By Michael Gougis
It was something rare, if not unprecedented, in International-level professional motorcycle racing. In retrospect, however, it’s remarkable that it took so long to happen.
At the Catalunya round of the FIM Superbike World Championship, race officials red-flagged the Supersport300 Superpole session for irresponsible riding and called all of the riders to an impromptu meeting in pit lane, where FIM representative Antonio Lima absolutely chewed out the entire field.
“If you don’t want to race, easy. Go home,” Lima said. “What we have seen this morning is a shame. Don’t play with safety. Next time you go to the track and you do this again, I stop the practice again. This is a World Championship. This is not a playground for kids. If you are not adult enough to be here, stay at home. If it is necessary, I stop the race. If it is necessary, I cancel the race. Go to the track and race like riders, not like stupid kids.”
The frustration of trying to rein in dangerous riding in this class has been boiling over for some time. But there are pressures in this class, at this level, that make it extremely difficult for riders to not engage in risky behavior.
What happened at Catalunya? When the Superpole practice started, nearly all of the riders went out on the track and began cruising around slowly, waiting to find the right pack to follow. After three minutes and 11 seconds of this, race officials had had enough and halted proceedings on the spot.
The Supersport300 class has been under more scrutiny since Dean Berta Vinales–cousin of MotoGP racer Maverick Vinales–died in a multi-bike accident in Jerez in 2021 and Victor Steeman died in a similar incident in Portugal in 2022.
Aboard small-displacement, close-to-stock motorcycles, Supersport300 riders tend to circulate the track in large packs during races and rely heavily on drafting during qualifying. At Catalunya, 10 laps into the first race, the first 18 riders were separated by 2.069 seconds. The large, closely-spaced packs have led to problems because if a rider crashes, the following racers have little or no chance to react before hitting the downed rider or bike. Their behavior is much the same in qualifying, with similar risks. And timing the draft, or waiting around for a pack of bikes to tow you around, becomes as or more important than raw speed.
But as Maverick Vinales and others have pointed out, this kind of pack behavior is almost a requirement for racers in the class. With very limited horsepower, light weight, sticky slicks, and extremely limited modifications, more riders can get the absolute best out of these bikes. With the machines so equally matched, no one can get away at the front. And drafting is critical. In Race One at Catalunya, the first nine riders crossed the finish line within a second. And the rider in the back of the pack gets a massive draft from those in front, making it even more difficult for the leaders and faster riders to break away.
It’s also worth noting who is racing in the Supersport300 class. Yes, it’s inexpensive in terms of racing in a World Championship. But it’s not cheap. And few, if any, of these riders are earning career-worthy salaries. At this point on the ladder, there’s a good chance that these riders are kids, bringing sponsorship or cash to the teams in exchange for a ride in the hopes of doing well here and climbing the professional racing ladder, where a fat paycheck might be found.
Do poorly in Supersport300, and a lot of other people’s money goes down the drain as your career sinks like a stone. The pressure to perform is immense, it is laid squarely on the shoulders of very young adults, and the price for riding irresponsibly is relatively small–generally a grid penalty.
In their place, what would you do? Maybe exactly what many of these riders are doing–waiting for a draft that can give them a critical edge in qualifying. At worst, they feel, if they try it and get penalized, they’re no worse off–they’ll just wind up back where they would have qualified had they tried for a hot lap on their own.
Increasingly harsh penalties have not worked. Perhaps the series organizers could consider making changes in the way qualifying works. Send the fastest 12 or 15 riders from the practice sessions to a final Superpole session. The longer practice sessions would remove the pressure to hang around immediately after leaving the pits to find the right drafting partner. The riders would have more than an hour, with both sessions counted, to put in a fast lap. Then, for the final Superpole session, have the riders go out in reverse order of their fastest practice lap, one at a time. No drafting, no packs, just pure skill. And it will give the faster riders a better chance at making a break at the start of a race.
It might not be the perfect solution. But it will work better than the system in place now. And no one wants to be standing on the grid for a moment of silence on Sunday because a 15-year-old died in a race accident on Saturday. No one wants to be standing next to a fellow journalist who wants to know how he’s supposed to behave, what he’s supposed to do, because he’s never been on the scene of a racing fatality in the past. And if that sounds specific, I spent Sunday morning at that race in Jerez in 2021 doing exactly that, comforting another member of the press corps who had come face-to-face with the worst part of the sport for the first time.
Chewing out the riders and red-flagging the session is one reaction. But wouldn’t it be better to create structural changes that will enhance safety and at the same time reward the riders with more speed and skill?