Splitting the deck | 6 of the best WorldSBK wildcards… and 6 we want to see

The decline of the 'have a go hero' wild-card in WorldSBK remains a great shame for it has delivered us some classic one-off magic moments over the years

Shane Byrne - GSE Racing Monstermob Ducati, 2003 WorldSBK

Ah, the WorldSBK wild-card… a chance for local talent to take on all-comers with a show of strength that is one part frustrating for the regulars, one part thrilling for patriotic spectators.

A sheer benefit of Superbike racing relative to MotoGP in that any domestic ‘have a go hero’ can rock up on the international stage and take it to the best in the world, the wildest of hands have done their bit to shuffle the pack over the years.

Alas, splintering regulations mean it isn’t quite as simple as turning up and hitting the ground running these days, so wild-cards aren’t as frequent now as they once were.

Nevertheless, this weekend's British WorldSBK round at Donington Park sees Tarran Mackenzie and Peter Hickman evoke memories of the glory days with their own wildcards - can they perform a repeat of these classic one-offs?

Byrne shakes things up with Brands double

Shane Byrne (Monstermob Ducati) | Brands Hatch, UK - 2003

Of all the domestic series’, BSB has delivered the most headline showstoppers over the years with scores of national heroes arriving at Brands Hatch and Donington Park to both fly the flag and be a thorn in the side of the regulars.

John Reynolds stole the headlines in 2000 with victory at the Brands Hatch finale, while he joined BSB sparring partner Chris Walker in stealing the show at Donington Park earlier in the year.

However, Shane Byrne’s double success on the Monstermob Ducati in 2003 is the performance that endures, the Briton consolidating his dominant run to the BSB title that year by demolishing his world championship counterparts on home soil too in front of vast crowds.

Though it would take his 2008 BSB title to convince WorldSBK teams to get him on the grid, Byrne was untouchable that day as one of only four (Ducati) riders to taste the winners’ champagne all season.

‘Super Sic’ gets his elbows out

Marco Simoncelli (Alitalia Aprilia) | Imola, Italy - 2009

Few riders make such an impact ‘before’ they make it to MotoGP but (the tragically late) Marco Simoncelli was no ordinary rider, his bolshy attitude on track and charismatic bounce off it making him a firm favourite with fans.

So much so, Aprilia granted him an opportunity to swap out his 250GP Aprilia for an Aprilia RSV4 in a much vaunted WorldSBK one-off at Imola. 

Proving a quick learner as he transitioned his flamboyant riding style to the RSV4, Simoncelli quickly established himself as a front runner, appearing a far more experienced Superbike hand than he was.

Even better, the fearless Italian even had the gumption to ruffle Max Biaggi’s feathers with a lunge at the chicane that ran his esteemed team-mate wide and smoothed his path to a famous podium.

Sykes secures future in Donington display

Tom Sykes (Rizla Suzuki) | Donington Park, UK - 2008

The 2008 BSB Championship was a zenith for the series when it came to both wild-cards and exciting talent with each of the top four in the championship - Shane Byrne, Leon Haslam, Cal Crutchlow and Tom Sykes - earning a move onto the world stage for 2009.

However, of these, it was Sykes that might have settled in for an extended stay in BSB were it not for a grandstand wild-card performance at Donington Park. 

Riding the ever-popular Rizla Suzuki, Sykes looked on course for a shock win at Donington Park after opening up a four-second lead before a red flag halted proceedings. With the race restarted under aggregate rules - meaning his lead was still intact despite a standing second start - Sykes slugged it out with Troy Bayliss despite the Aussie being a fair distance up the road, just losing out to the eventual champion.

Nevertheless, Sykes’ efforts caught the attention of Yamaha bosses, who signed him up for 2009 before a switch to Kawasaki for 2010 set him on a path towards title glory in 2013.

Bostrom bosses WorldSBK rivals at Laguna

Ben Bostrom (Vance & Hines Ducati) | Laguna Seca, USA - 1999

One of the leading contenders in the AMA Superbike series at the height of the US series’ influence, Ben Bostrom put himself firmly in the WorldSBK shop window with a superb wild-card outing at Laguna Seca.

Engaged in a season-long duel with Aussie’s Anthony Gobert on the Vance & Hines Ducati, the pair took their tussle to the world stage at Laguna Seca, leaving the regulars to watch on as they duked it out for victory.

They got a win apiece but while Gobert’s success was already his seventh win on the world stage, it was a first for the younger Bostrom, who duly landed a full-season deal with Ducati for 2000.

Biaggi back with a vengeance

Max Biaggi (Aprilia) | Sepang, Malaysia - 2015

After retiring at the height of his WorldSBK powers in the wake of his second title in 2012, there was a strong assumption Max Biaggi would one day return.

Though it would take three more years for that expectation to become reality, he formidably proved he still had what it takes to mix it with the best that had emerged in his absence.

Choosing Sepang for his grandstand re-appearance, Biaggi was straight back on both form and the podium, out-performing regular team-mates Leon Haslam and Jordi Torres in the process.

Japanese giants steal the show at home

Yuichi Takeda (Honda) vs Noriyuki Haga (Yamaha) | Sugo, Japan - 1996

Quite why WorldSBK no longer visits Japan for a round of a championship boasting three of its top manufacturers is open to conjecture. 

