World Superbikes: The Hidden Difference

Following the incredible races at Laguna Seca this weekend just gone in the latest round of the FIM World Superbike Championship, I once again found myself waxing lyrical to a friend about how incredible this racing series is…

Now unfortunately he’s more of a car racing enthusiast and as such, had been left more than a little bored by the British Grand-Prix earlier in the day. However, I persuaded him to watch this motorbike race – mainly so he’d see the light and join the two-wheeled brigade, and that he’d at least see some close wheel-to-wheel racing before the day was out. It was a success on both fronts. However, he did on more than one occasion mistake the Superbikes for MotoGP. This wasn’t too surprising as at first glance there seems to be very little (other than the names of the riders) to distinguish the categories. Or is there? Below is an attempted explanation for the differences.

What is a Superbike and how is it different to a Grand-Prix bike?

Simply put, a Superbike is the most powerfully built, road legal machine that a motorcycle manufacturer can produce, race and sell to the general public. As the old saying goes: “Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday”.

A MotoGP bike on the other hand is designed and built purely for the purpose of going around a race track as fast as possible. The leading factory bikes are in a constant state of development, in a bid to keep up with rival machines. They are beautiful looking machines, but are pure prototypes and as such are not ‘road legal’.

For both World and British Superbike championships, regulations demand that the bikes’ engines are capped at a maximum displacement of 1000cc. The engines are sealed by the manufacturer – as they would be for your standard road-going machine – and cannot be altered. Additionally, all of the key mechanical components that a rider relies on – such as brake discs, clutch, wheels and suspension must all be deemed ‘road legal’.

GPvSBK

The visual differences between a MotoGP bike (left) and a Superbike (right). A Grand-Prix bike has a much wider front profile and chassis to accomodate larger custom built engines and enhanced aerodynamics.

This is not to say that leading manufacturers cannot design new configurations or use different materials to construct the items. Far from it. Much like the World Endurance Championship for sports cars, the development of these machines have heavily influenced the commercial markets, with many pioneering developments from Superbikes eventually being incorporated into their counterparts on the road. As such, the World Superbike Championship (WSBK) has a vaster field of manufacturers competing than in MotoGP, as the sport is seen as more relevant to their customers’ interests.

Surely the racing must be slower?

Admittedly yes, Superbikes are fundamentally slower than their Grand-Prix cousins. Though as alluded to, this is down to WSBK having to comply to road-legal regulations. Bike chassis are not permitted to be constructed predominantly of carbon fibre – steel and aluminium take precedence. As such, these machines weigh significantly more than the GP machines. Additionally, aside from an aerodynamic windscreen and chassis cover, there is very little work permitted to upgrade the machine’s ability to cut through the air. This coupled with a ‘freeze’ on engine development helps to keep the field relatively equal in performance, leaving the abilities of the riders to make the crucial difference on the track. As such, this helps keep the field relatively tight together across the duration of the race. Which can only be a good thing for the fans of this sport, who get treated to some thrilling close quarters action.

The Format

The final major difference is the format to the race weekend. Whilst both MotoGP and WSBK follow a near identical practice and qualifying procedure – GPs get 4 practice sessions prior to the two qualifying sessions, WSBK only 3 – MotoGP just has one race on the Sunday. In contrast, the Superbikes have two races. The first race following qualifying on Saturday evening, with the second race in the traditional Sunday lunchtime slot. This is done for multiple reasons: The first, as far as the riders are concerned is to maximise their bike’s potential by taking a coveted double win, or in some cases, recover from a poor opening race with a strong ride the following day. A second race also increases the revenue both the circuits make, as well as Dorna (the commercial rights holders). Holding two races per round also makes sense to justify their decision to only have 13 rounds constituting the season. However it gives us, the spectators, the thrill of watching an intense second race as riders look to get one back over each other in an epic grudge match on wheels.

Its just a shame that we now have a two month wait before the series resumes at Germany’s Lausitzring circuit…

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