The 2nd half of 1988 – the 1st year of the Superbike World Championship

After Sugo’s race in Japan, the second half and 2 European rounds continued in Europe before the final in Australia and New Zealand was approaching. Davide Tardozzi (Bimota) was ahead of US boy Fred Merkel (Honda), Fabrizio Pirovano (Yamaha), Marco Lucchinelli (Ducati) and Stéphane Mertens (Bimota) in the intermediate championship ranking. TT legend Joey Dunlop was still 6th behind the Belgian. But the Northern Irishman had decided not to continue in Austria and Sugo after the first three rounds, after having taken part in Donington Park, Hungaroring and Hockenheim.

Fred Merkel, born on September 28, 1962 in Stockton, California, was one of the most colorful figures in the paddock – here is a picture from his time at the AMA. In his homeland he was multiple Superbike champion and beat drivers like Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz.
The calendar of the first SBK World Championship still had a manageable 9 rounds. The main initiator and rights holder of the series was the American Steve McLaughlin, himself a former Superbike rider in the United States of America.

Le Mans – the WSBK round 6 in France

With the Bugatti Circuit in Le Mans, a traditional track was the next stop on the calendar for the sixth of 9 laps of the Superbike World Championship. In France there was a special feature this time, because only one run was held and, for once, not only half points could be won, as after the season opener in Donington. It was a rain race that started at 3:30 p.m. very late. While Pirovano won, the Frenchman Eric Delcamp on Kawasaki took second podium for France and the Kawasaki Team France with second place behind the Italian. In Hungary, it was Adrien Morillas who even won the 2nd race there on April 30, 1988. Belgian Stéphane Mertens secured his fourth podium of the season with third place ahead of Alex Vieira, Christophe Bouhaben and Fred Merkel (all Honda).

The cathedral of Le Mans, definitely worth a visit, as well as the old town beginning on the left in the picture.
Davide Tardozzi (Bimota) – the Italian lost his position as world championship leader after the half-time of the season and then lost more and more important points. This was also the case at Le Mans, where the future Ducati manager did not get past 12th place. After the 6th round, his compatriot Fabrizio Pirovano on a Yamaha took the lead in the World Championship (© WorldSBK).

Round 7 in Estoril – the last European race of the season

On September 11th, 1988 the new World Championship continued with round 7 in Estoril with the last European race. With Stéphane Mertens and Davide Tardozzi, the two pilots on the Bimota YB4 shared their two race victories in Portugal. The 5-valve, four-cylinder Yamaha engine on this bike was a piece of cake, the author of this article can tell a ditty of it. With the Bimota chassis in combination with the Yamaha engine, the Italian was the man to beat this season. With four victories up to the Autodromo do Estoril and further podium finishes up until then, Tardozzi seemed to be on the way to the title. But there were still two races left, and they couldn’t be much further away from Europe than they were with Australia and New Zealand.

Stéphane Mertens on the Bimota YB4 was one of the most consistent riders of the first WSBK season in 1988. With five podiums and one win, the Belgian fought for the first Superbike title in history with his team-mate Davide Tardozzi (© WorldSBK).

The World Cup pre-final with the penultimate round in Australia

The race track in Australia was only 2.649 km (1.646 miles) long, which is not really World Cup worthy. In Oran Park, a young man landed a one-two victory that a few years later would drive his opponents to despair in the motorcycle world championship. His name was Michael Doohan and he competed in his home race on a Yamaha. He had already won a race while driving in Sugo, Japan. The then 23-year-old Australian was unbeatable on the home track southwest of Sydney. For the Marlboro Yamaha Dealer Team, Quick Mick, as he would soon be called, won a flawless double victory on the Yamaha FZR 750. The best foreigner in the first race was Fred Merkel in 4th place.

For Fred Merkel things got even better in the second race because this time he even finished 3rd ahead of Rob Phillis on his Kawasaki. The many fast Australians and the New Zealander Goodfellow snatched away the European competitor of the American strong points. Tardozzi in particular had to give up a lot with ranks 11 and 10.

In the first year of the Superbike World Championship in 1988, this young man from Australia won with a Yamaha, each time over 20 seconds ahead of his closest pursuer and compatriot Michael Dowson. Shortly afterwards Michael Doohan became Mick and 6 years later on a Honda he was to become 500 cc world champion for the first of 5 times in a row (© WorldSBK).
Before the final event in New Zealand it was now incredibly exciting, as the first 4 drivers in the intermediate ranking were only 10.5 points apart.

Ready for the showdown in the land of the kiwis

Davide Tardozzi was still in the lead with 86 points, but his compatriot Pirovano and Fred Merkel were close on his heels, just 2.5 points behind. While Marco Lucchinelli was already out of the race for the World Cup, Stéphane Mertens also had halfway intact chances. But with 75.5 points, the Belgian had to hope that the pilots in front of him stumbled shortly before the end. With Manfeild in New Zealand, the venue for the World Championship final could hardly have been more exotic. As expected, the entry list was quite manageable at the time. In addition to 4 Britons including the Northern Irishman Robert Dunlop, the two Italian World Cup aspirants Tardozzi and Pirovano were there together with the Belgian Stéphane Mertens. Except for the Canadian Douglas, US boy Fred Merkel was the only one who did not come from Australia or New Zealand

Marco Lucchinelli (Ducati) 1988 on the Österreich-Ring – the former 500cc driver also won the first race in Spielberg after the overall standings in Donington. In the second race at today’s Red Bull Ring, however, he only managed 5 laps and lost important points in order to fight for the World Championship until the end (© WorldSBK).

The decision for the world title in Manfeild

Fred Merkel won only his second World Championship round of the season with the first race and thus took the World Championship lead just before Tardozzi. Pirovano came in second, while local hero Gary Goodfellow (Honda) and Australian Rob Phillis (Kawasaki) were two drivers ahead of Tardozzi and Mertens. With that, the Belgian was already out of the running for the title and the last round of the season had to decide on the title.

Stéphane Mertens won the last World Championship round of the season ahead of Aussie Malcolm Campbell (Honda) and Kawasaki rider Rob Phillis. With 5th place, the American Fred Merkel secured his first title as Superbike World Champion on a Honda. With the international WorldSBK world title he finally crowned his career after 3 AMA SBK titles and entered the year after with the No. 1 on his Honda as defending champion. Tardozzi fell and Pirovano couldn’t get past 13th place.

Fred Merkel as AMA Superbike Champion on a Honda. Even then, Konstanz was his strength when he made it into the top 5 nine times in his first championship year and won two final races. Before his AMA Superbike career, he finished fifth in the Formula 1 Championship in 1983.
Again Fred Merkel on a Honda in the AMA Superbike Championship – in the early 1980s the bikes only had one handlebar casing.

The ranking of the first Superbike World Championship 1988 – P1 to 36

The podium of the first Superbike race in history in Donington with from left winners Marco Lucchinelli, Fred Merkel (P2) and the third Joey Dunlop (© WorldSBK).

Rank 37 to 68

At the Imola Superbike Event in 2019, Fred Merkel’s Honda VFR 750 RC 30 was presented in the paddock, with which Fred Merkel won the first two titles in 1988 and 1989.

The year 1989: