James Whitham: WorldSBK needs a massive, radical shake-up - Bikesport News

James Whitham: WorldSBK needs a massive, radical shake-up

Picture: Impact Images

In the first of a new and regular column, former GP, WorldSBK and BSB star James Whitham discusses what is still going wrong with the world championship

Six races into the season, six wins for Alvaro Bautista and Ducati. It looks like we’ve been here before except for a different bike and a different rider. Well, in my opinion the rule makers have got to do something to stop it. But it’s easier said than done.

The reasons why are complex and I have got a little bit of sympathy for Dorna because they have made quite a lot of effort to level the playing field, as it were, by bringing in balancing rules we all thought were going to be reasonably effective.

The problem in WorldSBK, particularly this year in the form of Bautista and the new V4 Panigale, is simply that Ducati have done a better job of interpreting the rules. All the manufacturers do it, but not as effectively as Ducati.

There’s no way Kawasaki haven’t done it. They have produced a bike, albeit looking almost the same as last year’s bike, that has significant differences - mainly to the engine. The team needed more revs, so Kawasaki give the homologation road model 600 more revs, and as the race rev limits are a calculation derived from the road bike rev limit this gives the team an extra 600rpm to play with.

To do this they’ve had to completely change the way the camshaft operates the valves. So instead of bucket and shim type valves operation they’ve gone to lighter fork type cam followers instead.

It annoys me a little bit when people say that the Ducati is just an homologation special, because so is the Kawasaki, and the Honda and Yamaha. The R1-M is specifically designed as a sub model of the R1 to give the teams what they need for a competitive Superbike. They all play the same game and the ironic thing is that this year they’re all playing by exactly the same rules.

Let’s not forget also that this is the first year that Ducati have run a four cylinder bike in this championship. Before they’ve always run a big twin. In my day Superbikes, same as the road bikes, were 750 fours, either an RC30, an OW01, or a GSX-RR - four cylinder 750cc. That’s what Superbikes were.

Nobody expected the Ducati to be competitive. So to that end the promoters said we want more manufacturers in there so we’re going to allow twins of up to 1000cc to compete. Even then, in 1988 when the series started nobody expected a big lumpy old fashioned V-twin with a steel trellis frame to be competitive. But it was…

Over the years Ducati have always run a V-twin so the capacity dispensation has been mostly just for them. Aprillia, Honda and even Buell have sporadically run a V-twin 1000 but it’s only ever been Ducati who’ve run consistently in the championship with a twin.

So Ducati have always played to a little bit of a different rule book, not an unfair one, but obviously a V twin isn’t going to rev as high as a straight 4 or a V4 and therefore will never have as much power. And therefore they were given a capacity advantage. And to be fair, that has worked.

This year for the first time ever in the championship, Ducati have played to exactly the same rules as everyone else. The V4 obviously has to be 1000cc and built to the same weight limit. What they’ve done is exactly what all the other manufacturers in the championship have done - except they’ve done a better job.

The reason why is probably they’ve got more experience in MotoGP running a V4 and because they run their famous desmodromic valve system where the valves are opened and closed by cam operation, allowing higher revs. The standard road bike revs to 16,000 rpm. That is unreal! It’s unbelievable.

If I’d said five years ago we’re going to have a 1000cc road bike that revs to 16,000 rpm they’d have said ‘Get out of it!’. But it’s possible because they’re not relying on big valves, necessary to get the fuel in, to be closed by a spring 16,000 times a minute. It’s impossible via the normal cam and spring systems on a road bikes to achieve these revs on a 4 x 250cc cylinder engine. And because the road bike can rev this high, the current rules mean the race bike can also rev like a banshee making it quick.

Dorna and FIM technical boss Scott Smart anticipated this and put a balancing system in place where they can control the revs of a dominant bike after three, six and nine rounds. But the problem is the rule they put in place has to be decided upon the first two bikes from each manufacturer home.

