The first real superbike – the Suzuki GSX-R 750 was a sensation that turned the motorcycle market upside down from 1985 onwards. Without any major modifications, you were absolutely competitive on the racetrack. Only 3 years after this bike appeared on the market, the Superbike World Championship was brought into being by the highest motor sports authority FIM.

1988 – the first year of the Superbike World Championship

In the United States of America, the Superbike category has long been a cult. The 200 miles of Daytona owed its revival to this class after the two-stroke engine was over with the introduction of the superbike category in 1985. This class had become extremely popular in the AMA since the early 1980s. The most famous drivers of this national championship were Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson, both of whom would then cause a sensation and several titles in Grand Prix sport. In Europe there were already races like the 200 miles of Imola, at which four-stroke superbikes became increasingly popular on the old continent after the Formula 750 World Championship was buried in the late 1970s.

Eddie Lawson on a Kawasaki ahead of Freddie Spencer on the Honda – the two Americans were two of the big stars of the AMA before they crossed the pond and made their mark on the motorcycle world championship.

The introduction of the Superbike World Championship

At the request of the Japanese manufacturers, the Europeans followed suit for the 1988 season, and with the Superbike World Championship, a category was created for near-series bikes up to 750cc with four-cylinder four-stroke engines. Two-cylinder engines up to 1000cc were approved for this. 16 years later, the displacement limit was also adjusted to one liter for 4-cylinder engines. This of course led to problems for the V2 engines from Ducati and Aprilia with the famous RSV Mille and the RSV 1000R to keep up with these regulations. Since 2008, the two-cylinder engines can therefore have a displacement of up to 1200cc. Nevertheless, KTM never entered the WSBK as factory team and Ducati came with the Panigale V4R in 2019, which means that since then no V2 units have appeared in the near-series World Championship.

Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki ZX-10RR) – as a 6-time world champion, the Northern Irishman will perhaps remain the undisputed king of the Superbike World Championship for a very long time. In some cases, the best Superbike rider of all time drove his series-based Kawasaki faster than MotoGP, for example in test drives in Jerez, where both categories were on site in Andalusia at the same time (© WorldSBK).

The Founder of the WorldSBK
The US-American ex-racing driver Steve McLaughlin was, in cooperation with the FIM, the man who founded this successful racing series and in 1988 held the event rights. The Californian from Santa Ana was US runner-up in the Superbike Championship in 1976.

Steve McLaughlin (outside with the number 83) overtaking competitor DuHamel, the US-American was the actual founder of the Superbike World Championship and not the later rights-holder Flamini-Group, which would later often claim this for itself.

The questionable mode at the beginning and the later changes
From the beginning, the concept of this World Cup was that the overall winner would be determined in two runs. In the beginning, the results were even added up, but after the first event one counting method per run prevailed. First with half points per race and from 1989 the winner received 20 points. Second place went to their 17th and third place was credited with 15 points. The rest of the counting corresponded to the principle as it is today. From 1995 onwards, the method, unchanged since then, came into play, as it has been in the motorcycle world championship since 1993 (since 2002 MotoGP with four-stroke engines instead of the 500cc two-stroke). Since 2016 there has also been a new format with one race on Saturday and the second on Sunday afternoon.

Joey Dunlop († July 2, 2000 in Tallinn, Estonia) – the Northern Irishman from Ballymoney, who was already a legend during his lifetime, could not be missing in the first season of WorldSBK history. With 3rd place in Donington Park he celebrated a befitting entry into the first race of the new world championship.

The Superpole Race – only from 2019
Only in the 32nd year came an additional race in which half points are awarded over 10 laps on Sunday morning. In the Superpole Race, however, only the best 9 drivers receive championship points. Since then, this order has also determined the starting grid for the 2nd race. Before that, the 9 best drivers of the first run always had to start in the reverse order of their finish for the second race. A very questionable handicap formula that was never used in the motorcycle world championship and MotoGP and was luckily abandoned after 2018. The following are the statistics of the Superpole Race winners for the first 2 years since the introduction of sprint racing (2019 to 2020), with a clear and unsurprising dominator.

RiderSP-RaceRace Total
Jonathan Rea118899
Alvaro Bautista51116
Toprak Razgatlioglu235
Scott Redding 145
Jonathan Rea during his tests in Jerez de la Frontera on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR of the model year 2021 – the outstanding best driver of all time leads as 6-time world champion in all important statistics of the WorldSBK (© Kawasaki Racing Team).

