A year ago, my World Superbike season preview focused on whether Jonathan Rea could become the first to win three consecutive titles and mentioned some rules changes. Well, Rea dominated and set that record, so this year's preview looks not only at the next records he may break, but also at even more extreme rules changes aimed at creating tighter racing.
If nobody else can stop Rea from dominating, the people who make the rules may just do it themselves.
In the last two years, Kawasaki and Ducati won every FIM Motul Superbike World Championship race except for Nicky Hayden's one amazing win in the rain in Malaysia in 2016. That's the sort of predictability WSBK officials plan to bring to an end in the 2018 season that begins this weekend at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in Australia, even if they have to tie an anchor to the swingarm of Rea's ZX-10R.
In the past, the regulations used air intake restrictors, mainly to balance the power of the Ducati 1,200 cc V-twins with the 1,000 cc four-cylinder bikes. For 2018, the air restrictors have been replaced by rev limiters imposed by the rule book. To start the season, Aprilia, BMW, MV Agusta, Suzuki and Yamaha Superbikes will be allowed to rev to 14,700 rpm if they want. Hondas are limited to 14,300 rpm and Kawasakis are limited to 14,100. The Ducati Panigale V-twin is capped at 12,400 rpm.
Every three rounds, the performance and results of the teams will be evaluated. Basically, if Kawasaki is winning too much, for example, their maximum rev limit can be reduced by 250 rpm. Others' limits could be raised, but that may have no effect, since some of the motorcycles aren't hitting those limits anyway.
There are two other new measures for 2018 that are aimed at tightening the field. One is "concession points." Points are awarded for podium finishes and teams that fall too far behind will be allowed to introduce upgraded engine parts. Teams with a lot of podium finishes will have to keep using the same spec parts they started the season with. Additionally, the costs of certain parts, such as cylinder heads, are capped and those parts must be made available to any team. This gives privateer teams the chance to use the same spec parts as the ones on the factory race bikes.
WSBK tinkered with the rules in 2017, too, imposing its complicated grid system for the second race. The race-one winner had to start the second race from the third row. In the end, it didn't have much effect. By the end of the first lap or two, the usual suspects were typically back at the front. Now, the series is taking more extreme measures. Win too much and they will literally slow down your motorcycle's engine.
Times have changed since 1968, when Giacomo Agostini won all 10 Grand Prix races, winning nine of them by more than a minute over the hapless guy in second place (who was usually riding an outclassed British single that couldn't keep Agostini's MV Agusta in sight). I suppose today's rules makers would have made Agostini pull one of his three spark plugs, to even up the competition.
Everyone likes to see close racing, and casual fans will likely never even know about the new rules. But I can't help but feel this puts the sport on shaky ground. If the rules specify a certain configuration, and Kawasaki does the best job of building a fast motorcycle that fits those rules, then don't they deserve those wins? Now, winners may be penalized until they no longer win such an unseemly number of times.
It's something we don't see in other sports. If the Golden State Warriors go on a winning streak, the NBA does not decree that in the second half of the season their basketball rim will be two inches smaller. The NFL does not make the New England Patriots gain 12 yards for a first down. Or to use an analogy better suited for our international readers, FC Barcelona is not forced to defend a goal that's a meter wider than the other team's.
The 2018 World Superbike title contenders
Enough about rules. Who might actually win the races?
With the dominant Kawasaki Racing Team and Aruba.it Racing team both unchanged, the 2018 favorites look a lot like the 2017 favorites, and you have to start with Rea. The last three years, he has won the title by 132, 51 and 153 points. Those dominating performances made him the first racer to win the title three years in a row and also put other records within his reach. Another championship will match the record of four, set by Carl Fogarty. Rea has 54 race wins, which means he is likely to surpass Fogarty's record of 59 career Superbike victories. Finally, he is currently tied with Fogarty and Troy Bayliss for the most weekend double wins at 16.
Chaz Davies and Marco Melandri return to the Aruba.it Racing Ducati team, campaigning the Panigale V-twin for the last time before the new V-four takes over next year. Ducati V-twins have played a leading role in World Superbike racing from the beginning, including the glory days of Fogarty and Bayliss and right up to Davies' performance the last two years, when he has been the only rider with the speed to beat Rea on a regular basis. Davies spent the off-season recovering from a knee injury and getting married.
Davies has been quietly buried in the top third of the time sheets in preseason testing, giving the impression that has been more focused on race pace than setting a single fast lap. Meanwhile, Melandri set the second-fastest time in the final preseason test at Phillip Island this week. Still, I'm left with the feeling that the Ducati riders haven't shown their hands yet.
The Pata Yamaha team of Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark is the one most likely to break into the Kawasaki and Ducati dominance. Last year, Lowes and van der Mark were two of the three riders who got onto the podium other than the four riders on the dominant Kawasaki and Ducati teams.
No team is a bigger question mark than the Red Bull Honda team. After a year of tragedy and disappointment, the team is back with two new riders and a new team manager. Last year, neither Nicky Hayden nor Stefan Bradl were able to make the new CBR1000RR competitive, and then a frustrating situation became a tragic one when Hayden died after a bicycle crash. Former British Superbike champ Leon Camier now leads the Honda development effort, joining the team after impressing on an MV Agusta. He is joined by U.S. rider Jake Gagne, who filled in with the team three times in 2017 after Hayden's death. Gagne does have some international racing experience in Spain and in the Red Bull Rookies Cup, in addition to his recent racing in MotoAmerica Superbike.
There will also be a second U.S. rider in the Superbike class for 2018 as P.J. Jacobsen, also riding a CBR1000RR for the TripleM Honda Team, moves up from the Supersport class.
As if the Honda riders don't have enough challenges, with Camier new to the team and Gagne and Jacobsen new to World Superbike, the teams are way behind schedule with their all-important electronics package. The plan was for the Hondas to switch from Cosworth electronics to Magneti Marelli for 2018, but the systems were not ready in time for the pre-season tests. As a result, Jacobsen was the only one testing the new Magneti Marelli electronics at this week's test and the Red Bull team plans to continue using the Cosworth system for at least the first two rounds. Jacobsen's struggles to work the bugs out of the new system left him two seconds off Rea's pace at the test, and it's hard to be very optimistic about the U.S. riders' chances this year. The only good news is that the more experienced Camier has at least been able to get within a second of the best times.
Given recent history and pre-season form, a bet on anyone other than Rea to win the championship has to be considered a long shot. Then again, who knows? The rules makers may have Rea's ZX-10R (and, by extension, every other Kawasaki on the grid) revving slower than a Z125 Pro by the end of the year. We'll see. I'm hoping the quest for closer racing and a "better show" doesn't also mean killing off the spirit of fair competition.