WSBK 2023 and the Future of Superbikes

Today I’m going to talk about “Superbikes”

a category of bikes loved by many bikers.

Although some would call the early Vincent’s and Brough Superior’s Superbikes and say that MV Agusta and Gilera made bikes that were effectively Superbikes in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the term really began to be used more when the new high performance machines coming out of Japan hit the market later in the 70’s. It was these bikes that made Superbikes accessible to the masses.

Buying a Vincent, Brough, MV Agusta or the like was a far off dream for most people. The Japanese Superbikes were affordable for ordinary working folk.

Through the 80’s and 90’s there were many evolutions in the world of superbikes. We got better engines, frames, suspension and brakes to reach what I would call the golden era of superbikes at the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s. This was a period when motorcycle racing was at its peak of popularity.

during those years the dream of owning these sport-bikes became reality for many people.

This is the era that coined the phrase “Who wins on Sunday, sells on Monday”.

If you stick around to the end there is some vintage footage from the 1998 season.

The Start of the World Superbikes Series

Although we had seen race replicas before, it was the Start of the WSBK series in 1988 that meant the manufacturers were forced to build Homologated race bikes for inclusion in their production ranges.

Although these race homologated specials were expensive, and out of reach for many people, they spawned a whole era of bikes based on the race bikes of the time. An RC 30 might not be affordable, but a VFR750F was. So we bought them, in droves. Bikes like the FZR750 soon grew to the new 1000cc limits and we got the EXUP and YZF 1000, the Fireblade, ZX9R and GSXR1000. At the same time, Ducati started winning more and more, and we began to see more of their bikes on the roads too. We were spoiled by some of the best exotic Italian machinery ever made.

Affordable Superbikes

I mention these motorcycles, because they had a few things in common. They were relatively simple, with Zero Electronic Rider Aids and price tags that were affordable. The Japanese ones were at least. All of these motorcycles needed experience and skill to get the most from them, they had levels of power that were astonishing for the time, but they could be ridden, even on public roads.

On racetracks, at track-days, a good rider could pretend to be Carl Fogerty or Fred Merkel for the day and go home smiling, remembering every apex they hit and every time they had made their knee scrape the tarmac. Now don’t get me wrong, these bikes could bite, and were unforgiving when it came to inexperienced riders or people with more confidence than ability.

They weren’t meant for novice riders, but they attracted people to the racing almost as much as the riders did.

By 2009 The Power Of The Motorcycles Was Immense

By 2009 many superbikes had made serious leaps forward in power. Bikes like the Ducati 1098 with 160HP and the Aprilia RSV4 capable of producing 180 HP came to market . As much as I do love these bikes, this is where for me, it all started to go wrong.

The riders and manufacturers pushed for more and more power from their engines and the bikes became increasingly unrideable for “Normal Bikers”. Like it or not, I am not and never will be Kenny Roberts, Casey Stoner Sheene. Without the reactions and skills of a real racer, even now these bikes are hard to use anywhere near their full potential for most riders. Even on a track, unless you are a skilled professional racer you are unlikely to use anywhere near all the available power.

More Power Doesn’t Always Mean More Speed

This can be demonstrated really easily and plenty of people have. Take 10 average riders (there were actually only 8 of us) send them around a race-track on an R6 and then on an R1, very few will be faster on the R1 on most circuits, regardless of what they usually ride. Most will actually be faster on the R6 because it is lighter, stops faster and is easier to handle. For most riders, 6 out of 8 including me in our case, the extra power of the R1 was of no benefit, even on a race circuit. Now we did this at Cadwell Park which is a nadgery, technical little circuit and at some circuits with long straights the R1 would obviously come out on top, but that is on a high speed racetrack not on the roads.

It takes a very gifted rider to get the most out of a 180HP motorcycle. Not just a fearless one. You can see in the footage how with this mixed class racing, even when the 1000cc bikes get past, they can’t get away. Most of the time they barely get past by the end of the straights and then are immediately passed again either on braking or in the corners.

A Knock On Effect

So, to keep these bikes under control, the manufacturers started developing more complicated electronic controls, and for road going bikes these controls became more intrusive. Prices got higher and higher and these new Superbikes again began to become the domain of the few. Toys for the rich or the endebted.

The increased price tags of many motorcycles, but especially Superbikes, seriously discourages young riders. They just don’t see the bikes as attainable.

2023 And Superbike Sales Are Dying

Today, in 2023 Superbikes have reached extreme levels of performance. Most develope over 200HP now. Compared to the bikes of 10 or 20 years ago they are totally beyond the skill levels of most riders. Sales have dropped, and fewer and fewer people are watching the racing too, People just don’t seem to make that connection with the bikes in the same way they once did.

