Let me preface this with I LOVE racing - cars, trucks, and motorcycles - be it on road or off. Heck, I even like to watch boat racing, but confess to knowing virtually nothing about it. I LOVE competition. The unwavering quest for speed, and the innovation it creates, is intoxicating to me. When it trickles down to the average Joe, we get cool things like ABS, traction control, Trick 5 axis sensors, and other really interesting toys. These gadgets, for better or worse, help us go faster and be safer. Now, this has absolutely nothing to do with this article, but you, my friendly reader, should take this to heart as you read.
Recently, I’ve been focusing my attention on motorcycle racing, which just started back up. The World Superbike (WSBK) season kicked off the at the amazing Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on Feb 26-28th. While I’ve dismissed Phillip Island as a track at which I can use as a yardstick, the track’s elevation, breathtaking views, and good racing never disappoint. It would come as no surprise to anyone following the preseason results that Jonathan Rea had a great weekend, picking up on wins in both races. The reigning WSBK champion may have bemoaned his Kawasaki in the preseason, but he clearly has one of the best machines and is still on top of his game. These wins weren’t terribly hard fought, as Rea seemed to be able to click off the laps and pounce whenever he pleased. There was some amazing racing by all the front runners, like Chas Davies on his amazing sounding Panigale, Michael van der Mark on his Honda, and Tom Sykes on the second factory Kawasaki. Overall, the first two races, with additional battles all over the pack, were great to watch.
This past weekend was round two for the WSBK championship at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand. Rea came into this round, clearly favored, after dominating round one. However, it was Van Der Mark that stole pole, two tenths of a second ahead of the identical times of the Kawasaki team. Both Rea and Sykes had great starts in race one. With Rea leading going into turn one, the game was afoot. Van Der Mark fell to 6th before turn 2, but regained his composure and quickly made it back up to 4th. Before the end of the first lap, Sykes would eventually pass Rea and would stay there for most of the race. On the second lap, Van Der Mark would charge by Davies to claim the third spot. I’ll admit the race gets a little “boring” up front but the riders between 5th and 10th places enter a multi-lap grudge match. Passes are thrown left and right as the field juggles about for most of the race. It’s like a professional boxing match with more than 20 riders exercising their machines at 11/10ths for 20 laps.
Race two was even more fun to watch. The usual suspects were all up front and Van Der Mark managed not to botch his start. By turn one Sykes was leading with Van Der Mark tipping it in to close the door on Rea. Rea recovers and is back into second place by turn three, and as Van Der Mark falls to third running wide Davies tries to make a move on the inside. This results in a little contact between the two, but “Rubbings racing” right? By the end of the first lap the Kawasaki’s have gapped the field a little and the race quiets down a little. Lap after lap Rea seems to stalk Sykes never being more than a few tenths behind. From time to time Rea pulls out in what looks like an honest attempt at a pass, but nothing materializes. Rea, clearly a racing with his head, never forces anything early on. In the meantime the battle between Van Der Mark and Davies heats up as well as. By lap 10 both battles are sizzling with Rea actually making a move and steals the lead from Skyes but only for a moment. Rea runs wide relinquishing the lead almost as soon as it’s taken. By lap 12 Davies is lurking very close to the kawasaki team having left Van Der Mark behind. Rea must have known this because as soon as Davies is within striking range, Rea passes his teammate. But this move is also short lived as the next lap Rea runs turn three wide, letting both Sykes and Davies by. With five laps to go Rea pounces on Davies going into turn four. The last few laps are some of the best racing I’ve seen in a long time. Rea is really working the bike in order to have the momentum and the lines to pass his teammate. But Sykes’s pace is simply astounding even while being pressured from behind. It becomes a three way battle for all the positions on the podium. Sykes does make his bike very wide from time to time, and holds Rea off to take the win!
After watching both the Thai races, I kept thinking that I haven’t seen good, close racing like this in years. MotoGP has some of these qualities from time to time, but I feel like the WSBK organizers really have evened out the field. This means continued close racing with lots of passing and amazing battles all over the pack. I think another reason I like watching WSBK is the relationship the motorcycles of the series have with its road-going brethren. Essentially, the sanctioning body of WSBK, Federation of International Motorcycling (FIM), bases the series around motorcycles that are homologated for road use. Sure, there are tiny rules, like 1.2.1 that specifies that a road going model can cost as much as $45,000. However, if you have the coin, you can buy this bike and ride it everyday. Yes, that may be hard to stomach for most, but if you look at the vast majority of the sport bikes in the 1000cc range, nearly all can be had for less than half that.
I also believe the FIM has done a great job reducing the cost to race WSBK, which helps spur entries and innovation from private teams. It may not seem like a popular opinion to have the FIM force rules upon a series, but I believe that by keeping costs down, teams discover how to implement technology gained from MotoGP in a cost efficient way. What this means for the average Joe is a liter bike with more than 200hp, traction control, and is feather light for around $15,000.
The old NASCAR adage, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” still holds true in this form of motorcycle racing. Anyone can literally walk into a dealership and ride out on machines that are very close to what your favorite WSBK racer rides. Because of this and the competitive races, I’ll continue to watch WSBK for the rest of the season with baited breath. I’m also making plans to travel up to Monterey to watch the American WSBK round live. I’m telling you folks, if you aren’t watching WSBK this season, you’re missing out!