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Opinion

Does Ducati dominance threaten to undo WSBK's progress?

A thrilling three-way title battle in World Superbike has given way to a spell of Ducati and Alvaro Bautista dominance. And with an updated V4 R Panigale on the way for 2023, Sebastian Franzschky says series organisers need to come up with a way to restore healthy competition at the front of the field quickly.

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing Ducati

Last weekend’s Argentina round may have been a success, with a healthy weekend attendance of almost 80,000, but it also arguably marked the end of any remaining intrigue there may have been in the fight for World Superbike championship honours. 

Two straightforward wins for Alvaro Bautista in the two main races at El Villicum means the Ducati rider is looking near certain to win the title. His main rivals Toprak Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea, now respectively 82 and 98 points behind, would need an extraordinary amount of luck to reverse the tide in the remaining two events of the season.

It’s hard to criticise Razgatlioglu and Rea, as it’s clear both men are pushing at the limit in a bid to do something about Bautista’s dominance. Razgatlioglu’s crash in Race 1 in Argentina and Rea’s numerous minor errors under braking on Sunday show how hard both are having to push to counteract the straight line speed advantage Bautista has.

And this imbalance has to be regarded as a major concern for WSBK, which since the start of last season has been going through a purple patch of heightened public interest, spurred on by fantastic racing between three top riders on three very different motorcycles.

That has changed in the last few rounds as the combination of Bautista and Ducati has simply become too strong. Since last month’s Barcelona round, the Spaniard has won every feature race except one and hasn’t finished lower than second. 

 

Now, Bautista and his team can’t be criticised for doing a better job than everyone else, and a first title for Ducati since 2011 would be a just reward for both rider and manufacturer.

But as things stand, Bautista is set to get his hands on an upgraded version of the Panigale V4 R for 2023, while his main rivals will have to make do with minor updates to the Yamaha YZF-R1 and Kawasaki ZX-10RR. Will those tweaks be enough to allow Razgatlioglu and Rea to make the championship fight interesting? I have my doubts.

FIM technical director Scott Smart faces a major headache to address this problem. The recently announced package of ‘super concessions’ are unlikely to make a difference because both the Yamaha and Kawasaki are regular podium finishers. And in any case, the chassis is not the issue for the two Japanese brands.

One option would be to simply slow Ducati down again, as happened in 2019 when the V4 R lost 250 revs owing to Bautista’s early-season dominance. The Italian marque is the only one to have been pegged back by the rev adjustment rules that were brought in for 2018.

I thought that talk of such balancing was over when Ducati ditched its traditional V2 layout in favour of a four-cylinder 1,000 engine like its rivals. But it seems like a better way forward than the often-suggested solution of imposing a minimum combined bike/rider weight.

 

Although this is common in the junior classes of motorcycle racing, WSBK follows the example set by sister series MotoGP in only imposing a minimum weight for the bike itself. And that’s in part because having a lower body weight is not purely an advantage.

A rider like Bautista - a bit like Dani Pedrosa in MotoGP years ago - has fewer options when it comes to transferring his body weight around the bike. It makes warming up the tyres harder, and likewise harder to keep the tyres warm in wet conditions. These are all factors that are easily forgotten when only straight line performance is taken into account.

Furthermore, it would be nonsensical for Bautista to ride a bike 15 or 20kg heavier than those of his rivals - where would this extra weight be placed, for instance?

All of that said, Smart and his team need to come up with something, especially with the updated Ducati on the way, because nobody wants to see a return to WSBK being dominated by one brand. But this can be difficult to achieve when it’s clear that one brand is so much more invested in being successful than the others.

One senses that the interest in WSBK among the Japanese manufacturers is lacking. Ducati’s V4 R essentially brought technology derived from MotoGP to the production racing world, but where is the response from Kawasaki, Yamaha or Honda?

 

Kawasaki might have updated its ZX-10RR last year but the basic concept is a decade old. Yamaha likewise hasn’t changed much since its return in 2016. Honda has the most ‘radical’ bike of the three but clearly still has a lot of work to do to catch up the frontrunners.

What has happened to the pioneering spirit of the Japanese brands, which produced legendary models like the Honda NR750 or RC30/45? I fear those days are gone forever.

I appreciated that superbikes represent a fairly small segment of the marketplace, and that development costs are high. Equally, in the current economic situation and looming environmental regulations, it’s not hard to see why the development of a new 240bhp bike might not be the top priority right now for many manufacturers.

However, what has given me some hope for a healthy future in WSBK is the way Smart and his team have successfully incorporated ‘New Generation’ bikes in World Supersport this year with a complex system of performance balancing.

When I first heard from Smart last year how a 955cc Ducati V2 Panigale would be made to race competitively against a 600cc Yamaha R6, I had a bad feeling. But I was wrong, because the championship has been very evenly-matched this year between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ bikes, and the show hasn’t been overshadowed by constant adjustments.

 

That gives me some optimism that WSBK can find a way to prevent Bautista’s current dominance becoming an established trend that threatens to undo all of the progress the championship has made in the last two seasons.

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