Simply put, WSBK, among other things, has made road going sports bikes ever more expensive and less popular.

Looking at the WSBK rule book you see statements like “Must remain as originally produced by the manufacturer for the homologated motorcycle” everywhere. All you can modify at present is the Engine management, exhaust system, suspension, brakes and a few engine parts.

To make the bikes as fast as possible for those expert works team riders takes time and money. This results in a faster, more technical, and complicated road bike being released, which is inevitably more expensive and so even less affordable.

Useless Developments For The Road

Instead of engineering advances that work to improve real road going motorcycles, we get aerodynamic packages that don’t actually start working until you are doing illegal speeds, and launch control devices that have no use on the road. What is the point unless you are using it as a race bike?

Even for the “Watch Me” brigade, is a fast take off really impressive if electronics are doing it and not you? Plus, making it for a road bike inevitably means people will use it, sometimes people with less than half a brain cell, so it hardly improves rider or road safety.

The more expensive these bikes get, the more niche they become, and the less attainable they are for the average rider, unless they are prepared to sell a kidney or two of course.

What The Future Holds

So has the life of the Superbike reached its peak?

Are Superbikes a dying breed?

Well maybe, but probably not.

My opinion is that the performance of modern superbikes is just so far beyond even the best riders on the road, it is all a bit ridiculous.

I believe that continuing working on ever more complicated electronic controls, aerodynamic winglets, brake ducts etc. to help keep the immense power of the engines under control at speed, will lead to sales in this market sector falling even more, as the bikes get ever more expensive.

I personally think, and it is only “my opinion” that the WSBK series should be taken in a different direction.

By limiting the bikes to 750cc, reducing rider aids and putting more focus on lowering the weight, the bikes could become significantly cheaper to build. This would lower the purchase price, which lowers the cost of insurance, and so riding them would become more affordable again, especially for younger riders. This in turn would hopefully have the knock on effect of increasing their interest in motorcycle racing once more. It isn’t that long ago really since the bikes in World Superbikes were limited to 750cc anyway.

There can still be bigger bikes, as there always were, but by focussing the attention of younger riders on more affordable, high performance bikes, there would hopefully be more of them attracted to the prospect of riding motorcycles again.

The Joy Of Superbikes

Do you remember how much fun it was to ride a Yamaha FZR750, Ducati 748, or Suzuki GSXR750? These aren’t slow bikes even now, and a 750 today would also have the benefit of improved tyres, suspension and more. Yes leave the ABS on, possibly even a quick-shifter, but does anyone really want traction control or anti wheelie devices on a bike like this? Surely it is better to actually learn the skills needed to get the most from the bikes. That was always part of the joy of owning a motorcycle, and it is something that seems to be missing all too often now.

Save all the electronics for those top of the range touring and hyper-sports bikes that manufacturers have always made.

At 750cc, the difference between different engine formats would also be much less apparent. Imagine a world where we had 750 triples, V-Twins, V-Fours and across the frame 4’s all racing together? Each would have certain advantages on certain circuits and I think it would make for a more exciting championship. We had exactly that not so long ago.

It might also encourage more manufacturers to become involved, because their costs to enter the series would also be lower.

There is as I said, some vintage World Superbike footage that follows shortly. I hope it sparks some happy memories.

Prohibitively Expensive

Do we really want a WSBK race series where only Ducati, KTM and the big four Japanese manufacturers can afford to race? Because that is where I see things heading right now. We have lost Suzuki from Moto GP already. Racing is becoming prohibitively more expensive and less rewarding in sales than it has ever been.

There is a disconnect.

We need a direct way for young riders to connect with real racers and racing again.

I don’t want a single brand race series like Moto2 has become. A series of races where the bikes bear no resemblance to anything I can buy other than the badge they run.

I want to see the best riders on a bike that I can touch in the showrooms or on the street. A bike that is affordable for more riders, especially younger people. Because we need them if the industry as we know it isn’t going to die.

A Welcome Move

I have to say, I think the move to more affordable, modular parallel twins like the Honda Hornet, Yamaha R7, Aprilia RS660 etc. in the 750 class is a welcome one. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least these bikes encourage young riders to make steps through the various manufacturers ranges from bike to bike, as they progress in skill as a rider. At least that is something encouraging. However I do think the industry can do more.

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

What would you like to see from the big manufacturers?

How would you approach attracting more young people back to motorcycles?

Would you like to see a different format for racing?

Translate »
Scroll to Top