Common Tread

Why World Superbike's grid gimmick for 2017 is a bad idea

Dec 12, 2016

WSBK went a little WWE on us last week.

The committee that sets the rules for the Superbike World Championship made a major change for 2017. Superpole will still set the grid for the first race of the weekend, but the second Superbike race will be gridded based on the results of race one. Win race one and you start race two in ninth place. Finish fourth in race one and you get to start race two on pole.

Race one finish Race two start
1 9
2 8
3 7
4 1
5 2
6 3
7 4
8 5
9 6

Explaining how it works gets a little complicated, so I decided the easiest way to present the information is a chart.

Opinions are mixed. Some riders like it, while others don’t. Plenty of fans and commentators have panned it. Some like it.

I don’t like it, for several reasons. Here’s why I think this is a bad idea.

Three kinds of motorcycle racing fans

At the risk of oversimplifying, I’m going to group race fans into three categories. First, there are hard-core fans who love the sport. They’ll watch the race on TV or buy a ticket regardless. Then there are fans of a particular rider. This is the concern in MotoGP, that when Valentino Rossi finally retires, his personal fans will drift away. Third, there are the casual fans, people who may pay attention to motorcycle racing only occasionally and are just looking for an entertainment spectacle. These fans get a disproportionate amount of attention from promoters, who want to hook them for today’s event and hope to convert them to hard-core fans for the long term.

The problem with the World Superbike rule change is it isn’t ideal for any of the three. Hard-core fans (like me) find it gimmicky and see it as something that diminishes the integrity of the sport. Fans of a particular rider will like it the day their rider finishes fourth in race one and gets a free pole position, but will hate it when their guy wins Superpole and race one but has to start race two in ninth position. And while the change is intended to create a better spectacle and presumably appeal to those casual fans, the system is so complicated it's hard to understand.

Superbike World Championship
There's nothing wrong with the quality of the racing in WSBK. Ducati photo.

What it’s all about

So why the change? First, because despite having some great talent and some good racing, World Superbike is languishing. The second factor is the attitude I’ve been hearing for several years now from the people managing racing series: “Racing is entertainment. With more entertainment options available than ever before, we have to put on the best show possible.”

This view is usually stated with a matter-of-factness that suggests those of us who don’t fully buy in are just not being realistic. I agree there’s a nugget of truth in that line of thinking, but I believe it has taken on too much weight in the world of racing.

Jonathan Rea
Not surprisingly, World Champion Jonathan Rea was among those who didn't like the new grid plan. If he wins as much in 2017 as he did this year, he'll become very familiar with starting ninth on the grid. Kawasaki photo.
Yes, racing is a form of entertainment, but it sits in the sub-category of sport. That means it’s not interchangeable with watching a movie, going to a rock concert or attending the opera. We love sports because of the element of competition we don’t get at the opera. We appreciate sports because they provide a feeling of finality at the end of a race, a soccer match, a basketball game, whatever, that we don’t get in the ambiguity of everyday life. Someone wins, someone doesn’t. We are thrilled by sports because of the uncertainty of the outcome, unlike the movie where we know the good guy will win in the end.

Sure, racing must be entertaining, but it must also be sport. Finding the balance is the key. This change, in my opinion, moves too far toward entertainment, too far from fair, sporting competition. Where's the fairness in rewarding a rider for winning a race by making him start the next one in ninth?

If a diver wins a gold medal at the Olympics, the officials don’t move the diving board up two feet in the next event to make it more difficult for her and “improve the show.” If Brazil is up two goals to zero at the halfway point in the World Cup final, they don’t make the goal two feet smaller to give the other team a better chance. The focus on "the show” shouldn’t go far enough to impinge on the integrity of the competition.

If the masterminds at Dorna want to know the real reason World Superbike is weak, they should look in the mirror. Once Dorna controlled both World Superbike and MotoGP, the organization set about making it very clear that MotoGP is the pinnacle. Newer or younger fans may not remember that at one time it appeared World Superbike would overtake grand prix racing in popularity, back when WSBK had a larger-than-life Carl Fogarty riding a Ducati people could aspire to buy while the GP guys were racing two-strokes that had no relevance to everyday riders. Those days were already long past before Dorna took over, but they still made it clear WSBK was second to MotoGP. Go around telling your fans WSBK is second-class racing and you shouldn’t be surprised when fewer of them buy tickets.

The solution to that problem is not a complicated gimmick for setting the grid for race two.