Friday, July 27, 2007

Endurance racing, on two wheels

It's a crying shame that motorcycle endurance racing is not more popular. As one of the top three annual races comes around this weekend, the Suzuka 8 Hours, it once again pains me to see that so few people care, and those that do must suffer with very little coverage.

The FIM World Endurance Championship is the pinnacle of motorcycle endurance racing. This series boasts the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Bol d'Or and the Suzuka 8 Hours, along with six hour races at Qatar and Albacete and a 24 hour race at Oschersleben. It's a short run, with just six events, but entry lists are always large, featuring some very professional teams and a number of riders who have made a name for themselves in the top levels of bike racing.

What should make endurance racing appealing to fans is the fact that the bikes are more closely-related to street bikes than a typical superbike. They still have all the trick parts that one would expect to see on a superbike like quick shifters, switchable engine mappings, top-of-the-line suspension, custom swingarms, lightweight adjustable racing controls and hi-tech dash displays. What's cool though is that they have lights, and they have engines that are designed to last longer than two 45-minute sprint races. For a streetbike rider looking to have the most race-rep bike on the block, they should be looking at endurance bikes, not a typical superbike, for inspiration. The piercing light beam of an HID xenon endurance headlight is ten times more bling than MotoGP-style coloured pinstriping on wheels or powder-coated tyre valve caps.

One particular bit of endurance kit is actually even more exotic than its equivalent on a world superbike: the quick change systems. This allows wheels to be changed in a matter of seconds, and includes brake calipers that open up like the pincers of a crab to make room for the new wheel. These highly developed systems are ferociously expensive but critical to the success of top-running endurance racers.

The Suzuka 8 Hours is possibly the most important race on the calendar. It's here where the world championship meets up with the Japanese Superbike championship, itself a highly-competitive series. Bikes in the JSB are often fitted with parts that haven't yet made it to MotoGP, never mind the World Superbike Championship or other top domestic series like those in Britain and the USA. The Japanese manufacturers will use JSB teams to test new innovations, so it's no surprise to learn details such as how the Honda superbikes in JSB are far more developed than those in the AMA championship.

Since the 8 Hours is such an institution, the manufacturers take it very seriously, often bringing in special riders from around the world to run in it. In the past this has included Valentino Rossi, COlin Edwards, Daijiro Kato, Nori Haga, Alex Barros, Aaron Slight and Doug Polen. This year sees the arrival of James Toseland, Carlos Checa, Yukio Kagayama, Ryuichi Kiyonari, Steve Martin, Warwick Nowland, Norick Abe and Jamie Stauffer, to name just a few of the stars.

So it's got bling-laden bikes, some of the top names in racing and provides eight hours of entertainment. Why, then, does the Suzuka 8 Hours (and the FIM Endurance Championship as a whole) get so little attention? To answer that, I need to reflect on my experience this year covering the Japanese SuperGT series. Japan is lucky in that it has significant support on home soil for its own motorsport activities. JSB, SuperGT and Formula Nippon are all very well-attended and get good coverage in their domestic media. As a result, not much time is spent on promoting these championships beyond Japan. If you're not in Japan, finding information, news or photos becomes very difficult, especially as web search engines have difficulties cataloging Japanese websites.

The problem for the Championship is actually a bit different, and one shared by car endurance racing: due to the length of the races, it takes some clever marketing on the part of organizers to keep trackside crowds engaged. The ALMS has done a great job of this with Radio Le Mans, and a similar setup for endurance racing would be a big help. Streaming it on the web might attract more of an international audience too. It doesn't help that the current TV package for FIM World Endurance is pretty poor, and doesn't really do very well at telling the stories of the race.

I honestly believe that endurance bike racing could be much better marketed and promoted, because I think as a sports entertainment product there is a lot of potential. Now that the FIM has officially taken control of the promotional aspects of the WEC from World Superbike organizers the Flammini brothers, we can expect a change. I hope that it is for the better.


Clive said...

Much of what you say about endurance bikes is true too of Le Mans type car racing in comparison to F1. Endurance car racing has always been the poor relation to "the pinnacle of Motorsport" and I think the reason lies in the length of the events.

It takes a lot more dedication on the part of the fans to watch a 24-hour race rather than a two-hour blast around a fairly short track. And the difficulties involved in televising lengthy races is also pretty obvious - the Le Mans event gets separated into segments for TV, for instance, and rare is the viewer who will manage to catch each segment.

So I think MotoGP will always have the upper hand over endurance races, even though your description of the bikes and riders make it quite clear how interesting endurance racing can be.

Rob said...

Endurance racing is tough, for the participants and the spectators. It's always going to be niche in my opinion for as Clive says, having the dedication and the time to watch such a race, let alone a series, is a major draw on anyone's time. Events like this just don't transfer to TV well either.

Being there is the best way to experience these races. Take an event like the Bol d'Or; the racing is going on, but also pretty much a full-on festival at the same time so that everyone can take a break from the race, do something else, and come back to it all later, but without totally losing touch with events. People attend for the whole experience, not just the racing.