At the recent Portimao round of the World Superbike series, the FIM, Dorna and the MSMA (manufacturers’ association) announced “a new framework for the Superbike Technical Rules” that will be applied in three stages, beginning next year.
The new rules will focus on reducing costs for machinery and components, and will include limitations on the number of engines allowed through the year. Suspension components, brakes and gearbox ratios were specifically mentioned as areas for controlled costs, and the manufacturers have each agreed to provide a minimum number of complete, race-ready bikes at a set cost or lease price.
When Bridgepoint brought MotoGP and World Superbikes together under the Dorna umbrella last year, one of the stated objectives at the time was to reduce costs in WSBK, so the announcement at Portimao was not unexpected. The move to reduce costs is in response to shrinking grid sizes – there were just 13 finishers in race one at Portimao – due to the still-struggling world economy. It remains to be seen, though, how this framework will be implemented and what the actual rules will be for 2014.
Since its inception in 1988, WSBK has had a fairly open rules structure with elaborate modifications allowed and minimal requirements for homologation. In part, it is this rules structure that is responsible for the early success of the series; the open rules allowed national riders from almost any country to compete on their usual machinery, and allowed in “homologation specials” from the larger manufacturers as well as the boutique manufacturers such as Bimota. This all added to the early appeal of the series, and built a base of fans attracted to their local riders and the wide variety of bikes.
While cost reductions are certainly needed to ensure the future of the series, Dorna does run the risk of losing that fan base if the basic premise of the rules and the original intent of the series are radically changed.
One reason grids have been shrinking is the steady reduction of wildcard entries at each round of the series. As mentioned, in years past a large part of the grid was made up of local riders trying their hand on the world stage. But with national series moving to more Superstock-like rules with spec components, this is an increasingly difficult proposition and the number of wildcards at each race has shrunk to almost none. Curiously, no mention of electronics was made in the WSBK announcement and I would suspect the reason lies here; if the series moves to a spec ECU that is just one more hurdle for wildcard entries to overcome. The cost for the ECU and the associated development would surely be prohibitive for just one event.
While cutting costs by placing price caps on components seems straightforward enough, this too is a tricky proposition as there are plenty of ways around those caps. While a basic bike or component may be provided for a set, reasonable price, that is just part of the overall package. Making those components or that kit bike competitive always takes time, testing and development. This is where the heavy costs often lie, and those cannot easily be controlled by the rules.
As in any series, the cost to field a winning entry is largely dependent on how much one team is willing to spend, and the others must follow suit. If the series is important enough, manufacturers will spend whatever it takes to win races and the championship. Force cost-cutting in one area, and that money will simply be spent elsewhere, and it will be difficult to close all those loopholes.
All this in mind, Dorna and the WSBK organizers definitely have their work cut out for them and it will be interesting to see the rules package derived from this framework.