2022 was a big year for the 80th annual Daytona 200 at Bike Week. A club-formatted race in recent years, the annual season opener in Florida gained MotoAmerica status for the first time. While the main 200-miler was not a Supersport points race, it did mark the debut of the FIM’s (world sanctioning body) next generation middleweight rules.
With the traditional 600cc, four-cylinder, mostly Japanese sports bike gradually fading from the show rooms due to emission restrictions and production costs, the Federation International Motorcycliste opted to reframe the class. A group of more varied, and mostly larger displacement offerings were included to open up the choices available for current racers – and to keep the public and manufacturers interested.
Yamaha’s YZF-R6, little updated since the adoption of fly-by-wire throttle control for the fuel injection in 2006, has served as the benchmark for the category, although in some markets (like Canada) Kawasaki’s ZX-6R Ninja has also raced well in middleweight. The first new offering to attract attention was Ducati’s vee-twin Panigale 955, with electronic restrictions mandated by the FIM regulating performance.
Veteran American fast guy Josh Herrin almost won Daytona last year on a Ducati, and went on to earn the American National Supersport title in his first attempt.
Other machines such as the bigger, newer Triumph triples, and the GSX-R750 Suzuki (it sure makes me feel really old to consider the initial Gixxer design as a Middlweight!) eventually joined the battle with the established designs. In most cases, these bikes, even in restricted form, have more mid-range, offering a possible advantage in corner exit and on tighter circuits.
Year two of the new rules at Daytona last weekend showed a wide range of possible solutions to gaining the best lap time around this odd venue with a tightish infield and then two trips around the high banking per lap. With the new emphasis placed on Daytona by MotoAmerica and unusual tire war scenario for this race only, there is a solid case to be made that Daytona has gained back much relevance – perhaps now the most competitive and unpredictable middleweight race anywhere in the world.
In 2021, not everyone was ready for the return to prominence of the 200, and the weather didn’t co-operate. Still, the big race was entertaining from beginning to end, had only one red flag, and wound up with a dramatic multi-bike draft-and-pass fight to the line, won by inches by the Triumph of Brandon Paasch.
This year, conditions were great from the outset, and the pace was shockingly fast. The majority of the frontrunners were on Yamahas with Dunlop tires, but Pirelli had dominated lately thanks to double victor Paasch, and Bridgestone were making their first serious push with a pair of Canadian-based racers – CSBK champ Ben Young and “old Mosport” CSBK middleweight round victor Elliot Vieira.
CSBK Superbike champ Young was returning to the middleweight wars for the first time in eight years, while Vieira raced an R6 the past few seasons but will intriguingly move to a Ducati in Canada’s Liqui Moly Pro Sport Bike middleweight category in 2023.
Three days on track placed the focus squarely on Herrin and the works-assisted Warhorse HSBK Ducati NYC entry. While it was close in every session, Herrin had a few issues in the key, featured final Time Attack, and still earned the top spot on the grid.
Herrin confirmed that he was feeling the pressure from social media responses to the fact he ran out of gas while looking set to win last year. Some insiders figured Herrin was sandbagging to some degree even on his quickest laps.
The approved package for the GSX-R750s was not ready for Daytona last year, so that was another possible wild card thrown into the mix. The powerhouse Vision Wheel/M4/Ecstar backed squad of the Ulrich family team had three potential winners in their stable, and usual Superbike frontrunner Richie Escalante was certainly impressive, even if he came up short in the final session to start fifth on the grid, all of half a second back from Herrin.
Of course, drafting is key to Daytona, and the ability to work the draft from the front or back of a pack makes for much easier strategy. As well, time lost in the pits is very hard to regain, and Daytona is famous for pit lane disasters with spilt fuel, speeding infractions, botched tire changes and the like.
Now is a good time to mention the Ducati’s single-sided swing arm with captive chain, permitting faster rear rubber changes with much less drama.
Last year, evergreen 46 year old veteran MotoA star Josh Hayes looked like he could earn the win for the privateer Squid Hunter Yamaha on Dunlop rubber, only to be gobbled up on the final run from the Chicane onto the east banking and the finish line. Back from serious injury at the end of 2022, Hayes made a point of explaining that he was ready to experiment with every set of possibilities to change his outcome for 2023.
While several Yamahas were competitive, and the semi-works Attack entry of Cam Petersen was particularly speedy on race day, it was still a struggle for the “control” R6. Meanwhile, the anticipated battle between next-gen Duc and Suz played out mid-race in the great, often side-by-side dice between favorite Herrin and dark horse charger Escalante.
A collision between these two in turn one cause the Suzuki to retire, and should have been the story of the race. But another late race incident forced a Red Flag, and a trip through the Supplementary Regulations of a race unlike any other in structure and focus.
Since the 200 is not a 2023 MotoAmerica Supersports points race, the Daytona event has some unusual and specific rules. Many racers don’t pay much attention to each venue’s Supplementary Regs, dealing with items such as scooter access, pit parking and fuel delivery.
However, Daytona has Pit Stops, and rules for crew, tires and fuel are specific and important. In 2023, the “Sup Regs” also explained some very rare procedures, allowing this race to almost guarantee a dramatic finish.
While many didn’t like this, these procedures were stated in writing, and the late race stoppage and ten lap, “everyone in” restart was spelled out in the Rules. It was scary, but certainly exciting.
It also would have helped if the staff and particularly the various announce crews and commentators were up on these 200-specific Rules, and very few of the racers had noticed these developments, either.
(The group that runs Daytona and several other American tracks also owns the popular NASCAR stock car tour. At the Daytona 500 last month, a variety of late race developments forced several incident-packed restarts. In the end, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the 65th annual Daytona 500, running 212 of the scheduled 200 laps!)
The final ten laps of the 200 provided an incredible battle for the Daytona win, with some skilled riding in the draft at the busy front of the pack. Ben Young had kept his nose clean running just outside the top ten, but his late push came apart in the second Horseshoe, a disappointing end to a troubled week in Florida – the whole team deserved better.
Meanwhile Vieira dug his way out of a miserable event to earn a strong 15th, top Canadian. Race day was the first time Vieira’s R6 had working brakes, but a stock engine was the definition of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Also deserving praise was Alex Coelho on his Pirelli-shod MTRS Kawasaki, racing well over the final ten laps to get 16th.
Back at the front, Hayes gambled to lead the last lap, and was shaping up as a popular winner. However he was hunted down in the draft, and victor Herrin confirmed his event-long favorite position. The Daytona 200 has regained it’s former status as an important and well-supported event.
- From Colin Fraser