With MotoGP’s recent switch to 800cc prototype racing machines, it has become more clear than ever before that competing at the MotoGP level requires a commitment of money and resources available only to the world’s largest companies, or those with excellent sponsorship arrangements (i.e. Ducati). The Roberts team is an exception, but they stuck with it through several dissapointing seasons that would likely have motivated any manufacturer-owned team to withdraw.
If competing in MotoGP is too expensive to be financially feasible, where else to best showcase a company’s racetrack prowess? The answer, of course, is the World Superbike Championship. With sportbike consumers continually making clear that a brand’s racing ‘image’ is an important component of their prestige, numerous European companies are planning to enter WSB competition in the next few years.
Seeming to have finally recovered from their catastrophic Cube MotoGP project, Aprilia is now rumored to be deep in the developement of a 999cc V-4 powerplant to power their next-generation superbike. Aprilia is allegedly testing V-4 prototypes in a lightly revised version of the Mille chassis, and European press sources claim the new 65-degree V-4 is just as compact as the 60-degree V-Twins used in the company’s current literbikes.
If the project goes forward as planned, Aprilia is expected to introduce a range-topping V-4 powered superbike at the 2007 EICMA show in Milan, and to field a factory or factory-supported team to contest the 2008 WSB championship on the new bike. The company will probably continue to offer its current V-Twin powered Mille and Tuono models (or updated versions thereof), placing the new V-fours in a much higher price segment to avoid competing with the existing bikes.
We continue to hear rumblings of KTM’s long-rumored superbike project, which for quite a long time was claimed to be proceeding in paralell developement of both a V-Twin and a V-4 powerplant, either one of which could end up powering a production version of the RC8 concept bike previously seen at several large bike shows. Rumors are now focusing on the existence of an 1150cc V-Twin, which may be “the world’s most powerful V-Twin”. If this indeed is the final production motor, then KTM is gambling (along with Ducati) that the WSB organizers will approve the entry of larger-capacity V-Twins into the series within the next few years. The production version of KTM’s new superbike is again expected to be revealed at the 2007 EICMA show at Milan – we’re beginning to think of it as the Milan Superbike Show!
Speaking of Ducati, it is widely believed that the company was gambling on being approved to race the 2007 WSB season with an 1188cc ‘race’ version of their new 1098 superbike, but opposition from the Japanese manufacturers has delayed that decision to the point that it might not be possible for the firm to have a bike ready for competition in time, even if the rules change was approved today. Thus it is now expected that Ducati’s 2007 WSB team will continue to be 999-powered for the time being, although having claimed that the current motor is “at the end of its developement cycle”, one has to wonder whether the passionate Italians will be able to keep up with the latest wave of clinically warp-driven Japanese literbikes, which are likely to be even faster than last year’s batch. Another interesting question is whether the firm’s 999cc World Superbike racers will maintain the look of the current 999 (which will cease production this year) or receive new bodywork to become 1098 look-alikes with smaller engines.
With the rules stalemate preventing Ducati from using liter-plus machines in WSB, it is expected that 1098s or even 1188 ‘R’ versions (which are rumored to be released soon) will compete in certain national-level championships in 2007, with the intention of further proving Ducati’s case that the bigger-displacement twins possess merely parity, and not an unfair advantage, when compared with 1000cc four-cylinders.
Finally, MV Agusta’s entry into the 2007 AMA Superbike championship is believed by many to be a ‘feet-wetting’ exercise, a prelude to World-level competition in 2008. With the recent rash of updates to the F41000R, the company seems to be working to achieve the rapid developement cycle necessary to remain competitive with the japanese in this segment.
While MotoGP features (arguably) the world’s top riders, and (inarguably) the world’s fastest motorcycles (despite the fact WSB-spec 1000s may have more horsepower than 800cc MotoGP bikes), World Superbike competition always maintains the appeal of showcasing machines based on the same bikes many riders have parked in their garage. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the already popular series to gain 3 more brands (maybe four, as we expect Benelli has something up their sleeve as well), and we’d love to see KTMs, Aprilias, and MVs competing alongside the Ducatis and the Japanese inline-fours.