Calendar of the first Superbike World Championship in 1988

At the premiere there were only 9 rounds and the choice of venues was quite exotic. After all, three races took place overseas and one behind the “iron curtain” at the gates of the Danube city of Budapest. The early date for the season opener at Donington Park was chosen quite optimistically, as the temperatures in England at the beginning of April are often less than ideal. One can also imagine how the long journeys to Japan, Australia and New Zealand have deterred some private drivers. However, this World Cup was primarily introduced at the request of the Japanese plants.

Entry List Superbike Donington 1988

As you can see from the official list, all brands of rank and name were represented, as well as numerous top drivers of the time. It was just as unnecessary to introduce Joey Dunlop in the 80s as, for example, Virginio Ferrari. They were racing idols of their time, but to be on the safe side, here are the Italians most important successes:

1978 – Italian 500cc champion on Suzuki
1978 – Italian 750cc champion on a Yamaha
1979 – 500 cc vice world champion in a Suzuki
1985 – Italian F1 champion in a Ducati 750 F1
1987 – TT-F1 world champion in a Bimota YB4 R.

Virginio Ferrari on the Nava-Gallina Suzuki RG 500. The Italian was runner-up behind “King Kenny” Roberts and ahead of Barry Sheene on the works Suzuki in the 1979 500cc World Championship.

Long list of well-known names
Other illustrious names such as Marco Lucchinelli, Davide Tardozzi, Stéphane Mertens, Robert Dunlop, Fabrizio Pirovano and many other at least nationally well-known names graced Donington’s entry list. In addition, with the three-time AMA Superbike champions Fred Merkel, Bubba Shobert and Doug Polen top riders from the USA. As the icing on the cake, strong drivers from Australia and New Zealand also competed, some of them only at the races in their region, which was especially true for the Japanese participants.

Davide Tardozzi on the Bimota in the first year of the Superbike World Championship in 1988. A short time later, the Italian was responsible for several world titles as team principal for the Ducati Superbike factory team and later moved to the management of the MotoGP team of the Reds (© WorldSBK).
If you look at all the sensationally strong riders Fred Merkel beat in his AMA Superbike career, you get reverent. Here the years 1984 to 1986 in the US American SBK Championship of the Californian, with the most important successes. He was the most reputable man from the USA, who was there from the beginning in 1988.

Numerous importers showed exemplary commitment
The long list of participating teams also underlines how many national importers were involved in top-class racing at the time. Today, you almost cry when you take a closer look at this broad commitment. From a German point of view in particular, it was simply sensational how broadly based the representation was compared to today at this time. A driver of the format of Markus Reiterberger, Sandro Cortese, Jonas Folger or Philipp Öttl would definitely have been spoiled for choice back then.

Donington Park in July 2019 – one of the most beautiful routes in the World Superbike calendar was the restaurant that premiered in 1988 and, luckily, is still the venue for the most important near-series championship worldwide.

The start of the season of the first Superbike World Championship

The track in Donington had a different layout at the time and the part with the Melbourne Hairpin did not yet exist for WorldSBK. So it went straight to the start with a chicane.

Opening winner Tardozzi makes history, but misses world championship points
The first round of the Superbike World Championship was held on April 3, 1988 in Donington. Davide Tardozzi won this race in a Bimota ahead of Marco Lucchinelli (Ducati) and TT legend Joey Dunlop (Honda). Lucchinelli won the second run, while Tardozzi fell one lap before the end and then the laps and times were added. The rider who was later much more successful as Ducati team boss was thrown out of the ranking, which of course was total nonsense.

The official result of the first race in WorldSBK history, in which the winner should leave without points in the end. It was the later MotoGP manager for Ducati, Davide Tardozzi. His motorcycle was a Bimota with the Yamaha FZR-750 engine.
The official result of the second race in WorldSBK history, in which the failed drivers had bad luck despite some excellent results in the first run.

Many dnf”s shaped the series and season opener in England
A total of 10 drivers did not see the checkered flag in the first race, 6 of them due to a fall. As a result, for example, the Canadian Michel Mercier (Suzuki), in tenth place, lost his championship points in the first race due to his crash 19 laps before the end. Just like his compatriot Rueben McMurter (Yamaha), who missed the checkered flag for only one lap, after P13 in the first run.

