Elder of Grand Prix journalism, Editor of Motocourse and man on the inside of GP racing, Mike Scott dissects the future of motorcycle racing
The strongest evidence racing had lost the plot is the very existence of two World Championships. One the traditional GP series, another the Superbikes. The latter couldn't have existed if the former hadn't been led off into the technical wilderness by its own regulations which favoured the otherwise obsolete two-stroke engine. Now we've almost come full circle. The end of the long two-stroke adventure brings GP racing back into line with real-world motorcycles once more. The Superbikes will become not just superfluous to requirements, but left with no reason to live at all.
This is not a new theme, but it has particular piquancy in the light of two recent developments. Both show the strong cross-over factor between the Supers and the new MotoGP 990cc four-strokes; both suggest that the direction of the cross-over favours the GPs.
One is the migration from GPs to SBK of the new Petronas-Sauber (or Not-Sauber, as it has become). This whole exercise has the hall-mark of massive folly, so perhaps we should not look here for guidance.
The other is the far more significant invasion of the All-Japan Superbike championship by full-race MotoGP bikes. Pressure from the industry met no resistance from the Japanese federation, so the poor little 750 road-based fours and 1,000cc twins will this year find themselves up against proper lightweight 990cc full-race-spec prototypes. The proof of the pudding... etc etc. And there will be plenty of pudding proving, at far off places like Tsukuba, Mito and Suzuka over the coming season all things being equal.
The GP bikes will be ghosts in the championship - not eligible for points. Which will be rather wearying for competitors and spectators alike, if they do what they ought to do. Which is pick up their skirts and disappear into the middle distance after a lap or two. Suzuki will definitely be in the series, with test riders Ryo and Kagayama racing against their own factory GSX-R Superbikes, as well as all the rest, on the new V4 XR-E0. Honda and Yamaha also? Reckon so. They're hardly going to be shy.
The results achieved by the new-generation racers won't matter, of course. But who will care about the real results? What is the value of winning a race, if in fact you actually finished fifth? The fans will be watching the new prototypes scrapping it out. Who will care who is the real champion? He will be totally overshadowed by Mr Big Ghost on the GP bike.
You might think this nothing more than just a rather strange Japanese way of doing things. It means much more. Japan was the last country to drop 500cc GP bikes in favour of Superbikes for their top national championships; and they are now the first to invite GP bikes back in. It is as clear an indication as any other so far that the factories don't care very much about the Superbikes - either at home or abroad. Which is not that surprising, given the history. Each of the important manufacturers' assocation members (which adds Aprilia and Ducati to the four Japanese giants) is steeped in grand prix tradition. Even Ducati, those pillars of the Superbikes - their desmo tradition was forged in the 125 and 250 class as the Fifties became the Sixties. Even Kawasaki, who scored a string of 250/350 titles before their failure in the 500 class led to a complete abscence of two-stroke racing after 1982.
The various factories have said openly enough that the production-based series should be firmly kept as that, with a minimum of factory involvement. British fans may think otherwise - that Supers rule and GP racing is irrelevant. The factories don't see it that way - not any more, anyway.
And if you look further ahead, it's not hard to see a time when the prototypes of 2002 become full production racers, available not only to satellite GP teams but also non-GP teams. National racing can follow the lead set by Japan and revert to proper GP bikes for their own highest levels. Just as it used to be, before the two-stroke schism sent all the countries of the world superbiking instead, divorcing the careers of a generation of top (especially British) riders from the traditional ultimate goal of GP success.
By then, also, there will be street-bike versions of the MotoGP machines on sale. These will be developed (SBK-style) for track use. They will be junior GP bikes, for junior GP-style feeder series. MotoGP won't have merely taken over from Superbikes. It will have become, to all intents and purposes, Superbikes.
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