A British motorcycling World Champion was crowned last month, and his achievement is gigantic. Jonathan Rea, from Northern Ireland, became World Superbike Champion for a fourth year in succession, by taking his 13th race win this year, and the 67th race of his career, and the eighth in succession.
Rea utterly dominated the production-bike race series, a feat which preserves an increasingly uncomfortable British tradition. His fourth crown equals that of the previous record holder, Lancashire’s Carl Fogarty; while his 60th career victory, at Brno back in June broke Fogarty’s record of 59 wins, making him the most successful rider in World Superbike history. At the time of writing, with six races remaining (two each weekend), he had already lifted that number to 68.
The World Superbike championship started in 1988, growing out of an American domestic series, open to modified production bikes. US riders won five of the first six championships, then British riders pretty much took over. A round dozen titles have gone to five different UK riders; the USA is the next best, with a total of nine titles.
SBK remains very British. Kawasaki-mounted Rea’s closest rival this year has been Welshman Chaz Davies, on a Ducati. Rea’s team-mate Tom Sykes (champion in 2013) has also won this year. So too Yamaha’s Alex Lowes; while Eugene Laverty and Leon Camier are well-placed, and this year’s national-champion-elect Leon Haslam is set to join them in 2019.
By contrast, in MotoGP Cal Crutchlow is a top-flight rider and occasional winner, but his compatriots Bradley Smith and Scott Redding are both out next year.
Back in Fogarty’s and the series’ glory years, certainly in Britain and sometimes elsewhere, Superbikes did more than just threaten the classic GPs. They drew massively larger crowds and even came uncomfortably close to 500cc two-stroke GP lap times.
When Dorna took over grand prix racing’s commercial rights 25 years ago, something had to be done, for the traditional senior series (older even than F1) was dying on its feet. The motorcycle industry had turned away from two-strokes (whether rightly or wrongly is another argument); and the 500cc racers were isolated objects, existing only in order to exist.
The 500cc class had itself been a mainly British domain. Although the last champion was Barry Sheene back in 1977, Britain held the record for the most wins long afterwards, thanks to the foundation work done by Duke, Surtees, Hailwood et al. But now British riders were following Fogarty into Superbikes. And to many British fans, the newer series already outranked the classic championships.
Dorna, along with the industry, acted in 2002, consigning the two-strokes to oblivion with one-litre four-stroke MotoGP bikes. There was an attempt to keep a distance from Superbikes, but this has been overtaken by events.
Yamaha’s example explains: their in-line four-cylinder M1 MotoGP bike acquired a cross-plane crankshaft (like half an American V8) to make it more competitive with its vee-configuration rivals. The cross-plane crank then made it to the roadgoing R1 superbike. And only thereafter into Superbike racing.
Thus GP racing regained its pre-eminence, but now without any British influence. Since 1981 only three wins have been added to bring the national total to 137 (all by Crutchlow). A spell of American stars gave the US 154; but this is soon to be eclipsed by Spain, currently on 151; while (thanks largely to Rossi adding to Agostini’s tally) Italy is way ahead, with 240.
The flower of British racing has been mired in the second series. And Superbikes is losing importance year by year, both measured against the interest of the factories (only Kawasaki has the series top of its list, with no MotoGP involvement) and spectators. This latter fact is all the more uncomfortably true in Britain, where the loyalty of the fans does not match the success of the riders.
Back when Carl Fogarty was in his pomp (four titles between 1994 and 1999) Britain hosted two Superbike races a year, at Donington and Brands Hatch. They were reliable sell-outs. Fans flocked in their tens of thousands. This year, the single race at Donington was very poorly attended.
Dorna took over the rights to Superbikes in 2013, and now operate both conflicting series. And while they are to be congratulated for the success they are making of MotoGP, the very opposite is true of the Superbike series.
What it means for British riders is, basically, that they’ve backed the wrong horse. Or been backed into the wrong stable. Like Fogarty, Rea and his cohorts have never had a real chance of getting into MotoGP. They’re stuck in Superbikes, and national hopes and sadly waning national interest is stuck there with them.
Congratulations to Rea, for an awesome performance. And commiserations as well, to him and his similarly sidelined British rivals.