Tuesday, April 18, 2006

World Superbike back from the brink

Winter 2003-2004 was a dark period for World Superbike. The 2003 season was one of the dullest ever, with Neil Hodgson taking the title a number of races before the end of the season. The field was mostly on Ducatis, after a number of manufacturers took their racing money to go play in MotoGP. Furthermore, the series' organizers decided to implement a control tyre for 2004, the decidedly uncompetitive Pirellis which prompted the remaining manufacturers (except Ducati and Petronas) to clear off as well. Hodgson also left for MotoGP along with mercurial team-mate Ruben Xaus. Meanwhile, MotoGP was flashy, new, funded and full of superstars.

Fast forward to 2006... MotoGP has seen over $50 million worth of sponsorship leave prior to the start of the season, and its grid shrink from 22 to 19 bikes. Many of last year's MotoGP riders have left, including some big names, and most of them have ended up in World Superbike. WSB now has semi-factory entries from Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, augmenting Ducati and Petronas' factory efforts and the myriad of privateer Ducatis. In fact, this weekend at Valencia, the grid will number 34 bikes.

Rather than analyze who's who, let me just say that the reason for this remarkable comeback is two-fold. Firstly, the lack of factory teams and the elimination of "tyre favouritism" has actually made the series more competitive, more exciting and allowed a greater number of riders to potentially win.

Secondly, as MotoGP has hit difficulties, WSB is the next choice for both riders and fans. Let's face it, everyone loves Troy Bayliss, and everyone knows he's THE man when it comes to riding Ducati's superbike. So why not have him back where he's wanted? And racing fans know Alex Barros is really bloody fast (but kind of got the contractual shaft in MotoGP) so they want to see him come into WSB to offer some variety and challenge the regulars. And of course how can you not cheer for Noriyuki Haga? He's a madman on a bike. If you're British, you have the courageous lion-hearted hardman Chris Walker to cheer for. Spaniards will of course support Ruben Xaus, the ultimate example of the bin-it-or-win-it mentality, and 6 foot 3 inches of motorcycle racing mayhem.

WSB has personalities, some of them "damaged goods" in the eyes of the corporations that fund MotoGP teams. We can relate to them because they've been screwed by "the man". They ride the same bikes as we do (in theory) so we can relate to that too. And for the most part, they're likable chaps who can be relaxed in front of the camera because they're outside the pressure cooker of the MotoGP paddock, and in the friendly world of World Superbike. Here's to you, WSB riders, have some fun on Sunday, we'll be watching....

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