The World Superbike Championship (WSBK) has been thrown into turmoil, with the announcement that the official Yamaha team will be withdrawn at the end of the 2011 season. Ducati pulled the factory plug last year, both cite the same reason: cost-cutting.
MotoGP is the premier class, and owners Dorna bring a lot of pressure to bear on the manufacturers to run teams in 'their' championship. MotoGP is hugely expensive. Admittedly, Dorna are looking at ways to bring down costs (a 17-bike field for the top class of racing is rather embarrassing, be honest), but MotoGP is a money-pit. So something has to give.
And in the case of Ducati and Yamaha, their WSBK teams.
But is this a bad thing? Perhaps this is the chance for WSBK to reinvent itself.
When World Supers began the intention was for it to be a privateer series with no official teams. Is this the way forward? No 'official' teams, but manufacturers to provide race kit (Yamaha may be pulling the plug on their team, but they still make race kit for teams to buy: clearly they want Yamaha bikes to be successful in the championship... just not funded by them). This opens up the playing field, as the best teams will be free to choose the bikes they want to run - keeps things honest and it means the manufacturers will ensure their race kit is the best (the team's) money can buy.
Some people have cited the Moto2 path (control engine, custom chassis), but this doesn't work for WSBK. Superbikes are the closest thing out there to the bikes you can buy in your local dealership. So, by definition, they have to be at least cosmetically the same (hence the 150-bike homologation rule).
Former Eurosport commentator Denis Noyes has been calling for Superbikes to go down the Superstock route. This seems eminently sensible. Reinforce the idea that the bikes on the track are the bikes you can buy. Look at what the British Superbike championship (BSB) is looking to do. They are proposing series-wide adoption of the 'Evo' class rules; bikes can make changes to chassis etc, but as regards engines, these will be restricted to 'mild' tuning.
So the changes allowed are the same as the ones you can make to your road bike. You can tune the engine, upgrade your brakes, change your exhaust. 'Real world' stuff, applied at a race level.
Talking about British Superbikes, if I was the organiser of WSBK, I would be on the 'phone to the BSB people asking them how they have turned things around. The BSB organisers are visionary. They did away with prize money, but put in a phenomenal amount of effort to provide a platform to bring teams and potential sponsors together. They are constantly looking to ensure the series remains competitive, but without the ballooning costs that are causing so much trouble at world level. And it works. BSB remains one of the top two national series in the world (AMA in the US being the other), but has full grids, great racing and big crowds.
So go back to core values, have the bikes on the track ones that fans could genuinely aspire own and be humble enough to look at how other people do it. WSBK is an important series; lets see it turn what is being considered a huge negative into an even bigger positive.
On the subject of budgets - and budgets not detracting from class - I had the opportunity to road test Suzuki's sports-tourer, the GSX1250FA. The sports-tourer is, in many ways, the ideal machine, but they cost: Expect to pay £12,350 for a VFR1200, £11,600 for a ZZR1400 or just shy of £15,000 for a Ducati Multistrada. So if I said "How about a brand new sports-tourer for just £7,599?", you would probably be patting me on the head, sitting me down with a nice cup of tea and keeping me calm until the nice men in white coats came to take me away.
But that is the reality of the Suzuki GSX1250FA. For half the price of a Multistrada, you get 1,255cc of fully faired, sporty-touring thing. So how can Suzuki put out the bike at such a bargain-basement price? By thinking cleverly, that's how. The base model for the GSX is the 1250 Bandit. The 'new' bike features none too many changes: full fairing, firmer front forks to cope with the extra weight. It shares the dash with little brother GSX650F and has ABS brakes. Otherwise, you're talking about a bike where the R&D was done donkey's years ago. So is this just the same old girl, albeit in a new (if somewhat staid) dress?
Think about this; you could buy one of these, plus a new 650 V-Strom or a Gladius and STILL have change from the price of a Multistrada to kit yourself out from head to toe!