The Superbike Commission, governing body for the World Superbike Championship, met at Madrid to introduce a number of changes to the rules for the World Superbike and World Supersport series for 2017.
There were some minor changes to the sporting regulations, as well as a couple of tweaks to the technical regulations. But there were also two major changes which will have a significant impact for next season and beyond.
The biggest change is also the most surprising and the least comprehensible. There is to be a major shake up in the way the grid for the second World Superbike race is set.
The Superpole session run on Saturday morning will continue to set the grid for Race 1. The grid for Race 2, however, will be partially set by the results of Race 1, using a slightly complex formula.
The first three rows of the grid for Race 2 will be filled by the riders who finished in 1st through 9th place in Race 1. They will not, however, line up in their finishing order. The riders who finished in 4th, 5th, and 6th in Race 1 will start Race 2 from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the grid. The riders who finished in 7th, 8th, and 9th will start from 4th, 5th, and 6th.
The riders who finished on the podium, however, will line up on the third row of the grid in reverse order. This means that the winner will line up in 9th, the rider who finished 2nd will start in 8th, and the rider who finished in 3rd will start the race from 7th on the grid.
The grid from 10th place onwards will be set based on Superpole results. That does not necessarily mean that the starting positions 10 through 22 will be the same as in Race 1, however, as riders who started outside of the Top 9 places, but finished 9th or better will move up.
Similarly, riders who qualified in the Top 9 but crashed out or finished outside the Top 9 will be reshuffled down to the fourth row or worse.
All this makes calculating grid positions a little complicated for 10th place and beyond. Basically, the riders who did not finish in the Top 9 in Race 1 will start Race 2 in order of their qualifying time.
Of the remaining riders, the rider with the best qualifying position from Superpole will start from 10th, the second best qualifying position will start from 11th, etc.
The most controversial change is obviously the change to the Top 9, however. In what appears to be an attempt to make the racing a little more exciting, success in Race 1 is to be punished, with the podium finishers being put back to the third row of the grid.
The idea, presumably, is that the best riders from Race 1 will have to make their way through traffic, providing some excitement and making it more difficult for a rider who dominates Race 1 to do the same in Race 2.
This would appear to be a misguided idea for several reasons: firstly, the essence of World Championship motorcycle racing is to find the rider and machine combination that performs best in each race.
Adding additional, complex obstacles to one group while not applying the same to another would appear to violate the sporting ethos of a World Championship series. That risks alienating the hardcore World Superbike fans that are the backbone of the sport.
Secondly, making the way the grid is set so complex risks making it difficult for casual fans to understand what is going on. Fans will find it hard to remember the process, and have difficulty explaining it to their friends.
Though ultimately, grid positions are not the most important part of a race weekend, unnecessary complexity is more likely to make things worse rather than better.
Finally, it is unlikely to make much difference. In 2016, Jonathan Rea, Tom Sykes, and Chaz Davies split the overwhelming majority of race wins among them.
Rea and Davies both won races starting from 6th position, while Sykes won starting from 4th, and finished 2nd starting from 5th. Rea, Sykes, and Davies were dominant throughout 2016, often finishing many seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
Starting from 7th through 9th will slow them up only slightly, and is unlikely to reduce their chances of winning.
Such a system is more likely to result in one rider dominating the second race. With the three best riders on the third row, the chances of them all hitting the front together is slim.
It is more likely that one rider will get a break and get through quickly, while one or both of the others gets caught up briefly. If one of the fastest riders hits the front on his own, he is more likely to get a gap and get away.
An intellectually more interesting question – but one which again highlights the weakness of the new system – is whether it places a premium on finishing 4th. The points differential between finishing 3rd and 4th in Race 1 is 3 points (16 vs 13).
The question riders who find themselves battling for 3rd in Race 1 will have to ask themselves is whether they will gain more points over their championship rivals in Race 2 by starting from pole than they would by taking the 3 extra points for 3rd and starting from 7th, two rows further back.
Battles for 3rd place could devolve into the opposite, a battle for 4th with riders slowing down to try to force the others to overtake. That will not make the championship look very good.
It is easy to guess why the Superbike Commission made such a change. With the popularity of the series languishing, they are trying to find a way to make it more attractive. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, however: they have already split up the two-race format over two days, and moved the races to start at 1pm local time.
They have done this to avoid racing at the same time as Formula One, which they often clash with over the course of the season. The early races make it less attractive to attend each weekend, but more attractive for TV stations, who can show the World Superbike series without the fear of having to go against the ratings juggernaut which is Formula One.
The question is, just how successful will this rule change be? The omens are not particularly good.
The second major change to the rules is far less controversial. World Supersport races are now also to be run under the same flag-to-flag format as World Superbike. This requires a change in the technical rules, to allow parts to be replaced which will make wheel swaps faster.
Source: FIM; Photo: © 2016 Scott Jones / Photo.GP – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.