At Donington Park in England in the spring of 1988, a brand new series made its debut, based partly on World Championship TT-F1 standards, partly on AMA Superbike guidelines, and centered on the popular Anglo American Match Race series. The Donington midlands venue, recently fully revamped, was one of the safest and most popular bike racing circuits of the era.
As expected, British riders made up almost half of the debut SBK grid. The new fuel injected Bimota Yamahas where the pre-race favorites, once the many gorgeous Honda RC30s on hand proved to be in a near-stock state of tune.
However, the Bimota machines were plagued by teething problems, ranging from rough running to leaking fuel. Long before the days of Power Commanders and other useful electronic tuning devices aimed at fuel-injected sports bikes, the Bimota crew at one point blamed the local airport for inadvertently “jamming” their YB4EI’s fuel control systems.
The seldom seen Ducati squad and their brand new water-cooled, four-valve 851 Desmo twin attracted loads of attention too. Former World Champ Marco Lucchinelli was a real motor mouth, and enjoyed all of his media opportunities. I clearly remember the Ducati crew stopping work for lunch, setting up a table between their machines, and sitting down for pasta and wine.
The first round of the Superbike World Championship featured the then-new two race format, still used to this day in SBK. However, the Donington opener was scored on aggregate, producing one combined result, the way motocross GPs were run at the time.
This means that the record books show just one set of results, unlike any other round of the series (except for events with rain-outs, like Monza 2012). Here comes the spoiler alert: in case you don’t know the April 3, 1988 result, Lucchinelli on the new Ducati is listed as the first-ever SBK race (and round) winner.
Honda’s Fred Merkel was scored second, a much better result than he expected with his brand new Rumi Honda RC30. Third overall belonged to the second kitted RC vee-four, the Honda Britain entry of famed “real road racing” king Joey Dunlop. Cool, wet and always changing conditions helped Dunlop to the podium.
But before the racing started, there was controversy on the grid prior to leg one. Officials wouldn’t let the crews push start the bikes for the warm-up laps, and some of the machines, certainly the Ducati, were difficult to start.
In the days before plug in starters, rear wheel rollers and the like, this was a big issue. Lucchinelli simply leaned the big Ducati against the wall and waited for everyone to calm down – there was no way he could bump start the thing by himself.
After some angry discussion, it was decided that the team’s crew members would be allowed to help start the bikes after all. Indirectly, this mix up led to the issue of vapor lock on Bubba Shobert’s American Honda VFR750 Interceptor. The American flat track ace missed the start – and these pre-warm-up problems at least provide a reason (or maybe an excuse).
Race one started with a good fight up front, but gradually Bimota’s Davide Tardozzi pulled clear to earn the “leg one” win. But it wasn’t straightforward – ignition issues returned near the end of the race, and Lucchinelli almost got by Tardozzi on the final lap.
Canadians Gary Goodfellow and Michel Mercier were well inside the top ten for much of the opening race, staging a great dice as they moved through the pack, sometimes banging fairings. But Vancouver-based Kiwi Goodfellow got mixed up with a lapped rider and crashed, reinjuring his foot. “Goodie” was out for the rest of the event, and his trick F-1 style, Don Knit-backed Yoshimura Japan GSX-R750 entry was certainly much the worse for wear.