The State of World Superbike

The World Superbike Championship is facing many of the same problems as MotoGP - although the relationship between the two is becoming increasingly strained

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Paolo Flammini had something to say. The charismatic head of the World Superbike Championship - officially he is CEO of Infront Motorsports, with his brother Maurizio as President - invited a small group of journalists for a Saturday morning chat at Miller Motorsports Park. Paolo Ciabbatti was present as well. Ciabbatti left a very successful run as the manager of the Ducati World Superbike team to essentially implement Flammini's vision in the paddock and on the racetrack.

Flammini is at the top of a very small group of people who make the important decisions in World Superbike. His greatest strength may be that he listens. Unlike some series directors, he's no autocrat. He meets with the teams on a regular basis - one of those meetings came on the Sunday of the Miller weekend - and he takes their input seriously. He's infinitely accessible by the pressroom regulars. Promoters know they can rely on him to work as a partner, not an adversary. When one of the grandstands at MMP was dedicated to Alan Wilson, the designer tasked to bring the late Larry Miller's vision to life, all of the important WSBK personnel, including Flammini and Ciabbatti, were there.

The approach works. There's less discord and more amity in both the paddock and the pressroom than you'll find in many other championships. The support the Flamminis give to the paddock is returned in kind. More than anything, it makes good business sense and by the decisions he makes it's evident Flammini understands that racing is a business.

"As far as the Superbike World Championship is concerned, I can tell you that from a promoter's point of view, having worked together with the FIM and the manufacturers in 2007 to create the new rules, I am very happy to acknowledge that these rules are really good," Flammini said to kick off the conversation. World Superbike, being a production-based championship, can't make radical changes. "Nobody wants a revolution in the rules. The only things that can come out are fine-tuning. Nobody is saying 'Let's make a radical change in some element,' because if we make this radical change then we will need a significant improvement on the financial side. Everyone say that the rules are OK.

"What we have to definitely avoid is to eliminate exotic materials and technologies as much as we can. This will probably translate into an increase in the minimum weight; many people suggested that an increase in minimum weight would help with the cost of building the bike. We are not talking about changing anything; maybe increasing the weight to a certain level. This was something that came out from all the manufacturers."

For years, the American distributors of the Japanese Big Four have suggested they could reduce costs if there was a set of worldwide technical regulations that would allow the manufacturers to build fewer iterations of their racebikes. For his part, Flammini doesn't see a one-size-fits-all approach as viable.

"In my opinion, to have the same rules for all the world...it's a wrong approach," Flammini said, "because a national championship cannot have the same resources of the world championship. Therefore, you cannot force them to race with expensive bikes or the opposite, you cannot force the world championship to, let's say, reduce the level of the technology applied because they must have. What we always say is not that the same rules, but, let's say, compatible, modular regulations. And the solution is very easy."

Flammini proposed that the national championships race with Superstock 1000 rules, and World Endurance and World Superbike could be similar. "For the manufacturers it's very easy, because they don't have to make ten different racing versions of the bike. They make two racing versions, and then the national championships can decide what to use according to the financial possibility of the series. This is very simple."

Less simple is the dispute brewing between World Superbike and MotoGP, even though Flammini considers Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta a friend. As a way to solve its problem of dwindling grids and rising costs, MotoGP has come up with a formula that would allow production-based motors to compete with the current prototypes. The proposal has been met with some skepticism since it mandates that the bore can't be larger than 81mm on four-cylinder machines - essentially, the Grand Prix Commission is dictating production engine dimensions to the manufacturers.

Flammini has spoken at length about his displeasure at the Grand Prix Commission's attempt to usurp his slice of the racing world. When asked about the MotoGP conundrum, he responds with a smile that hints at frustration, though he makes it clear that he believes in the MotoGP concept.

"For us it's very clear: The MotoGP category is the category for prototype bikes. Is the maximum expression of the racing technology," he began, "while Superbike is the maximum expression derived from the production bikes. This is a big difference, clearly, because we have limitations by nature in our regulation. MotoGP is, on the contrary, the place where all the technologies are developed and tested, the bikes are the fastest on the planet. If we respect these philosophies, we believe we have a perfect assortment and motorcycling, as a sport, needs to have more than one good championship in the international sports scenario. Motorcycling is a small sport, and if we lose the possibility to have as much promotion as we can - in this case it means 32 events per year - we create a problem to the sport. That's why we are defending this difference in a strong way, because we believe that in this difference there's the main reason for the existence and success of the two series."

