With Sylvain Guintoli crowned world champion after a winner takes all shootout in Qatar the World Superbike championship should be looking forward to a future as bright as the floodlights at Losail but it’s hard to have optimism for the championship given what’s happened in recent years. Since taking control of WSBK last year Dorna has held all the cards in short circuit international motorcycle racing and it’s been interesting to see how they’ve tackled the problems presented in the Superbike series.
With falling crowd and only a handful of commercially viable rounds in the series the long term viability of the product is clearly under threat. The TV contracts and audiences are holding up at the moment with good partnerships in place in numerous countries but once the cameras pan from the racing to a shot of a sparsely populated grandstand the overall health of the series comes sharply into focus.
This alone can be overcome; after all in the mid-nineties it was MotoGP that was struggling for crowd numbers and WSBK was pulling in massive, raucous crowds around the world. There is strength in the series, the manufacturer interest attests to this, but finding a way to get people through the turnstiles is key for the future.
When you speak with riders about the series they clearly love the challenge of riding a contemporary Superbike but racing in front of empty grandstands at all but a handful of races must start to wear on them as much as the rest of the paddock. The Italian rounds, at Misano and Imola, are hugely popular with the Italian fans creating an atmosphere to rival that at a MotoGP event but when you compare that to the majority of the calendar it’s a stark contrast.
The British round of the championship, held at Donington Park, should be one of the highlights of the season. When people think of the glory days of Superbikes the first thoughts are generally back to the days of “Foggy mania” at Brands Hatch and Donington where there were no free seats and mass hysteria greeted Fogerty anytime he left his garage. Those same fans made a similar atmosphere at Assen, which felt like a third British round for many years.
This year at Donington Park the crowd number was 20,000 and according to many within the paddock this was an optimistic figure. With so many British riders in the series, including the then reigning world champion, and great racing on track how could there be so few fans coming through the gates?
When asked about the state of the series and the falling attendances Dorna’s Javier Alonso at first denied that there was an issue and that in the past he felt that crowd numbers had been exaggerated. There might be some validity to his claims but only a cursory look at footage from the past wouldn’t bear out his assertion that the series is in good health and that attendances can rival those heady days although the Spaniard does admit that some rounds are in much better health than others.
“I don’t think that the crowd numbers have fallen, I think that probably the crowd numbers that were published some years ago were not real,” said Alonso. “We are working together with all the promoters to try and get the best show. It’s true that in some places we get better crowds than in other places.
“When you compare Magny Cours with Aragon, Magny Cours is a fantastic race track with quite a good number of people and it doesn’t happen in Spain right now. We’re trying to work to educate people how good WSBK is and that they should be coming to WSBK to see it but that takes time. It also takes riders and we’re working to have riders of different nationalities that will help us grow the championship.”
Having riders of different nationalities is a common ploy of Dorna to try and raise interest in their series. We’ve seen it for many years in MotoGP where Dorna have placed riders in different teams to try and increase interest in a country. According to paddock insiders Dorna and the Le Mans circuit attribute 10,000 spectators at the French Grand Prix to be directly related to having a Frenchman on the premier class grid but while having someone like Loris Baz on the grid in 2015 might indeed see an inflated crowd is it realistic to attribute 10,000 spectators at this year’s French MotoGP to having Mike di Meglio on the grid?
Having native riders isn’t a guarantee of a successful round as can be seen by the crowd numbers at the British round falling. This could be attributed to a lack of interest in Superbike racing but with the British Superbikes bringing in big crowds the interest level is clearly there it’s just that the national series is able to tap into that and is thriving.
WSBK organisers claim that a factor in this is the slightly higher ticket prices but in the greater scheme of things arguably the biggest reason that BSB is enjoying a renaissance is because of their product. The racing in WSBK is fantastic at the moment, on track there’s no reason why the series should be struggling, but off track the festivities of a BSB round outstrip WSBK and the package put together by BSB shows that they view BSB as another part of the entertainment industry just as much as they look at it as being a sporting series.
BSB rounds are heavily promoted whereas WSBK clearly lacks a cohesive promotional structure to allow the rounds to be properly promoted. In WSBK the experience for fans is quite good, the afternoon paddock show is popular as are the autograph sessions, but the series needs to do more to promote the series and make sure that they can attract new fans.