Indeed, it has been almost two decades since the series made the last of its popular visits to Sugo, an event that proved frustrating for the regulars as they were often reduced to bit-part spectators to a show of local strength by various wild-cards.

Akira Yanagawa, Hitoyasu Izutsu, Takuma Aoki, Keiichi Kitagawa, Akira Ryo and Makoto Tamada were all race winners on home soil, but Japan’s most famous battle for national honour came down to Noriyuki Haga and Yuichi Takeda in 1996.

A high-profile tussle between Yamaha (Haga) and Honda (Takeda), the pair slugged it out for glory at Sugo, with the victory going to the latter.

Still, Haga had made his pitch and - after scoring a victory on his return to Sugo in 1997 as a wild-card - he went on to begin a WorldSBK career that still places him fourth on the all-time race winners list, despite never quite lifting the title trophy.

6 riders we want to see go wild in WorldSBK

Tarran Mackenzie… and pretty much any BSB rider

When we talk about WorldSBK wild-cards, it’s hard not to think of myriad riders that have deployed their BSB-honed grit and determination against the world’s best over the years. 

While a shift in the regulations has seen the fewer ‘BSB vs The World’ bids in recent years, Tarran Mackenzie had planned to throw things back with his plot of three wild-card outings in 2022. though this looks to have been whittled to just the one following his pre-season injury.

There are a litany of BSB riders we’d love to see taking on the best at Donington Park, Assen and Portimao et al. though we’d personally like to see Tom Sykes make a one-off return aboard the MCE Ducati to remind WorldSBK bosses what they’re missing.

We also nominate Tommy Bridewell on the Oxford Ducati, Rory Skinner on the FS-3 Kawasaki and - for some variety - one of the Buildbase Suzuki riders have the chance to get their elbows out too.

Danilo Petrucci

It’s hard to begrudge MotoGP’s smiliest race winner Danilo Petrucci his success at MotoAmerica last week, a double victory that provided a sure reminder that the Italian is still one of motorcycle racing’s foremost - and versatile - talents.

By rights, Petrucci is more than capable of rivalling his WorldSBK peers, while the stiffer, heavier Ducati Panigale V4 R package might actually be to stockier Petrucci’s preference.

With his MotoAmerica debut no doubt steadying any nerves he may have had, the two-time MotoGP rider is surely high on Ducati’s priority list for a WorldSBK appearance before the year is out.

Ilya Mikhalchik

Germany’s IDM Superbike Championship may not be considered as star-studded as BSB but it has thrown up some strong performers over the years, not least triple champion Ilya Mikhalchik, who made waves on his WorldSBK debut at Aragon last weekend.

A leading light of the BMW SBK programme, Mikhalchik was called up to replace an injured Michael van der Mark and duly capitalised on his chance aboard the factory M 1000 RR to score a top ten start and finish on his debut. He has since gone on to race for the marque in Misano and Donington Park.

His eye-catching efforts - which rather shamed his more experienced BMW stablemates - should do wonders for his stock in WorldSBK, so perhaps another wild-card at a venue he knows well, such as Most, could and should be on the cards for 2022.

Katsuyuki Nakasuga

It has been a while since Japan enjoyed a high-profile presence in international motorcycle racing but things have improved in recent years with Takaaki Nakagami showing his talent in MotoGP and Kohta Nozane getting up to speed in WorldSBK, while Ryo Mizuno and Takumi Takahashi have made clear steps forward in BSB on the Honda too. The future looks bright with Ai Ogura too.

However, the most likely candidate to succeed ‘Nitro Nori’ Haga in our affections - Katsuyuki Nakasuga - opted against going global, preferring to ply his trade in his native Japan with devastating effect

An 11-time All-Japan Superbike Championship title winner, Nakasuga has declined to take on any WorldSBK starts though he is an annual wild-card entry to the Japanese MotoGP at Motegi, while a couple of stand-in performances at Valencia have even yielded a sixth place and a podium run to second in 2012.

Jack Miller

You could nominate any MotoGP rider here for a wild-card in WorldSBK but of the 24 riders currently out there, Jack Miller would be the best placed to take on the great and good of the Superbike riders.

An Aussie who rides and races for fun, not just to pay the bills, Miller popped up at The Bend on a Ducati Panigale V4 R for the Australian Superbike finale and acquitted himself well on a largely stock machine, scoring a podium.

Given the MotoGP season will be done and dusted by the time WorldSBK rolls round for its finale at Phillip Island in November, we’re holding out hope Australia’s premier motorcycle racer will make a headline appearance.

Valentino Rossi

Perhaps this is pushing the boundaries of what is possible but many have longed to see Valentino Rossi give WorldSBK a crack and had his MotoGP career not lasted two or three seasons longer, there is a chance at least a handful of wild-cards outings might have occurred.

In the end, his only Superbike foray has been an appearance at the Suzuka 8 Hours, though that was at least a race-winning turn alongside Colin Edwards.

Still, with Rossi able to get in plenty of track time at Misano on a Yamaha R1 (or Ducati Panigale V4 R via his VR46 connections) amid a fairly sparse World GT Championship schedule, one can hope he might just be prepared to pop up for the Rimini round of WorldSBK. 

That’s if his spare time isn’t consumed with the arrival of his new baby girl…