint Race and the fact that three rounds are being held today instead of just two at the time means that the performances of pre-2019 stars are being downgraded.

An example of a blatant injustice to previous heroes

When Yamaha was disappointed to find that their figurehead Toprak Razgatlioglu was surprisingly switching to BMW for the 2024 season, there was an interesting press release from the Japanese brand. Probably without bad intentions, Noriyuki “Nitro Nori” Haga’s performance as Yamaha’s most successful and certainly by far the most popular rider was disparaged. With more than 30 victories for Yamaha, according to those responsible, the Turk was even more successful than the public favourite at the time, Haga. But there is a huge catch. On the one hand, Nitro Nori didn’t have the chance of 3 wins in one weekend, with two races held until 2019. On the other hand, a total of 12 so-called victories by Toprak only resulted in half points, since they were entered in the Tissot Sprint race over only 10 laps. If so, you should only count 6 wins in the statistics, if at all (in MotoGP, however, sprint wins don’t count at all). As a side note, there was no podium after the sprint races either, although the Muslim, who shy away from champagne, always flees at award ceremonies anyway, before this precious liquid is splashed when real race victories occur.

Our shot of the Paddock Show after the 2020 Sprint race at Phillip Island (Australia), with from left presenter Michael Hill, Alex Lowes (P2), winner Jonathan Rea (both Kawasaki), third place winner Scott Redding (Ducati) and Independent winner Maximilian Scheib (Kawasaki) from Chile. It was the last race on the old calendar before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc. In the end, Redding was also Vice World Champion behind Rea on the Ducati as Bautista’s successor.

Even worse – the falsified numbers in the case of Bautista

From his total of 46 victories up to round 6 in Donington 2023, 13 would have to be deducted because he had no podium and only scored half points in the sprint race. However, the Spaniard has another problem and one already suspects it, it has to do with his motorcycle. With its power-to-weight ratio advantages due to FIM favouritism, the Spanish midget is head and shoulders above its competition at circuits such as Aragon, Barcelona, BuriRam, Misano, Phillip Island, San Juan and Portimão on the Ducati. You could see this with the naked eye on long straights like the Autodromo do Algarve in Portugal. Sometimes he flew past three pilots on other machines without needing the slipstream of an opponent, and this on just one start-finish straight with a length of just over 1 km. If you only count his victories on circuits like Assen, Estoril, Jerez, Magny-Cours, Mandalika and Most, then in addition to the 13 deductions for sprint races, there are only 12 victories left for the Ducati man instead of the official 46. But no matter how If you do the maths, if you compare him to pilots like Troy Baylis, Colin Edwards, “King Carl” Fogarty, Nori Haga, Troy Corser or, of course, record world champion Jonathan Rea, Alvaro Bautista still seems like a dwarf to many viewers for a long time. Many would wish for him to be able to beat his opponents on halfway equivalent material, but we are even further away from that since 2023 than 4 years before, and we think that is a shame for the athlete Alvaro.

Alvaro Bautista photographed by us at the Paddock Show as a beaming winner after the first run in Aragon 2019. The Spanish pilot would wish that his driving performance were not favored by rather questionable circumstances, as was clearly the case in 2019 and from 2022 on the Ducati.

The main problem with the current situation

Full counting of wins in sprint races is and has been a mistake on the part of FIM and Dorna. But why did they commit it on purpose and only in WorlSBK? An honest answer to this question cannot be expected from them given their highly selective approach to truth and fairness. One assumption would be that one would like to report new records as soon as possible. This would fit in well with our increasingly short-lived and sensationalist times. In any case, the current handling of statistics in WorldSBK is definitely not fair to the performances of previous heroes. Much worse, however, is the fact that the current disparity between real production machines and their sports models from BMW, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha is affected compared to a racing machine directly derived from MotoGP, such as the Panigale V4R. Ducati can currently very easily adapt all successful components that have proven themselves in MotoGP into this. All they have to do is ensure that the basic price of their Panigale V4R does not exceed the limit of almost 40,000 euros.

Spaniard Jorge Martin and his French Prima Pramac Ducati semi-works colleague Johann Zarco in the background are sensationally strong on the Ducati in MotoGP. In doing so, they also indirectly ensure the further development of the Panigale V4R derived for WorldSBK. The competition, and Kawasaki in particular, as a manufacturer that has not been active in MotoGP for a long time, is in a losing position against such innovations. FIM and Dorna don’t seem to care at all about this disadvantage.

The future prospects for the sport are bleak

As long as the competitors do not rely on a similar concept, they are lost for the time being and only have a real chance of winning on pure driver circuits. In contrast to the niche manufacturer Ducati, their opponents will hardly risk this path economically. This threatens their withdrawal in the long term, as Suzuki demonstrated some time later from MotoGP after WorldSBK. Just as bad is the fact that sensationally strong pilots like Johnny Rea, Scott Redding, Toprak Razgatlioglu and other colleagues are beaten far below their current performance. How frustrating this is in the long run can now be read very well from their faces after crossing the finish line and from their comments. They are now in complete agreement with the more intelligent and honest pundits that they are competing in a two-tier society where, in most cases, they have already lost before the lights go out. Only on very few tracks do the opponents of Bautista and Ducati have a chance, albeit a minimal one, of victory. To win, however, they must take a multiple of the risk, unlike the reigning world champions from Spain.