The official combined result of the first WorldSBK round at Donington Park on Sunday April 3, 1988.
The first 3 of the overall standings from the left Marco Lucchinelli as the winner, Fred Merkel (P2) and Tourist Trophy legend Joey Dunlop in 3rd place. The Northern Irishman lost his life 12 years later in a street race in Tallinn (Estonia).
Local hero Roger Burnett (Honda) – like Davide Tardozzi, another victim of the questionable regulations, which were only valid for the first lap in Donington. The Englishman crashed in the first half of the race and in the second race he finished on the podium behind Lucchinelli and Merkel. There were still no points for him at that time, otherwise he would have made it to 10th place in the final World Championship (© WorldSBK).

Improved regulations for the second round
Of course, such a questionable and unjust regulation could not be continued. Therefore, the runs were rated individually from the second round of the World Cup, but with half points in the first year. Of course, this was also quite nonsense, which is why every run was counted in full from 1989 onwards.
Changes to the regulations in detail:
– The first round (Donington) was contested in two rounds, which resulted in a cumulative classification.
Scale: 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
– The French event was reduced to a single lap due to a busy schedule.
Scale: 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9.8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
– The other events, which are played in two rounds, mean that separate points are awarded for each round.
Scale: 10, 8.5, 7.5, 6.5, 5.5, 5.4.5, 4, 3.5, 3, 2.5, 2, 1.5, 1, 0.5.

Fabrizio Pirovano (Yamaha FZR750) – the most consistent of all drivers in the 1988 season. With the exception of his fall in the 1st round of Sugo (Japan), the Italian saw the checkered flag within the points ranks after 9 laps in every race (© WorldSBK).

The 2nd round of the World Championship on the Hungaroring

It continued with round 2 on the Hungaroring near Budapest. Donington’s second overall Fred Merkel on the Honda RC30 shared a race win with Adrien Morillas on a Kawasaki. Thanks to a fourth place in the first race, the French also had overall victory ahead of Davide Tardozzi, Stéphane Mertens (both Bimota) and US-Boy Merkel. Below are the first 20 of the 1st run on the Hungaroring.

Adrien Morillas on the red painted Kawasaki, the most successful rider of the 2nd round of the new Superbike World Championship in 1988. The Frenchman did not compete in Donington. He was the first winner of the Japanese brand, which later usually appeared mostly green.
The HungaroRing near the Hungarian capital Budapest – in the first three years of the Superbike World Championship, restaurant for the second and in 1990 the third round. For a short time at the beginning of the 1990s, the motorcycle world championship was also a guest.
The top ten of the championship after round 2 with the race of Hungary.
Fabrizio Pirovano (Yamaha FZR-750) – at the second event of the season, the northern Italian busily collected points in both races and in the World Championship he was third behind Fred Merkel and Marco Lucchinelli after Hungary.

World Championship round 3 at the Hockenheimring

From the program booklet at that time, the route sketch with the fastest laps at that time in various categories. For the newly introduced Superbike World Championship, Virginio Ferrari’s record was used as a reference.

No luck for the world championship leader
Fred Merkel traveled to Hockenheim as world championship leader, but the sunnyboy from California had to be content with P17 in the first race and crashed one lap in the second run. The big hour came for Davide Tardozzi on the Bimota, who was piloting one of the best chassis, combined with one of the best engines of the time. It was the phenomenal motor of the Yamaha FZR-750, with 5 valves per cylinder. The top positions in the 1st run were very international. Behind the Italian, the Frenchman Bouhene was second ahead of the Portuguese Vieira on P3. Fourth was the Swiss Weibel ahead of the Englishman Burnett in fifth and as sixth the Northern Irishman Joey Dunlop, one of the most important legends of the TT.

Promoter Steve McLaughlin (in der Mitte) mit zwei der bekanntesten Deutschen Fahrer, Manfred Fischer und “Kamikaze Gustl” Reiner (rechts im Bild), der gelernte Betonbauer starb am 24. November 2007 an Herzversagen.
Start in Hockenheim with Weibel (44), Burnett (9), Guignabodet (66), Hofmann (17), Dunlop (3), Mertens (6), Rubatto (52) and Tardozzi (2). Far right with the Portuguese 45 Alex Vieira.
Bimota works rider Davide Tardozzi was world championship leader, here is a picture of him together with Troy Bayliss, when the Italian was very successful as team boss for Ducati. After three out of 9 rounds in the first year of WorldSBK, the then 29-year-old from Ravenna was the new World Championship leader as a double winner at Hockenheim.
The top ten of the championship after round 3 with the race of Germany.