This is one of the biggest problems facing motorsport in general and motorcycle racing in particular. The sport is struggling to connect with a younger audience. Moves through social media and video production have helped to showcase the sport but more needs to be done to try and capture the imagination of young fans.
Dorna clearly feels that the key is to get as many riders from different countries as possible into the series but more needs to be done because, as has been seen time again, when the successful local rider retires fans can leave the sport as well. MotoGP has been lucky to have Valentino Rossi for almost twenty years but the Golden Goose will retire at some point and a huge gaping void will be left wide open for the sport.
With money rolling in as a result of the Rossi phenomenon and Dorna clearly looking to capitalise on Marc Marquez in a similar vein Alonso is keen for WSBK to broaden its base in a similar manner and try and attract riders from different countries. With Nico Terol having signed for Althea Ducati for next season Alonso outlined the process that happens for bringing a rider such as the former 125cc world champion:
“We help a lot of riders with a lot of different nationalities to help get them into this championship. We work with the teams and we tell the teams what we would like to see and if we can make a joint effort together we make it, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Nico [Terol] came to us two months ago and we told him the steps to follow and he’ll be with Althea for next year. It’s a win-win situation.”
Laguna Seca has been a centre piece for motorcycle racing for the last 25 years. In the midst of the early nineties it was part of the 500cc calendar and then WSBK before becoming a MotoGP round once again. WSBK returned last year and while the circuit is as popular as ever with riders the production based race is not as popular with fans. The Californian track is in a somewhat difficult location and surrounding areas mean that crowd numbers are naturally low but this year’s turnout was exceptionally disappointing. Dorna however are hoping that a tie in with the Wayne Rainey led Moto America project will allow road racing to grow again in the US. At the moment the money, and therefore talent, in the US is in Supercross and until more financial clout is added to road racing than not even having Rainey involved will be enough to save racing in the US.
Dorna will be involved with Moto America and their plan is to allow the series to grow and hopefully allow US talent to come to the world scene.
“We have worked with Wayne Rainey for the last three years on that project. We are very positive about that because America is a huge market for us and the manufacturers but up until now the racing was a disaster and it was going down. Since we started working with them we’ve helped them with technical regulations and we sent Scott Smart to America to help them. That can also help riders from America to come here as a wild card and we’re working with them for media and television and all the other aspects so that the championship can work.”
The key for any potential for WSBK in the future is to continue this involvement with the US series and to ensure that their recent tie-in with the Australian championship is matched by coming to agreements with the British, Japanese and German Superbike championships to make sure that there is uniformity in technical regulations. At the moment a World Superbike is a very different beast to a British Superbike and a Japanese Superbike, if there was uniformity in regulations across the world it would be possible to have the spectre of a wild card coming into the series and making a splash
At the height of popularity WSBK saw wild cards like Shane Bryne, Steve Hislop, Makota Tamada, Chris Walker and Neil Hodgson all compete at their home races and win. It’s been a longtime since a wild card could do that in the international series and the underdog narrative has been lost in racing. Getting this back is key to getting more interest in the sport and if Dorna can do this in conjunction with increasing their promotion of the sport then everyone will be a winner.
“What we believe is that it’s very important for all of us to try and make the base of the motorsport pyramid bigger. That base has been shrinking for a long time and if we don’t make that bigger the sport doesn’t work and we can have fantastic MotoGP and WSBK races but the base gets smaller and one day it will disappear. So we’re trying to help in America, Australia and other countries to make this base bigger. Last month we started to have five people in Dorna work solely on this and to have good regulations to help develop good rules that help to develop riders who will come to the championship.”
We’ve heard lots of talk over the last few years from Dorna but we’ve seen precious little results for this. The time has come to take advantage of a championship that has great potential. At the moment the on-track product is being wasted by poor management of the series and the championship has to be nearing a tipping point where Honda, Kawasaki, Aprilia, Ducati, Suzuki and EBR all decide that their investment doesn’t provide enough return for them to stay in WSBK.
The build it and they will come ethos that has been used in WSBK recently needs to be changed and the moves to align the American and Australian championships with the World series is clearly a positive step but it should be just the first that Dorna takes in solving the problem of how to run the WSBK series successfully.