Photographed by us in Misano on June 3, 2023, Jonathan Rea in conversation with his Kawasaki crew chief Pere Riba after a sobering result in Misano as in the previous rounds. Just a few years ago, the incredible riding performance of the 6-time world champion would easily have been enough for a win. But now, despite immense efforts by the entire team, he cannot even manage a podium. It’s a nightmare for the best rider in WorldSBK history and of course for his comrades who have been so successful in the past.

A two-class society – this was already the case in previous years

Shortly before the Second World War, the forerunners of today’s supercharged engines began to triumph. The German manufacturer DKW revolutionized racing in the 250 cc class in the 1937 season with a two-stroke engine with a so-called charge pump, double pistons and rotary valve control. With an output of around 30 hp, top speeds of over 180 km/h were possible, at that time of course still without a racing fairing. Ewald Kluge became European Champion in 1938 and 1939, and in 1938 he was the first German TT winner on the Isle of Man. With a derived 350 cm³ machine, Heiner Fleischmann became European champion in 1939. After the war, the same category was often scored separately. Although the motorcycles with and without superchargers competed together, the significantly less powerful naturally aspirated engines competed in their own race. In the result lists, the more powerful models were marked “m.K.” (for supercharged) listed. From 1951 at the latest, this was the end and supercharged engines were banned from racing.

The 250 cc compressor DKW, driven by Ewald Kluge among others, was vastly superior to the competition from abroad shortly before the war. Naturally aspirated engines, on the other hand, had almost no chance, regardless of whether they were two-stroke or four-stroke engines. Unfortunately, the manufacturers and pilots from Germany were not allowed in the first three years of the World Cup from 1949 to 1951, although the Second World War was long history. The opponents benefited from this, but on the other hand their successes were of rather questionable sporting value without the best before the war (more than half of the victories drove German drivers in the European Championship in 1939).

The two-stroke revolution from the mid-1950s

In the GDR of all places, where almost everything was lacking, the ingenious designer Walter Kaaden found ways to increase the performance of two-stroke rotary valve-controlled engines. With the perfection of so-called gas exchange oscillations, he developed methods for increasing horsepower, which from 1957 at the latest amazed the international competition more and more. Suddenly the Italian four-stroke engines from Mondial, MV Agusta, Ducati and Morini were no longer vastly superior in the eighth and quarter litre class. Our history of Ernst Degner’s career documents in detail how Kaaden’s revolutionary developments were copied by the Japanese a few years later. Before Honda started a new technical revolution in racing with increasingly complex and multicylinder four-stroke engines in the 1960s, two-stroke engines dominated the smaller classes. It was the first golden years for Suzuki and Yamaha, after a short period of success for MZ from the GDR. Before Honda then faced their world championship titles with a 125cc five-cylinder for the 1962 season. An arms race began, in which the Japanese shared the victories in the smaller classes between themselves until 1968 and the European manufacturers fell more and more behind.

The 1967-68 Honda 6-cylinder 250cc racer was an absolute engineering delight. Because the world’s largest manufacturer, after dominant years, also became a threat to the European competition in the larger classes, the FIM decided to radically change the technical regulations for their “protection” at this time. That this was done without prior consultation with Japanese manufacturers such as Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha was scandalous and unsportsmanlike. Two of the most important then withdrew with immediate effect. Even today, the FIM is considered to be self-important and completely dubious, for example in terms of the often one-sided handling of penalties in MotoGP and WorldSBK, as well as in relation to the application of technical regulations.

The landslide and its consequences

When the FIM out of the blue announced a ban on engines with more than 2 cylinders in the eighth and quarter litre class at the end of the 1960s, they also set a limit of a maximum of 4 cylinders for the larger categories. However, Honda and Suzuki had already pursued their development for 4-cylinder 125cc engines and 6-cylinder for the 250s and were completely caught off guard. Justifiably angered, the two manufacturers opted for an immediate exit, and for several years only Yamaha remained in the World Championship. The world’s largest manufacturer was about to take off in the premier class, similarly to the smaller categories and attack manufacturers such as MV Agusta. The FIM put a stop to this with their sportingly questionable decision, and Giacomo Agostini then won the MV almost at will for years. But that was only until the 1970s when Suzuki stepped in with their 1960s square-four, four-cylinder, two-stroke engine, and with their driver Barry Sheene, dominated in 1976 and 1977 after getting their engine solid. Suddenly even private drivers drove around the ears of the four-stroke engines, and only with the introduction of the MotoGP regulations were the poisonous two-stroke engines replaced. No wonder, as from 2002, four-stroke engines were allowed to have twice the cubic capacity of two-stroke engines.

Valentino Rossi on the Honda NSR500 at Mugello with the special livery for the Italian Grand Prix – he was the last winner on a two-stroke in the motorcycle world championship. This happened on November 3rd, 2001 in Jacarepaqua (Rio de Janeiro/Brazil) under the eyes of his half-brother Luca Marini, who today drives in the team of the 9-time world champion.

Unless otherwise stated, this applies to all images (© MotoGP).