That Would Tie the World Together

phillip-island-wedding033There’s not much to get excited about in the second half of February. If you’re in most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s cold; football is over, if you’re that kind of person; there’s hockey and basketball and soccer, sure, but all of that’s just waiting around and tying up narrative loose ends; the grotesque excess of awards shows has Twitter at full buzz; there are no holidays off.

But there is a magical place that exists around this time every year that suspends reality for a few hours on Sunday and takes you away to bring out the best in motorsports. Thousands of people flock to the seaside to attend and see the world’s best on one of racing’s most picturesque venues. Here, the sands are just that little bit whiter, the grass a little bit greener, the ocean a little bit bluer. Competitors must contend with seagulls as much as each other. You can soak in the history even as you watch it happen in real time on television. It’s the antidote to your winter bunker mentality blues.

Yes, the World Superbike Championship was back at Phillip Island this weekend. Were you expecting something else?

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2014_world_superbike_championships_round_1_phillip_island-981I haven’t written about that other FIM world motorcycle championship very much in the past for a few reasons. Last year, I bypassed the WSBK double-headed opener entirely to write about the drama of the supporting World Supersport class. The most interesting season-long fight to me wasn’t even among the leading riders but one rider against time itself (more on that shortly). Put simply, the overwhelming talent of a guy like Marc Marquez or Jorge Lorenzo is so total that it’s easy to forget there are other riders to think about, let alone other championships.

But the bike racing world keeps turning even while MotoGP slumbers. Superbikes, long the sensibly customer-oriented counterweight to MotoGP’s unobtanium-enriched pocket rockets, have entered a strange twilight zone both as an idea and as a series in the last few years. Fan support has retreated to become increasingly provincial; there are questions over the leadership and direction of the management; money is tight up and down the paddock; the prestige once associated with the series has long since dissipated.

And yet, it lives. Sunday afternoon – that’d be 8pm Saturday evening for those watching Stateside on the East Coast – provided three races back to back showcasing exactly why this series will be hard to kill. It’s rarely looked more appealing.

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As an idea, WSBK is in a strange position because it’s 2015 and market reports suggest fewer and fewer people on planet earth are purchasing high-end superbikes for their daily riders. The whole idea that you’re watching (something like) the world’s best conquer a bike that you could just as well run down to your local dealer and buy is what makes the World Superbike Championship appealing to old school gearheads and, more importantly, marketing departments – check out Tom Sykes flinging around his Kawasaki ZX-10RR and notice the resemblance to your own! Look at Leon Camier’s MV Agusta triple, a bike you see on the streets everyday! See Alex Lowes fly through corners on a Suzuki that has a single headlight [sticker] just like yours! Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

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Except that’s not happening. Kawasaki’s recent championship success with Sykes has done little for sales of the ZX-10; Ducati’s brand suffered more from Valentino Rossi’s highly publicized two-year MotoGP nightmare than it has from Chaz Davies or Davide Giugliano being off the pace in WSBK; Honda barely acknowledges that they wasted the talents and then traded off one of the UK’s best riders (Jonathan Rea) for arguably the most exciting WSBK rookie of 2015 and the best Dutch rider since Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Michael van der Mark), all aboard the forgotten Fireblade. And I bet you know exactly what kind of person rides a Harley.

Fan support – which has still never really recovered from its pre-MotoGP millennial peak – was starting to ebb again as the public gradually soured on MotoGP’s 800cc era. There were some surprising defections from the premier class (Troy Bayliss and Max Biaggi, most notably, but also Aprilia and Suzuki) that helped to regain some of its lost luster. There was more variety in the technology, in the winners, and even in the featured nationalities. The unpredictable was still very much possible.

For the statistically inclined, look at it this way: Since 2007, MotoGP has run 143 races and featured four world champion riders, three champion makes of bike, and an average points gap between first and second at season’s end of 72.5.