By defending he means "in terms of the discussions and communication. It was not necessary to do more than that. But we are very careful to the evolution of the situation and, therefore, we believe that we will always keep this philosophy and therefore we would like that this philosophy is respected by all the parties involved." Ultimately, the FIM makes the call, "so we have asked the FIM to be more clear, more specific in their intention to preserve these different natures. The president, (Vito) Ippolito, in his public interviews, confirmed that he agrees with our opinion, and it's a common opinion that the MotoGP and the Superbike must be two completely different classes. Now, clearly, we would like to have more specific delimitation in what MotoGP can do and cannot do, as far as the relationship with the Superbike machine is concerned. Of course we are only worried about that, because for the rest, it's not our business. As long as they run prototype machines, they can do whatever they like."

And what of Moto2? Does that infringe on World Supersport? At the moment, no, Flammini said, because no WSS teams made the switch, but that could change in the future.

"We are also carefully watching the evolution of the Moto2 category because the situation is unclear, and we cannot exclude that there could be some problem, let's say, if the evolution is not in the direction of keeping as a prototype category," he said. "So again, nothing specific at the moment, but it's a situation under the lens, definitely."

Electronics are a big concern, Flammini admitted, and he had no answers. He said that "the problem is really big for electronics. We've been discussing these things for probably three years now and any time you think that you found a solution, then you go deeper into the analysis, you find out that somebody can cheat and you don't realize that he's cheating. So we don't want to create a rule that then will automatically generate suspects in the paddock that somebody's not complying with the rules and so they are more competitive. Yes, you can make rules, but you must be sure that you can police the rules. Because at the end of the day it's better to leave freedom in case you are not 100 percent sure you can control and enforce what you have decided. Otherwise, at this level of competition you only create a problem, because some people start to say, 'OK, but other guys using a device and you are not aware.'" In Sunday evening's meeting between the teams and Flammini and Ciabatti, electronics were among the items on the agenda. The response was that the manufacturers "said they like the rules, they do not want different rules. But an effort should be made in order to see if we can somehow limit the electronics."

The 2011 season rules already contain a number of changes, such as standard injectors and standard fuel pumps. Already from this year the newly homologated bikes must use standard airboxes. Ride-by-wire can be used on racebikes, but only if it's on the standard bike. "For the electronic suspension we already decided a couple of years ago, that it's either that you use a completely standard system or you have to use a mechanical system," Ciabbatti said, "because, we know engineers and their job is to make things work in the best possible way. So if they have the money, if they have the budget, they will look for a very sophisticated way to integrate something with the electronics and something else. And then the gap between the privateers and the factory teams will go to a level that we don't like. There might also be some factory teams who already don't want to spend so much money. And in the end we think we have a very good show today, so why should we ruin this show because somebody is investing crazy money to get the latest technology? Which is not something that spectators like in the end to see on the track or on TV. What people like is close racing.

"We've been lucky or clever to write a package of rules where you have 15, 16 guys in one second." The number of riders on the same second this year is smaller than last. At MMP, only the top six on the grid were on the same second. "You have four, five, six or eight guys fighting each other up until the last lap, so we want to keep this. So in the end what we want to keep is the show and also the low costs. And the possibility for privateers still to be able to get good results, which I think is unique to our system.

When asked if close racing was essential to the popularity of the series, and how it fits in with technology and star power, Flammini said that "close racing is fundamental to have to get into say, the heart of the people, because the sport must be unpredictable. You need to be uncertain until the last minute, creates the emotion. I believe that the Superbike in the last years has been completely unpredictable and therefore you like to watch racing mainly for that reason."

As strong as World Superbike remains, the same can't be said for World Supersport. At Miller there were 19 starters and 18 finishers; last year, it was 30 and 26. Flammini said that the class was more heavily supported by local importers, rather than the factories, and that the "local importers have suffered quite a lot from the current market downturn." One solution, which has been proposed to the FIM, is only allowing one motorcycle. "Everybody was very much in favor of these modifications," he said. There will be a larger push on the PR front for the top Supersport riders, and another possibility is that World Supersport won't go to all the flyaway races in order to avoid cargo and travel costs.

Ironically, it's in faraway places that Flammini sees growth prospects. He would like for the series to return to Japan. He also sees an opening in China, and the Pacific Rim is currently undergoing a track-building boom: India is working on a circuit, as is Korea. The Philippines has a project in development. And, as much as he'd like to see a second race in the U.S., which he feels could support it, Flammini admits he's limited by racetracks. The tracks other than MMP that are homologated for a World Championship event, are Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and both have grands prix.

Flammini and Ciabbatti were asked whether they'd considered the new Formula One track being built in Austin, Texas.

"I have to admit, I became aware of that yesterday afternoon," Flammini laughed, before adding, "You know, we would be very happy to see another FIM homologated circuit, because at the end of the day, it's an opportunity for us, and obviously, it's an opportunity for the country to get the international events.

"Now, I don't know if Texas is a good place for motorcycle racing," he said, while Ciabbatti nodded that it was, "and it's certainly not near to this place," he said with more laughter, "so it could be definitely good."