Thursday, October 13, 2011

Superbike dispels rules rumors? Not really. And a note from the Dept. of Unintended Consequences

A few days ago, I noticed an item on the web site, in which SBK director Paolo Ciabatti dispelled rumors that the Superbike World Championship would be shifting its rules package towards something resembling the current Superstock rules.

I presume Ciabatti's fairly terse response was in response to a direct question from John Ulrich or someone else at RRW. I obviously don't know what specific rumors JU might've heard, but ever since MotoGP released rules allowing 1000cc production-based (i.e., Superbike) motors to be used in the top-tier championship, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Or, given the name of the director of SBK, perhaps I should say, the other slipper.)

Let me digress for a moment. Years ago, I was working at an ad agency that lost a big account. We were all called into a meeting and the President of the company began by saying, "First, I want to assure you that we're not planning to have any layoffs..."

As the meeting broke up, I turned to a co-worker and said, "Well, better update your resume."

"Why?" she asked. "He said there wouldn't be layoffs."

I explained that there is a whole class of corporate statements which, when made, always mean the opposite of what was said. And indeed, within days, I was told to cut a few salaries in my department.

That was exactly what I thought of when reading RRW's SBK statement.

Let's review the facts...

MotoGP is #1
There have been times in recent history when SBK threatened to usurp Grands Prix as the most popular motorcycle racing series -- at least in some major markets, if not the entire world. Think of the days when Fogarty dominated the series and SBK races were far more popular in the UK than Grands Prix. But year in and year out, MotoGP has worn motorcycle racing's daddy pants.

1,000cc production-based motors really do challenge SBK's role as the top 'production-based' series
With MotoGP as the top tier of motorcycle racing, World Superbikes are left to justify the 'World' part of their name. They've long done so by saying, well, we're the championship for production-based machines. Now that the same motors that power SBK bikes will be used to power some motorcycles in MotoGP, the claim that SBK is the top production-based series is, at best, arguable.

A bone-stock production literbike is already 'super'
Anyone who thinks that even a stock BMW S1000R or Kawasaki ZX-10 isn't a super bike is an idiot. So there's no reason that SBK couldn't swap the SBK rules package for the Superstock package. This would allow them to say they had a true world championship for production bikes, as opposed to production-based bikes. From the point of view of manufacturers, as a marketing tool (and that is exactly what racing is) such rules would if anything increase the value of bragging rights. This would leave the existing Superstock class without a raison d'ĂȘtre, but so what? It could be converted into a European showroom stock class, with lights and mirrors and everything. That would be cool, too.


I guarantee that within a year at the most, SBK will announce a new rules package that will force bikes racing the Superbike World Championship to be far closer to stock than they are now. SBK will not publicly admit that they've been pushed into this change because MotoGP's CRTs have moved into the production-based niche. Instead, the justification will be cost control.

"It's just getting too expensive," they'll say, "to build a competitive superbike under the old rules."

But what will the real consequences of the new rules be? Probably not what they expect.

Firstly, you need to realize that what matters is the total economy of the series. There are a whole bunch of businesses involved; teams, broadcasters, promoters, tracks, and of course sponsors, etc.

While they don't all have to turn a profit in any given year, the total amount of money flowing into those businesses as a result of participating had better be at least a little bit more than the total amount of money flowing out.

Now, the vast majority of Backmarker readers are not big-shots in the world of motorcycle racing. But a lot of you have built a race bike or two. So you can't be blamed if you think that, as a club racer, a huge chunk of your budget is going to go into actually building your bike. And it would be easy to think that building the bikes is the biggest cost associated with putting on the SBK series, too.

You'd be wrong. I had an old friend who occasionally said the most ridiculous shit, but also was occasionally wise. One of the wise things he once offered up was, "Any sufficiently large difference of degree becomes a difference of kind." Running a world championship isn't like club racing, but at a different scale; it's a whole different kind of business.

Once you start flying to Australia for races, or transporting a two-story, two-truck-wide hospitality area with a full restaurant-style kitchen, or bringing a mobile hospital to the track, or bringing 15 camera crews and full production facility to the track... in the context of all those costs, what's actually spent building the bikes is almost trivial.

Let me offer up a valid lesson from club racing. At the club level, you typically have some kind of Supersport or Superstock class for bikes that are not too heavily modified. And you have a 'Sportsman' or 'Superbike' class where almost anything goes. Now, while you could spend an almost limitless amount on your Sportsman-class bike, because there are almost no limits under the rules.

But the fact is that competing in Sportsman is cheaper than competing in Supersport. Why? Because to be competitive in Supersport at the club level, you need to buy a whole new bike every time some OEM releases a new and much-improved model. Whereas, the Sportsman racer can keep tweaking on the same bike for years and years, updating it with parts being sold by frustrated Supersport racers who are parting out last year's bike to pay for this year's model.

Once SBK adopts a much more restrictive set of rules, manufacturers are going to realize the hard way that in order to win, they have to homologate an improved base model.

The cost of developing and homologating a new road bike makes the cost of operating a race team seem like chump change.

My advice to InFront Motorsports is thus, beware of the law of unintended consequences.

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