Twenty Five years ago, the newly invented Superbike World Championship opened up at Donington Park in England, with an event that few involved fully understood in terms of structure and rules, but few can argue with from a 2012 perspective. If it’s important to start a new series off with a crazy, exciting debut, then Donington 1988 certainly delivered.
North Americans were the acknowledged Superbike class experts, but the FIM rules were based on AMA guidelines as well as both the World Endurance (very big at the time, especially with the Suzuka eight hour race in Japan at Honda’s home circuit) and the TT-Formula One Series. When the Isle of Man lost World Championship status in the late 1970s, the TT-F1 class was established to provide a “real road racing,” production based category that would be centered on the Isle of Mann.
TT-F1 (street circuit) stalwarts were suspicious of SBK, and the fight for an event at Assen in 1988 helped save TT-F1 as a World title series. To some extent, SBK relied on TT-F1 regulars to fill the grid fir their first few races.
As well, TT-F1 was a class for four-strokes, not the 125cc/250cc/500cc established hierarchy of the Grand Prix premier series, and attracted the small European builders such as Bimota and Ducati.
1987 TT-F1 World Champs Bimota were undoubtedly the favorites for the new Superbike world crown, partially because they had made it clear that the new series was their primary focus –the small Italian boutique builder pulled out of TT-F1 to put all of their trick alloy eggs in the SBK basket.
Honda U.K. supported Carol Fogarty would win the 1988 TT-F1 title from three other Brit based racers and use that success as an eventual springboard to the World SBK tour. Eventually, even with Isle of Man support, the TT-F1 World Championship would disappear as street circuits became less popular and the upstart SBK tour built steam.
Bimota also dumped their quick but erratic long time leader and TT-F1 title winner, Virginio Ferrari (a late 1970s Kenny Roberts G.P. rival) and picked rising stars Davide Tardozzi and Stephane Mertens to ride their new YB4s. The beam framed YB4s were ground breaking for their time, featuring Yamaha’s trick five valve per cylinder engine mated to Bimota-sourced fuel injection. Did the Rimini-based firm actually produce the 200 units required for FIM homologation? Bimota probably built the required number, over time, eventually.
The biggest shock in the Donington paddock was the Ducati transporter, complete with the first official viewing of the iconic 851, “Superbike” written large across the fairing. This was the street bike debut of a prototype racer first seen in “Battle of the Twins” action at Daytona as well as the Bol d’Or 24 Hour event.
1981 500cc Grand Prix Champ for Suzuki, famed charmer Marco Lucchinelli, was on hand to handle this sole Desmo twin, and the bike was so “one off” in build quality that it was hard to imagine that the tooling existed to produce 200 identical machines. Nonetheless, FIM reps had visited Bologna and viewed the required number of Ducatis. Today, every single one is a collector’s item!
The Japanese manufacturers had agreed to support Superbike through distributor/dealer teams, and it would be a while before the major influence of the Italian companies caused the big Jap builders to go all-in. As mentioned earlier, the restriction on over-bore and requirement for stock carbs discouraged Suzuki and Kawasaki, while Yamaha’s aluminum framed FZRs had yet to replace (on the track) the now-outdated steel-chassis FZ model.
Even without direct manufacturer support for SBK, some TT-F1 stars (including Anders Andersson’s Suzuki effort) and well-supported World Endurance teams (Suzuki and Kawasaki France) would provide a solid presence in the first couple of seasons.
The primary Japanese machine expected to feature in the inaugural Superbike Championship season was a Honda. The “big H” had made a solid commitment to the production-based categories with their ground-breaking, brand-new, ultra trick, and very expensive, RC30. The v-four design featured an alloy frame and single-sided swing arm, but most of those entered at Donington were close to stock in set-up.
While the RC30 would eventually stamp its mark of authority on most production-oriented classes of international racing, it would become a solid symbol of success at the Isle of Man. Hence it was no shock that Honda U.K. supported Donington entries for local heroes Joey Dunlop, Roger Burnett and Kenny Irons. Soon, all kinds of RC30s from every country in Europe would be filling the majority of the SBK grid.
The Honda pilot who didn’t quite fit with the rest of this factory-approved group was American Fred Merkel. The former AMA Champ had been dumped by American Honda, and had reinvented himself as a Superbike missionary when Italy started a series for street-based machinery in 1987. Riding for famed owner(and former bike builder) Oscar Rumi, Merkel did wonders on a kitted VFR, and knew all about the secret, non-kit trick bits required to make a v-4 Honda perform.
Merkel liked the RC30 to look at, but wasn’t happy with the level of tuning provided by the over-the-counter “kit” parts. He thought the RC30 was heavy and lacked top end against the Bimotas, but was committed to racing the bike “as is” – with the belief that solid early showings would put him on the short list for the best, updated tuning parts.
As every Honda-supported insider would soon learn, you needed to show well at events leading up to the home race (in 1988, it was late August at Sugo) to be entitled to the un-listed bits that would ensure that you were one of the few “haves” that got the most from your v-four.