A couple of weeks back, John Riley, an 85 year-old Chelsea Pensioner became World Conker Champion. This annual event, which takes place in a pub in Northamptonshire got more attention in the national press and broadcast media than the achievement of Jonathan Rea, who, the week before had become the first rider to ever win three World Superbike Championships in a row. One of Rea’s sponsors started a petition to get him nominated for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. I wonder if John Riley is in the running too.
The problem is, of course that, if MotoGP is the Premier league of bike racing, the WSB is at best the Championship and no one from the second tier ever gets close to a night out at the BBC. I’d love to stand up for WSB but I struggle right now. This year I’ve watched more hours of World Endurance than I have WSB. When I have tuned in the racing has been ok…for a few laps…if you focus on the first five riders. But mostly I miss it because I have grown-up things to do on Saturdays and, having missed the first race, coming in for the second one feels like walking into the cinema halfway through the film.
So I started thinking about how to spice up WSB. Problem one is that the bikes being raced are machines that few of us buy anymore. Although, to be fair, that doesn’t stop me being excited about BSB or the TT. Even after half a dozen seasons of the BSB shootout format I still have no idea what a ‘podium credit’ is, but I do know that the technical regulations make for close racing and the management of the showdown format always means a close-run fight to the end.
Problem two for WSB is that it’s always the same three blokes at the front and a long way back to the rest of the field. The organiser’s response to this was to reverse the starting grid for race two, which simply allows the rest of the field to be doubly humiliated as the front three romp past them in the first few laps.
So…What if they changed the rules and raced the bikes that people actually buy? A series for 150bhp adventure bikes, super-nakeds and secondhand ten year-old sports bikes? That’d be interesting. Maybe the rules are changed so a manufacturer can only race their best-selling model. Doing this would have two clear benefits. Firstly we would definitely get the best riders in the world, because if Honda are having to pit their 110cc Vision scooter against Ducati’s Scrambler and Triumph’s Street Triple, you can bet your boots they’re gonna want Marquez on it to give them a chance (and, in truth, I wouldn’t bet against him).
Secondly, in order to get a decent race bike to the top of the sales charts we’d see massive tech being sold for sensible prices. If Honda mass-produced the RCV213V MotoGP replica and sold it for £7999 in order to sell millions and make it eligible for WSB, you can bet your boots we’d all sign up. And, because they’d be selling a million RCVs a week, economies of scale would probably allow Honda to sell it for £7999 and make a profit.
Secondly, make it a series for teenage racers on the way up. Because the gaps in talent at this level are smaller, so the racing would be closer. Plus, teenagers have more hormones than sense, so the racing would be spectacular. And because the bikes only cost £7999, it wouldn’t matter how many they smashed to bits each weekend.
Unfortunately, because one company, Dorna, owns MotoGP and WSB, the two series are trying to complement each other rather than compete for viewers. Realistically, what needs to happen is for someone (maybe the people who own F1) to either buy WSB back and run it as a proper rival to MotoGP. Maybe a kind of Pro-Am ‘Youth v Masters’ race series where you can go and watch a bunch of next-gen Marquez and Zarcos race against our old GP and WSB favourites playing out their final few seasons. Doohan, Schwantz, Foggy and Lawson versus a grid-full of their teenage successors on 150bhp adventure bikes anyone?
I’d pay to watch that.