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GP Week : Issue 37
>>GPWEEKOPINION Superbikes a greater threat than ever? Michael Scott MotoGP editor THE MotoGP season stretches ahead into the future. So too does the start date to the series. When the circus does finally get going, in the middle of April, Formula 1 will already have done two races. More to the point, World Superbikes will have completed three rounds. By now, in fact, they have already had two: in Australia and Qatar. And some typically close racing has seen the emergence of an instant new hero, as US champion Ben Spies (Yamaha) surges ahead on wins, though not yet on points. It doesn’t feel right. It feels as though the senior series is on the back foot. And as though we may already have started another war between MotoGP and SBK. The last time this happened was in the mid-1990s. One trigger was the protracted death of the 500 two-strokes. One by one, countries had switched their top national titles to Superbikes, or something very similar. A lack of machine availability had made this almost inevitable. The 500cc GP class became increasingly isolated: racing in an ivory tower. Inevitably, this diverted a slew of riders away from GPs. Previously their progress would have led inexorably towards the 500cc class. Now they found themselves on production-based Superbikes. Whether they liked it or not. Most of them didn’t: Grand Prix racing remained the Holy Grail, at least within the paddocks. It wasn’t quite the same for the fans, however. Their loyalty went where the riders actually were, rather than where the riders might have wanted to be. All this coincided with a remarkable career – of Carl Fogarty. The hard-faced Englishman commanded an army of fans. His own GP plans were thwarted repeatedly, usually by circumstances. But he had pride of place in World Superbikes. And he stayed on to become a major hero and four times World Superbike champion. To British fans, this meant one thing: Superbikes were the more important series, and GP racing was a thing of the past. Arguments were quite fervent at the time; sometimes almost came to blows. I personally stayed true to the old religion, and kept proclaiming the seniority of GPs. I found myself often vilified for it. MotoGP fought back from its position of dwindling relevance. Most crucial was Dorna’s switch to 990 four-strokes in 2002, which realigned grand prix motorcycles with the real two- wheeled world. This brought in two new manufacturers, Ducati and Kawasaki, and for a while the old order was re- established. Superbikes were definitely second string. The new economic strictures have come at a bad time for MotoGP, however. And have cost the presence of Kawasaki, though a semblance remains. And the whole atmosphere is pervaded with gloom, as test sessions are cancelled and track time slashed. Any air of confidence of two or three years ago is firmly in abeyance. And the Supers? Thriving. Aprilia and BMW have both joined in this year, while Kawasaki’s quasi-factory team is still going. The exciting new Aprilia is already running near the front, too, ridden by a pair of MotoGP rejects, Max Biaggi and Shinya Nakano. Plus, to keep the USA on side, there is new hero Ben Spies (above). Like Fogarty, his MotoGP aims were thwarted; he is in Superbikes by default. The way things are going now, for him and for the two series, will he ever want to leave? Economics are the bottom line, and will be the deciding factor, should the battle between the two series become serious. Only then will the question be answered: Is MotoGP racing a luxury we can simply no longer afford? 21 opinion