Now look at WSBK. In that same time period, the Superbikes have run 212 races (each round schedules two separate Superbike races in addition to the support classes) and featured seven world champion riders (only Max Biaggi has repeated), five champion makes of bike, and an average points gap between first and second at season’s end of 42.6 (including Biaggi’s 0.5-point win in 2012). Not only does MotoGP run two-thirds the races WSBK does, but you also get seasons that are barely half as close.

More races, more bikes, more winners. The spectacle is there and the traditional fan strongholds (Italy, France and the UK, namely) are still flocking to the races. But that’s the thing about management – when you’re looking at the present, they’re looking at the future.

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A word, inevitably, about Dorna Sports. For years and years, the World Superbike franchise was governed (as all international bike racing championships are) by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme but promoted by an Italian firm called The Flammini Group (rebranded as FGSport, then rebranded again as Infront Group, then again as Infront Motor Sports). They were led by a couple of Italian brothers who made some audacious leadership decisions that annoyed the major Japanese manufacturers and continually irked MotoGP’s promoter Dorna by horning in on their marketshare.

Long seeing the Flamminis as rivals and threats despite their respective series having totally different aims, the Spaniards over at Dorna finally did what any reasonable corporation would do in 2013: They bought the rights to World Superbike promotion.

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On the one hand, it was a smart move – with both major series now under one promotional umbrella, a spirit of cooperation could bloom where antagonism had once worked to both sides’ detriment. On the other hand, Dorna’s hands have been in the MotoGP pie for so long that mishandling the WSBK paddock was entirely possible. Take it a step further and the suggestion isn’t just that WSBK could be mishandled but that it could be mishandled deliberately. Sabotage for the sake of saving MotoGP, in other words.

It’s still playing out because developments like that don’t just happen in a year. Last year certainly suggested that Dorna didn’t know what it was doing, though, when it canceled rounds in Russia and South Africa mid-season to leave three rounds separated by a month each over the final five months of the season – it’s hard to sustain any excitement for a championship when you’ve forgotten what happened two months ago.

Dorna has openly committed to the future of the series. This year, they’ll be going to Thailand for the first time. Chile was a possibility at one point, though those talks have stalled. They want Russia and South Africa back. MotoGP has never been to any of the first three and hasn’t raced in South Africa since 2004. The idea is that they connect with emerging markets via street bike promotion as a test bed for bringing in the heavy-hitting MotoGP machines. It’s a rather grand plan in the long view. Which is what one has to assume they’re taking.

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And yet, it lives. Right now, it’s happening. The 2015 FIM Eni World Superbike Championship is underway. And how – I didn’t bother writing a season preview even though I’d promised myself I would because the stakes are lower in WSBK, the atmosphere is more genial, and the bikes are less advanced. Everything’s just a little more down-to-earth, a little more approachable. It’s more fun and friendly. I didn’t care as much.

I rue the decision because, of course, there are stories. Up and down the paddock, there are stories in these races. There were the two WSBK winners on Sunday, former Honda teammates Jonathan Rea (now with Kawasaki) and Leon Haslam (now with Aprilia). There was the sensational debut of Michael van der Mark and only slightly less impressive Jordi Torres. There was Nico Terol. There was the return of three-time WSBK champ Troy Bayliss at 45 years of age. There were two sterling finishes. And in World Supersport, there was Jules Cluzel (again), the quiet confidence of Lorenzo Zanetti, the no-fucks-given style of Kyle Smith, and the divine red mist of Kenan Sofuoglu.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done a lot better than I expected. You got into the weeds. And now you’re getting out on this: I’m not saying you should pay attention to World Superbikes this year anymore than you have at any other time in your life. It’s still just people on machines riding in mutated loops for 45 minutes at a time. That’s not news. But what is news is what fun they will be to watch this year. Where MotoGP dares to suck the wind out of you with its sheer force of extreme privilege, Superbikes urge you to kick back, relax and enjoy yourselves.

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It’s just racing. But when it’s fast and close with narratives and a spectacular view, well, that’s something magical. That’s swimming beyond the flags. That’s something to get excited about.

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