GRR

Are MotoGP and WSBK too close for comfort?

01st July 2020
Michael Scott

There hasn’t been much of interest during lock-down – unless you view virtual racing on a flat-screen as a worthwhile substitute. But the imminent resumption of hostilities did give rise to a unique opportunity, as pre-season testing was guardedly resumed at Misano in Italy.

For the first time ever, MotoGP bikes and World Superbikes were on the track together.

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MotoGP bikes are full-race prototypes; Superbikes share the 1,000cc capacity limit but have humble roots, closely based on production models, and furthermore hedged with technical regulations including rev limits.

You would expect the latter to be lagging, to have their weaknesses shown up all too clearly, by the thoroughbreds. But it didn’t work out like that. The stop-watches told a different story.

The fastest three bikes over the three days were from MotoGP, the KTM of Portuguese rider Miguel Oliveira, with Aleix Espargaro’s Aprilia and factory tester Michele Pirro’s GP20 whisker-close. But it was all by the narrowest of margins. Alarming figures for anyone who believes that the natural world order puts the prototype class clearly above Superbikes. Scott Redding’s factory Ducati Panigale Superbike was just over a tenth slower than Oliveira and a minuscule three hundredths off Pirro’s Desmosedici, which was adorned with the latest in aerodynamics from the racing department. Experienced MotoGP rider Pol Espargaro (KTM) was next.

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Of course, test times are not necessarily as indicative as they might at first appear. Teams and riders have different strategies depending on their individual circumstances, and are running their bikes in different configurations. Most importantly, they will be on different tyre types. For this reason, the Kawasaki Superbike team privately claimed victory, because although SBK champion Jonathan Rea’s lap time put him sixth overall, when they combined his best section times on softer qualifying tyres he was unbeatable. Theoretically.

And while the top Superbike riders were taking part, the cream of the MotoGP crop – factory Ducati, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki teams and riders – were absent. Oliveira is a second-year premier-class rider; and both Aprilia and KTM are second-string factory teams.

At the same time, it’s surely not supposed to be that close. The Supers are (admittedly top-spec) production street bikes; MotoGP bikes full-race prototypes. The former came into being as a supplement rather than rival to grand prix racing, and though there have been times when the Superbikes threatened – particularly in Britain in the 1990s, when Carl Fogarty reigned supreme – more recently MotoGP’s seniority has been redeemed, with Dorna now in charge of both series.

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Where are the differences between MotoGP and World Superbikes? Both run to the same capacity limit of 1,000cc, and all are contested by four-cylinder machines. This is by regulation in MotoGP, and by default in World Superbikes – Ducati’s long-serving V-twins having been supplanted by the Panigale V4, itself closely based on the MotoGP bike.

MotoGP bikes are (also by regulation) genuine “prototypes”, in the sense that they use no production components and are purpose-built only to race. Chassis and suspension technology in particular are at the cutting edge.

Superbikes are showroom models, modified for racing. Although they are a little more than production bikes with the lights taken off, tightening of the regulations has cut back on special tweaks and materials, while variable rev limits are in place to punish too much technical superiority and success.

In numbers, one difference lies in minimum weights: 168kg for Superbikes, 157kg for MotoGP, which is not enough to make a very great difference in performance. Another is in power outputs. These are not revealed in MotoGP, but estimates put current engines at more than 250PS, with Ducati’s desmodromic V4 leading the pack

Superbikes, at least in basic road trim, are some way short, although those competing in Superbikes are impressive enough, with quoted figures comfortably above 200PS – Ducati’s Panigale and Honda’s CBR1000RR heading the tables at more than 214 apiece.

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So how can the lap times be so close. I mean – how dare they? One reason, shared by the crustier veterans of the GP paddock, is that current MotoGP bikes are not just over-restricted in specification and in terms of engine life and fuel economy, but completely the wrong type of engine. Before the current four-strokes were ruled into place, natural evolution had seen two-strokes firmly in control. Two-strokes are significantly lighter, more compact, and (cc for cc) more powerful than four-strokes, and nowadays with supercharging can be made to burn at least as cleanly. But they’ve gone.

It’s better to look at another truth, and one that motorcycle fans can appreciate to the full: that a necessary purity and simplicity of concept means that the best showroom models are very close to the best of MotoGP bikes. That has always been the case, and would be also if both road and racing bikes were two-strokes.

A grand-prix machine to take shopping? Two wheels can provide it.

Read another MotoGP column: Will MotoGP stay the same after 2020?

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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