The Superbike World Championship: how and when it started
The Superbike World Championship as we know it today started in the United States in the early 1970s. The first “Superbike Production” race, as it was called back then, was held in 1973 as a side event for the races held at Laguna Seca in California. The new category gained national recognition in 1976.
Very little was known about these races at that time outside the circle of insiders and die-hard fans. The competitors were the maxis of the day, like the Honda CB750F and VF750F, the Suzuki GS1000 and the Kawasaki KZ1000. The bikes were modified to deliver 140 hp but the set-up was clearly standard production. They ran without fairings and with high handlebars and they were spectacularly stylish.
Most of the riders had a dirt track background and were accustomed to competing on dirt ovals. The riding position was decidedly different from that customary in Europe but it was evidently effective, as riders of the calibre of Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rayney would demonstrate a few years later when the American Superbike Production races joined the world circuit.
Superbike Production goes global
The “Superbike Production” left the USA and the World Superbike was launched in 1988. The first season was a sort of dress rehearsal: little or nothing was known about the new category. Newspapers didn't report about it much and photos were few and far between (it was well before the days of millions of digital pics). And yet that season was fantastic, fought out on beautiful bikes right up to the last daring race. The title was won by Fred Merkel, on the Honda RC30, with Fabrizio Pirovano, Yamaha FZR, in second place and Davide Tardozzi, Bimota YB4, in third. Ducati, Kawasaki and Suzuki were the rising stars. The major motorbike manufacturers did not miss the opportunity because it was immediately clear that this new category was something special. The manufacturers understood it and so did the fans.
Superbike and World 500
The top category 500 World Championship was the exclusive reign of smaller displacement two-stroke engines. This does not mean that the 500 2T Grand Prix bikes were inferior to the Superbikes. On the contrary, they are still legendary today, but there were still no races for bikes based on modified production models. At last, they produced roars that hadn't been heard on the track since the days of Agostini.
In those years, the stars of in the top category 500 World Championship were the extraordinary riders whose names would go down in history, like as Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Michael Doohan (many of whom came from the Superbike Production in the USA). But it was a different spectacle and a different environment. The SBK riders would fight each other fiercely on the track without sparing any blows but then, once off the bike, they would shrug it off and go out to celebrate together.
Then there were the motorbikes. While fans could only see the GPs in races, they could buy a Superbike from a dealer. Of course, the racing bikes were heavily modified but in the early days, they were not all that different. It didn't take long for the SBK Championship to take off and the powerful media momentum pushed the manufacturers to make production racing bikes because the regulations required the racing models to be “derived” from the models on sale to the public.
So in just a few years, motorcyclists were offered the extraordinary opportunity to go from the fast sport-touring bikes of the time to real race replicas, ushering in one of the most beautiful periods in sport motorcycling, namely that of exceptional, beautiful and affordable motorbikes.
In those days, the parking areas outside the circuits where the races were held looked like the pits and it was during these days that the most fascinating sports motorbikes in history were made. One of them was the Ducati 916, which won six titles (from 1994 to 2001) from the first version to the last and then the Japanese Kawasaki ZXR 750, Honda RC 30, VTR1000, Suzuki GSX-R and Yamaha YZF R7.
More closer in time, noteworthy are the three titles of the Aprilia RSV4, two with Massimiliano Biaggi and from 2015 the six in a row of the Kawasaki ZX-10R, with Jonathan Rea, whose domination was interrupted in 2021 by Toprak Razgatlioglu's Yamaha YZF-R1.
The subject of riders is not simple. If we are talking about titles, the first is the Northern Irishman Jonathan Rea, the man of six consecutive victories with Kawasaki, followed by Englishman Carl Fogarty, a four-time champion with Ducati. If, on the other hand, talking about the riders who have left their mark on the fan's hearts Giancarlo Falappa is one of the first to come to mind. He never won a title, but before a serious accident would put an end to his career in 1994 he was the protagonist of memorable exploits, such as the famous 1993 race at Brands Hatch in the rain when he gained 20 seconds on the group on the first lap and finished in seventh place lapping all the drivers.
Another rider we hold in our hearts is Troy Bayliss, who in addition to his exploits on the track, with three titles won riding three generations of Ducati twin-cylinder bikes – the 996, the 999 and the 1098 - was known for his friendly attitude and sportsmanship. He was the fans' favourite but it was a daring overtaking move that went down as one of the most spectacular in the history of motorcycling to earn him legendary status.
The stage was Monza in May 2000. Colin Edwards, Pierfrancesco Chili, Akira Yanagawa and Noriyuki Haga were very close at the braking point on the first chicane after the finish line. Troy Bayliss in the slipstream flanked Haga, held his position and at a speed of 300 km/h at the end of the straight braked at the limit passing Yanagawa, Chili and Edwards in one go. The crowd exploded and Superbike had its new hero.
Superbike has evolved very much, not only from the first American modified production bikes but also from those of the 1990s. There are two reasons for this. The competition between motorbike manufacturers has become increasingly fierce so that today there are much faster and more powerful production motorbikes at the dealerships than the racing machines of the past and the regulations have been updated several times over the various seasons allowing for various modifications. As a result, the race is impressively fast-paced often close to that of MotoGP and the level of riders is very high. And the show goes on.