The first ever World Championship Superbike race was much anticipated, but not well understood. A new series has new rules, and the format for the Superbike tour was tweaked regularly in the years leading up to its debut at Donington Park in April of 1988.
The series was imagined as a place for privateer and national-level teams to showcase their street bike-based building and riding abilities. The big Japanese manufacturers promised not to participate directly, although that didn’t last too long.
However it was also necessary to include “real” road racers as much as possible, since Superbike organizers were planning to draw from the similar TT-F1 class, a series based on mostly street venues with mostly UK-based (especially Irish) racers.
Another key element was to include as many European based manufacturers as possible, since they could no longer afford to compete with the never ending development cycle of the Japanese-dominated Grand Prix tour. Ducati, as usual in money trouble but recently purchased by Cagiva, were considered crucial to the success of the new street bike racing class.
Ducati had been busy developing their groundbreaking, fuel injected, belt drive cam version Desmo 851 twin, a bike that first appeared at Daytona as a prototype in Battle of the Twins action in the hands of former 500cc World Champion Marco Lucchinelli. World Superbike would be the perfect place to show off the bike that would turn out to be crucial in the turn-around of the famous marquee.
Of course, Ducati also got a displacement bump to equalize their twin-cylinder design against the four-cylinder opposition, a rule decision that continues, and remains controversial, to this day. While the bikes were theoretically permitted to go as big as 1000cc’s compared to the 750cc fours, Ducati’s initial homologation standard bore/stroke ratio allowed the 851 to go up to 888cc’s.
However, by the end of the first season of Superbike, the Ducati had reportedly grown to well over 900cc’s — apparently development briefly got in front of homologation!
Meanwhile, Italian custom constructor Bimota had gone from building one-offs for various Grand Prix classes to getting in bed with a Japanese Manufacturer (Yamaha) and producing some of the most desirable and exotic sports street machines available. The unique custom fuel injected, five-valve headed, Yamaha-powered YB4EI was perfect for the new Superbike class, and organizer Steve McLaughlin convinced the squad to abandon their 1987 title-winning TT-F1 effort.
The small specialist builders (like Bimota and Ducati) were only required to produce 200 of a given model for SBK race approval, compared to the 1000 unit build requirement to homologate the Japanese machinery. Officials visited Italy to account for the build, and a sufficient number of bikes were displayed – although no one believed Ducati had anywhere near 200 units of the 851 Superbike built at the time of the Donington opener.
Stories abounded of a leisurely accounting at Bimota base in Rimini, with 25 bikes checked in a storage room, next a trip to see the dyno; 30 units in the court yard, then a break for coffee; 15 bikes now parked near the dyno, then a long lunch. How long does it take to change to ID plates and push the bikes around the shop, anyway?
Most SBK category fans know of all the special homologation bikes built for the specific goal of providing a strong base for World Superbike class equipment. Honda’s now very collectible RC30 vee-four was the most famous, but two Suzuki GSX-R750 versions were also featured — the LTD and RR models — as well as the eventual production of Yamaha’s fearsome OW01 and various Kawasaki Ninja 750cc limited edition RR versions.
At Donington, only Honda fielded a strong group of their new machines: brand new distributor-prepped RC30s with the official race kit, built primarily for Endurance Racing. The top Honda was expected to come from the Brit squad of Joey Dunlop and Roger Marshal, although former factory favorite Fred Merkel, now based in Italy, also showed up with a Pirelli-shod RC30 (most of the front runners were Michelin-equipped).
Behind the scenes, the big story of the first SBK race involved the difference between AMA rules and FIM standards for the new World Series. While everyone involved believed that AMA bikes, on hand for the Trans Atlantic Trophy Match Races, would be legal “as is” for SBK, this was not the case.