WorldSBK: Will we ever see a return to wild days?
Rose tinted glasses are a constant danger. It’s why the memories of great races cloud your view. It’s why we remember great races for being great seasons. In WorldSBK one of the most historic rounds was Imola 2002. It was a classic title decider that went down to the wire between two Superbike greats. Colin Edwards vs Troy Bayliss. Honda vs Ducati. It capped off a remarkable season. A season for the ages! What could be better?
The rose tints would certainly say that nothing could be better than that season. They don’t however paint the picture of what transpired during that season. It was dominance that swung from Bayliss to Edwards. The duo won all but one race. Imola was a tremendous occasion but it didn’t mean that it was tremendous season.
At that time wildcards were still playing an integral part of the Superbike World Championship. For a series born in 1988 the ability to have locals turn up and perform was a major draw. At this point in Grand Prix racing it was still possible to buy a chassis and engine and race on the world stage but to actually have a chance of winning on a regular basis? That was still all but impossible.
WorldSBK offered riders a chance of a more level playing field. You could get on your bike, show what they could do and drive home on Sunday knowing that you’d put yourself in the shop window. For one weekend a year local riders tested themselves against the best in the world. If you had the right package and were made of the right stuff you could pitch up and beat up the best in the world.
Mick Doohan turned up as a recently turned 23 year old at Sugo in 1988 and promptly won a race. He’d do the double later in the year at Oran Park. Within twelve months he was a 500GP podium man. It was a similar story for another legendary Aussie talent; Anthony Gobert. Winning on his fourth start was parleyed into a full-time ride for 1995 and eventually into a factory Suzuki 500GP seat.
It was the same in 2002, a season long remembered for the final round at Imola, but wildcards still competed regularly that season. Whether it was Nicky Hayden making his World Championship debut at Laguna Seca, and missing out on a podium on his debut by half a second, wildcards could put the world on notice to their talents.
At the time Hayden was highly touted from his AMA successes. Before the end of the summer a tug of love developed between Yamaha and Honda for his services in MotoGP. Instead of waiting a year he turned that into an immediate move to MotoGP. His performance at Laguna Seca gave credence to the notion he was the next talent to come from America.
A year earlier it was Steve Hislop shocking the WorldSBK paddock by smashing the outright lap record at Donington Park. The 39 year old was sensational that season. His back and forth British Superbike title fight with John Reynolds was a classic and until a crash at Rockingham ruled him out of contention it had been an incredibly close title fight.
Hislop went to Donington Park that year as an incredibly confident wildcard, just as Neil Hodgson had been 12 months earlier, knowing that he had a chance to upset the apple-cart. Pole and a podium was his reward but, once again, BSB had put their warning out to the world that if you came to Britain you best beware of the locals. Two years later Shakey Byrne was doing the double at Brands Hatch and turning a BSB title winning campaign into a factory seat with Aprilia in MotoGP.
Byrne wasn’t the only rider to use a WorldSBK wildcard as a stepping stone to MotoGP. After taking three wins out of four at Sugo Makoto Tamada moved to MotoGP and within two years he had won twice in the premier class. Wildcard success could be the springboard to a world of opportunity.
Nowadays? That’s not so often the case. Wildcards still populate the grid at certain rounds of WorldSBK-most notably the Italian races-and they have some success but it’s not at the scale of what we had seen in the past. Much of that comes from having different regulations in different championships. BSB with pared-down electronics, Australia runs Superstock bikes and MotoAmerica has a severe lack of depth in the Superbike class and a lack of full-factory support in 2020.
Universal Superbike regulations would certainly make it easier for teams and riders to try their luck on the world stage again. For MotoAmerica, which runs to the same technical regulations, the problem has been that WorldSBK has rolled into town with MotoAmerica as a support class. The goal for teams is winning their championship so it’s understandable that top teams opted out of wildcarding and doubling up their workload for a shot of international success.
Sponsors have come onboard with the expectation of winning the national championship rather than having a share of world-wide television exposure. It’s a shame because in recent years who wouldn’t want to have seen Cameron Beaubier or Toni Elias lining up for Yamaha and Suzuki on the WorldSBK grid.
In BSB the regulations make it almost impossible for riders to race competitively when we’ve seen them wildcard. The series is the strongest domestic championship in the world, it draws huge crowds and bumper grids. The level required to mix it at the front of BSB is very high but without electronics wildcards from the series are at too much of a disadvantage.
Instead of wildcards trying to mix it at the front they’re using it as an extended test session. In recent years Mason Law, Gino Rea and Jake Dixon have all competed in BSB spec machinery to get extra track time. Dixon, now a Moto2 rider, acquitted himself well to finish inside the top ten but was 50s behind the race winner. It didn’t show a talent gap on Dixon’s part it illustrated the technical gulf between the series.
In the past it was much easier for teams to jump in and perform as a wildcard. Nowadays regular teams actually have the chance to compete for a full season with a more level playing field than ever before though.
The regulations, as they’re set at the moment, allow teams to purchase almost the same specification of bike as the factory team. Engine power, electronics and the majority of chassis packages are all remarkably similar. Of course the factory teams, Kawasaki Racing Team for instance, will always have an advantage in terms of man power, but the package can be the same for a privateer squad.
Having the same machinery available takes away one of the major obstacles standing in a wildcard’s way. Suddenly it’s possible to line up on the grid with a bike almost the exact same as Jonathan Rea. If you’re talented enough you might be able to do something to stand out and give yourself a chance.
It’s not the same as the “good old days” but it’s definitely been a step in the right direction. The days of seeing Japanese riders dominate at Sugo or British riders at Brands Hatch aren’t as common as they used to be but the opportunity for a team to compete are now much easier. Ten Kate Racing have been showing this with their switch to Yamaha and the potential for other teams to do the same is there.
Maybe in time we’ll see more regulations aligned to allow a return of the wildcard but maybe a future with fuller grids of competitive bikes isn’t too bad either…
Picture Credits: WorldSBK.com and Racing Lowdown