21 vs 46 - 56 vs 58 - MotoGP vs Superbikes?
The relative fortunes of MotoGP and World Superbikes seem to swing back and forth like a pendulum over the years. As the popularity and profile of one series wanes, the other seems to grow to take its place.
Since the advent of the 990cc MotoGP bikes - or perhaps since the advent of Valentino Rossi to the premier class, two years earlier - it has been MotoGP which has taken its turn in the sun, the coming of the four strokes causing an exodus of talent from the World Superbike class. This inflow of talent into MotoGP also coincided with a number of developments in World Superbikes which added to the decline of the production-based class. Michelin dominated the series, supplying only a handful of riders, and making the racing predictable. After FGSport, the organizers of the series, decided to go to a spec tire, handing the contract to Pirelli, the Japanese factories - already only sparsely represented - withdrew their support, leaving World Superbikes to make the epithet "Ducati Cup" even more deserved.
But as the implications of an earlier rule change upping the permitted capacity for four cylinder bikes to 1000cc started to tempt the Japanese factories back to the series, the racing started to improve. Then with the return to the series of Troy Bayliss in 2006, and the coming of Max Biaggi in 2007, the popularity of World Superbikes started to wax once again, soon threatening to eclipse MotoGP. World Superbikes' rise was helped along by the dismal racing produced by the new 800cc formula in MotoGP, as a combination of smaller engine capacity, much tighter fuel restrictions, and the arrival of a new breed of rider more interested in riding with surgical precision than engaging in armed combat saw the races become increasingly processional, and lose much of the element of competition.
And it isn't just the fans who are showing more interest in World Superbikes: Interest is growing in the MotoGP paddock as well. The latest round of speculation was started by Valentino Rossi, who, it transpired after the event, had tried and failed to arrange a wildcard appearance at the final round of the World Superbike series at the magnificent Portimao circuit in Portugal. He repeatedly expressed his admiration for the close racing which the World Superbike series throws up - though ironically, an unleased Troy Bayliss dominated both races in Portugal - and has repeatedly stated his desire to take part in a World Superbike race at some point in the future.
Since failing to get a wildcard at Portugal, Rossi changed tack, attempting to organize a showdown with - now retired - Troy Bayliss at one of the two opening World Superbike rounds at Qatar or Phillip Island. So far, Rossi has failed to get his way, with Ducati chief Davide Tardozzi currently the main fly in the ointment. Bayliss has expressed an interest (though at an asking fee of a million pounds, one that comes at a price), but has for the most part held off the boat. Meanwhile, both Ducati's Tardozzi and Yamaha's racing chief Laurens Klein Koerkamp have played down the possibility of such a clash, as it would cast a fairly substantial spanner in their carefully laid plans for both World Superbikes and MotoGP.
But Valentino Rossi's status both inside and outside of motorcycle racing means that what Rossi wants, Rossi usually gets, with only a very few exceptions in the past. As much as Yamaha would hate Rossi to be racing in March, and risking an injury which could seriously hamper his title defence, the chances of the Japanese factory actually preventing Rossi from racing in World Superbikes are vanishingly small. That would leave the small matter of Troy Bayliss' fee, but if World Superbike organizer IMS and MotoGP promoter Dorna are smart, they would put together a special TV deal for something likely to be billed as the greatest sporting event since Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974. Such an event could help elevate motorcycle racing to the levels of Formula 1 and beyond.
Now, along with all the commotion over Rossi vs Bayliss, another star from the world of MotoGP has thrown yet more fuel on the World Superbike fire. The Italian magazine Moto Sprint carried an interview with Marco Simoncelli, in which the 250cc World Champion expressed his intention to race the first two rounds of the World Superbike series aboard the Aprilia RSV4. Simoncelli tested the RSV4 earlier at Valencia, and was up to speed very quickly indeed, proving that he could be competitive almost from the start.