The 4th round in Austria

The original Österreichring had a much better layout than today’s Red Bull Ring. Turn 4 is just a bend today and hit the headlines with MotoGP in the first Corona year 2020 due to a terrible fall by Franco Morbidelli and Johann Zarco.

1988 still under the name Österreichring and better than today
The Österreichring near Spielberg was a paradise track back then. No comparison with the angular layout, which makes today’s Red Bull Ring one of the most controversial MotoGP circuits. With three pure full-throttle stages separated by narrow corners since the last renovation in 2011 and only one really interesting fourth part with smoother corners, some things were made worse. The average speed at that time was just under 180 km / h, but at least a little below the Hockenheimring at that time.

At the MotoGP race 2018 on today’s course, from the highest point of the route with a view towards Zeltweg. In 1988 and the years thereafter, the course was extremely dangerous due to the guardrails that were in places far too close and should almost cost an Italian driver his life.

Italian winners in the Austrian race
The two race wins were shared by the former 500 cc star Marco Lucchinelli (Ducati 851) and Davide Tardozzi on the Bimota YB4. US boy Fred Merkel crashed on the first lap in race 1 and did not get past 8th place in race 2. The conditions were a little more difficult in the second run because it had gotten wet and the track wasn’t completely dry.

Tardozzi drove the fastest lap on the Bimota with an average of 184,718 km / h (114,778 mph). There were even more drivers who failed and who did not start than listed in this list.
Marco Lucchinelli on the Ducati 851 – the now 33-year-old former Grand Prix driver was one of the favorites for the title, which he underlined with his victory in the first race in Austria.
Christophe Bouheben drove the fastest lap on his Honda with an average of 180,563 km / h (112,196 mph). There were even more drivers who failed and who did not start than listed in this list.

Tardozzi with a clear lead shortly before the middle of the season
The young man from Ravenna had increased his lead in the World Championship with his third race win of the season and a 5th place in the first run and Lucchinelli was now level on points with Pirovano in 2nd place. Fred Merkel, however, was now up after his original World Championship lead the 4th intermediate rank slipped. But there were still 5 events pending and therefore many postponements were still possible.

With already 3 countable victories and despite Donington’s first race win without any points, Davide Tardozzi in particular was well in the race for the title after 4 laps. Behind them his compatriots Marco Lucchinelli and Fabrizio Pirovano. Fred Merkel traveled to Japan well behind.

The journey for World Cup round 5 in Sugo (Japan)

Many local pilots put themselves in the limelight at the event in Sugo, Japan. The track was damp when the first run started, but it was drying out. The Canadian Gary Goodfellow brought a first victory for a Suzuki in the newly launched WorldSBK in the first race. Fred Merkel came second on his Honda in front of another Suzuki from the Japanese Oshima, Mertens (Bimota) and another local hero named Watanabe on the best Yamaha.

Australian Rob Phillis finished sixth ahead of a young New Zealander. His name is Aaron Slight and his name should appear on the results sheets for many years to come. Because Tardozzi and Pirovano had crashed and Lucchinelli was only twelfth behind the many wildcard pilots, Merkel was able to regain significant ground on the leaders in the World Championship.

The second race with an interesting winner
An Australian named Michael Doohan won race two on a Yamaha. Wait a minute, wasn’t there something? Right, under the first name Mick the young man from Down Under was to put his stamp on the Honda of the 500 cc motorcycle world championship a few years later. Tardozzi stayed seated this time and finished fourth behind the Japanese Iwahashi and the New Zealander Goodfellow. Pirovano also saw the checkered flag, but only in 10th place, right in front of Merkel. This time, however, Marco Lucchinelli fell.

What many did not know – before he took off in Grand Prix racing on Honda, Michael “Mick” Doohan was very successful as a superbike rider with a Yamaha. In the first year of WorldSBK he was the 6th winner in the new world championship in Sugo.
Fred Merkel was able to make up some ground with a total of 11 points on the pilots in front of him and after Sugo was 10.5 points behind Tardozzi in second place. The Californian had overtaken Pirovano and Lucchinelli again.
Malcolm Campbell (Australia) ahead of Gary Goodfellow (Canada) – two of the strongest riders in the first Superbike World Championship season in 1988, both of whom ended up in the top ten in the final even though they scored fewer than 5 of the 9 laps (© WorldSBK

2nd half of the year: