Did you hear the news? The World Superbike Championship has officially jumped the shark, with a new wacky formula for the Race 2 grid. At least, that is what the internet seems to think.
I understand the push-back from purists of the sport, as the new rules set forth by the Superbike Commission are nothing short of gerrymandering for the sake of the show.
My right and honorable colleague David Emmett described the changes as violating the “sporting ethos of a World Championship series,” and he’s right. The new rules for the Race 2 grid are not sporting. Not in the least.
But, the key thing here to understand is that motorcycle racing stopped being a sport the second fans showed up and TV contracts were signed. World Superbike competes for viewership, just like any other sport, which means money is made on passes and crashes.
When you look at the realities of the World Superbike Championship too, Dorna’s madness makes a bit more sense. I’m not saying I agree with it, but I at least get what they are trying to accomplish, and why they are doing it. Let me explain.
It’s All About Eyeballs
The first reality we need to deal with is the fact that the World Superbike Championship is struggling for attention.
No, there isn’t some big conspiracy from Dorna to kill World Superbike so MotoGP can prosper, but the production-based series is struggling not only with trackside attendance, but also eyeballs on TV and the internet.
This should be readily known to anyone who follows motorcycle racing enough to care about the new Race 2 grid rules, and we only have to look at the now defunct AMA Pro Road Racing series to understand that once you lose momentum with the media, and thus the fans, then a death spiral ensues for a racing series.
Racing is primarily supported by advertising, and advertising requires eyeballs. Eyeballs come from media exposure, and once you lose the TV contracts, as well as the magazine and website coverage, all the great racing in the world isn’t going to save you.
Understand truly, World Superbike is on the cusp of this reality.
Good, Not Great
The thing is, from a product point of view, World Superbike is good racing. Kawasaki may be dominating the series right now (they should be, for how much they are spending), but we regularly see a solid mix of bikes up front from riders with fan bases around the world.
I would argue that just about anyone in the Top 10 is capable of a podium if it’s their day, and the 2016 season saw three riders with viable chances at taking the Championship overall.
The problem is, for as good as the racing is in World Superbike, it’s still not great.
When you compete against the MotoGP Championship, where nine riders had their day on the top step of the podium this year, where there is an awkward relationship of blame and hate between three of the best riders in the world, and we seen a steady stream of new manufacturers entering the sport with factory efforts…well now, that is great racing.
If one was to look at the World Superbike Championship as a business, and a business it surely is, then it is obvious to see that WorldSBK is trying to compete with MotoGP’s 800 lbs gorilla, with the strategy of simply being a considerably smaller gorilla.
WorldSBK’s problem has been that it’s just like MotoGP, but without the prestige. In the history of the world, the comparable but smaller entity never wins over the larger and stronger one by tackling it head-on.
David didn’t beat Goliath by challenging him to a wrestling match – he won by throwing a freaking rock at the dude’s head.
So, we can talk all day about how the talent pool is just as good in WorldSBK as it is in MotoGP, but we to have to understand that with the production-based machines, sizable differences in team budgets, and much smaller fan attendance, the World Superbike Championship will always viewed as less-than.
This is why WorldSBK riders have such a hard time moving out of the World Superbike paddock and into Grand Prix racing.
Even World Superbike success stories, like Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow, and Colin Edwards are exceptions that prove the rule – riders of great talent, who still only achieved second-string rider status at the height of their GP careers – perhaps, unfairly. But, I digress.
A Manufactured Response
So, what is a motorcycle world championship to do? The harsh reality might be that motorcycle road racing is in fact a boring sport to watch. In terms of a spectator sport, it is downright awful.
Keep in mind, I love motorcycle racing, but even I find it dreadfully boring to watch sometimes…and this is coming from someone who gets get paid to watch it.
When I see a rider like Jorge Lorenzo or Jonathan Rea breakaway at the first corner and never look back, I can appreciate the racecraft, skill, and focus that such a feat requires…but I would probably enjoy watching paint dry more.
Sharpen your pitchforks, purists. There is plenty in that last statement to hate, but first understand that if motorcycle racing was run by people like yourselves, it would have about as much stature as Olympic diving…but without the backing of the International Olympic Committee. That is to say, none.
The Method to the Madness
Gender biases aside, I think the best description I have ever heard of sport is that it is a soap opera for men, and this brings us to our juncture in the World Superbike Championship, which is 100%, without a doubt, totally guilty of trying to manufacture spectacle in its failing approach.
There is a method to this madness though, and I think that it needs to be appreciated further.
Assigning the grid for Race 2 is confusing to do with words, and my colleague Steve English will have a hell of time explaining things next season on the World Superbike world feed.
Hopefully though, Dorna will put on the screen a graphic like the one at the top of this article, because seeing the Race 2 grid visually represented makes a bit more sense, and the key to understanding it resides in understanding World Superbike’s Top 9 riders.
Making the grid shuffle cut-off at the Top 9 riders not only makes for an easy swap around with WorldSBK’s three-bike wide grid layout, but it also dovetails nicely into the realities of the sport.
As I said before, on any given race weekend in the World Superbike Championship, a revolving lottery of the Top 10 riders has a reasonable shot at a podium finish – though some riders are more favored than others.
If you look at the race results, it is clear that there are tiers of riders and teams in the World Superbike paddock, and the tipping point happens after the ninth finishing position, presumably because one out of ten riders is bound to be having a tough week, for one reason or another.
Kawasaki and Ducati certainly hold an advantage in the first group, but the Top 9 riders are all reasonably within each other’s lap times.
The same cannot be said of the next nine riders however, which are usually riders who are not factory-supported, or quite frankly don’t have the skill level to be at the front of the pack.
This is where the safety argument against the new Race 2 grid rule doesn’t hold water.
If the Superbike Commission had proposed a proper reverse-grid concept, then yes it would have been disastrously unsafe. You would see riders who are slower by multiple seconds per lap put in front of much faster riders, who are also fighting for a championship.
It would have been a disaster. But that is not what WorldSBK created in this new grid rule.
Yes, the top three riders from Race 1 will have to battle through two whole rows of slower riders – but those “slower” riders are not slow, with often only a few tenths of a second covering the first nine grid spots.
This means that not only will the closing speeds between the “fast” and “slow” riders be within entirely reasonable margins, but it should still make for some close and hard-fought racing to make up those positions – which is the desired result.
Settling for Fourth?
But what about gaming the system? The argument has been put forth that a rider might opt for a 4th place finish in Race 1, in order to secure a pole-start in Race 2, versus an otherwise third-row position in Race 2. Racers being racers, I am not so sure about that notion…
Even a more level-headed approach would suggest that a podium in the hand is worth two in the bush. That is to say, picking an unknown outcome in Race 2 over three extra points in Race 1 is generally a poor strategy when it comes to expected outcomes.
Maybe the realities of the new grid will prove that analysis wrong (I have some thoughts on doing a proper statistical analysis of it), but I would still be surprised to see a rider in the third position slowing down in the final laps to finish fourth. Even if that was to be the case…would you not be entertained?
A Mountain to Climb
The last item that is germane to this topic is the effect it will have on the overall Championship points, because obviously the new Race 2 grid is going to affect the Top 3 riders the most…the same Top 3 riders that finished the 2016 season with nearly double the points of the 4th, 5th, and 6th place finishers in the championship.
It will be a tough mountain to climb, starting from the third row on the grid, and surely odds are that it means we will see riders finishing Race 2 ahead of the podium group from Race 1. This means not only fewer points for these Top 3 riders, but it also means the relative margins between them will be less as well.
For example, if Rider 1 wins the first race, then he will get five more points than Rider 2, who finished second. Now let’s say the order stays the same, but instead Rider 1 and Rider 2 finish fourth and fifth, respectively. That point gap is now only two points, instead of five.
This means it will be much harder for a rider to run away with a Championship – cough- Johnny Rea – cough. It also means that Saturday’s result will be much more important for the top riders, as it will be the easier day to score larger point margins.
Thus, this means that with one simple rule change, the Superbike Commission may have effectively addressed the three biggest hurdles currently facing the World Superbike Championship.
This new grid positioning increases the racing spectacle between the top riders in the sport; it helps differentiate WorldSBK from MotoGP; and it will curb the chances of a rider or group of riders running away with the series’ lead.
Whether you are a purist or not, whether you are for the new grid or not, aren’t we all just a little too curious to see how this new Race 2 formula plays out at the season-opener in Phillip Island next season? Shouldn’t that at least be considered a positive indication?