Simoncelli's interest in World Superbikes is being actively encouraged by Aprilia, who stand to lose the young Italian at the end of the year if he decides to leave the 250s and move up to MotoGP. Without any current involvement in the MotoGP class, and none likely in the immediate future, Aprilia don't have a career path to offer to the young talent they keep nurturing through the 125 and 250 series. But with their new RSV4 superbike, the Italian factory can now offer riders something beyond the smaller classes in MotoGP.
Aprilia's efforts to guide Simoncelli towards World Superbikes are also likely meant as a snub to Dorna. Aprilia and KTM, the only two factories seriously involved in the 250 class, both feel extremely poorly treated over the new 600cc four-stroke class due to replace the 250s in 2011. Neither factory has a 600cc offering, and neither factory has an interest in taking on the Japanese in a format which the Japanese have dominated for over a decade. KTM expressed their dissatisfaction with the changes to the 250 class by pulling out with immediate effect at the end of the 2008 season. Aprilia's attempt to lure Simoncelli into World Superbikes could be their - more subtle, and more devious - way of expressing their unhappiness at the situation.
While Aprilia's motivation is clear, many people are still questioning Valentino Rossi's interest in the rival series. Why, they ask, would a man who looks set to dominate MotoGP again, as he did from 2001-2005, step away from motorcycle racing's premier series, and the place which consolidates his position as the best motorcycle racer in the world? There is a good deal of talk about Rossi's annoyance at not winning the coveted "Casca d'Oro" or Golden Helmet award, given by the Italian magazine Moto Sprint to the best rider of the year, the award going instead to Troy Bayliss. Rossi, they claim, wishes to point out to Moto Sprint the error of their ways, and underline his motorcycle racing supremacy.
But this ignores the fact that when Rossi faced Bayliss in MotoGP, Bayliss only ever beat Rossi once, at the legendary final 990cc race at Valencia in 2006, when Bayliss returned as a wildcard, and where Rossi lost the title to Nicky Hayden. Though Rossi was, for the most part, on superior machinery to Bayliss, the Italian comprehensively beat the Australian way beyond what just equipment should account for.
So if not revenge, then what? As most MotoGP fans are aware, Valentino Rossi is an avid student of the history of motorcycle racing, and keenly aware of his place in it. The records are running out for Rossi in MotoGP: another two titles and he will be level with the great Giacomo Agostini, and he is less than 30 wins away from his compatriot's total of 122 wins in all classes, a total once thought completely out of reach.
With fresh challenges drying up in MotoGP, Rossi could well be turning his attention to World Superbikes, seeing a whole new record-breaking chapter in motorcycle history beckoning. No one has yet won both titles, a record Rossi would dearly like to claim for himself. Then there's Carl Fogarty's total of 59 wins in World Superbikes: with 2 races each weekend, and 14 rounds every year, Rossi must regard that as an achievable target, given 3 or 4 years in the series. Rossi's MotoGP contract with Yamaha runs until the end of 2010, after which he has said that at 32 years of age, he will probably be too old to continue racing in MotoGP. Having seen Troy Bayliss retire at 39 years old, still at the top of his game, Rossi is likely to feel he could have a long term future in World Superbikes once he gets too old for MotoGP.
If Rossi does go to World Superbikes, this will leave Dorna with a huge problem. The promoters tasked with organizing the MotoGP series are already seriously worried about what will happen once Rossi decides to retire, but had so far comforted themselves with the thought that the sport's biggest name would most likely head off to the relative obscurity of the World Rally Championship, leaving Dorna to find and promote a new fan favorite in his absence.
But if Rossi heads off to a rival motorcycle racing series, that changes everything. If Rossi going to Formula 1 would have been bad enough, The Doctor switching to World Superbikes is the very stuff of nightmares. All those terrestrial broadcasters which Dorna has so carefully courted into covering his series at a very healthy fee could well decide that their audience figures would be best served by doing business with the Flammini brothers rather than Dorna. Carmelo Ezpeleta is likely to be losing sleep over this one for quite some time to come.