What you’ve got now is an odd situation where you have one Ducati absolutely smashing everybody out of the park in the hands of Bautista and the other three Ducatis are absolutely nowhere. If it wasn’t for Bautista everyone would be saying this new Ducati is a bit of a damp squib.

But because there’s only him dominating, the balancing rules are not going to kick in when they should be kicking in after Aragon, the third event. Smart and his colleagues should be looking at this and saying we’re going to clip them by 500 rpm and see how they go.

They’re not going to do that because everyone apart from Bautista on Ducatis are absolutely nowhere at the minute for many different reasons so what you’ve got when you’re looking at the manufacturer’s championship it is still a Kawasaki and Yamaha packing the places out. Unless a manufacturer dominates with two or three riders the balancing rules are not going to kick in.

And in my opinion Dorna dropping the Superstock class, the big production race class, was a massive mistake. These are the only capacity sportsbikes, worldwide, that are selling in any numbers.

The 600 class as far as road bikes and people walking into their showrooms, and buying an R6 or a CBR6 or a ZX6 or a 675 Triumph or MV, is not happening. They’re not selling any. So the numbers don’t support any kind of 600cc race programme by the manufacturers.

Back in my day of World Supersport every single manufacturer competed. In fact, at one point, I thought it was the way the whole thing was going to go. So did the American organisers. They stopped bigger bikes racing at Daytona really early on for a lot reasons. It is an odd track, I’ve raced there, loved the place but God, when you’ve on a fast bike there, I’m not shy, or wasn’t when I raced, but it’s a frightening place.

So they went to 600s and I thought that road bikes of a 1000cc with 200 bhp would probably get banned which would open the doors to the smaller bikes. But that’s not happened. The only sportsbikes the manufacturers are selling are the big engine ones and as none of the manufacturers are selling 600cc road bikes, it’s not in their interest to pursue a world championship in that class. So for me although I love it, it is a dying class.

In dropping the Superstock 1000 class, Dorna have lost the series that’s the nearest to Superbike in terms of power and most manufacturers produce a suitable bike. You’ve only got to look at how popular the BSB Superstock class is.

Anyone can run one of those things, you buy it, you throw the road going stuff away, you add on some after market kit and for £20-25k you have yourself a bike you can go and win on.

And you look at an average big road bike now, these things have 200bhp so that is a lot of power. Superbike might have 230 or 235bhp now, the difference is not so big. So, if you were a spectator sitting by the side of the track can you, by eyesight, without a stopwatch, distinguish whether someone is going round on a Superstock bike or a Superbike?

The lap time might be the difference between 1m35s and 1m37s. I don’t think you can. So in that respect, it wouldn’t make any difference to the punters. Not at all. If they want to go and see an unavailable, unattainable prototype bike go and see MotoGP.

Superbikes used to be quite the opposite. If you wanted to go and see something you could buy in the shop you’d go and see Superbike racing. It’s now lost all that.

It’s now in between what used to be Superbike racing in the old days and what worked, and MotoGP. They’re neither fish nor fowl, and if the class is to survive they need a massive, radical shake-up.

The first think we’ve got to get back in WorldSBK is exciting, close racing. I was watching the first MotoGP of the year and, to be honest, I was hoping it was not going to be an exciting race. I just didn’t want it to be massively brilliant racing. But it was. Halfway through the race there were ten people who could have won.

I’ve talked about Ducati, the rule book, the V4 engine, desmodromic valves and all that. But the second thing is how well Bautista is riding it. No other Ducati rider is doing anything although I think Chaz will be on the pace when he’s had some saddle time.

Bautista has been brilliant. He has ridden to the bike’s strengths, he’s not brilliant on the brakes but he knows how the electronics work to get you through the corners. He understands all this and he’s got more experience on a V4 Ducati than anybody else in superbike. Look how well he went when Lorenzo couldn’t ride at Philip Island.

I’m not writing Rea off, you can see how well he’s riding, and at some circuits, especially Assen that’ll be enough!

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