Not long ago, the buzz among nerdy MotoGP and SBK fans was that, on a rare shared test day, at least one Superbike lapped faster than any of the attending premier-class bikes and riders. The nerdiest nerds then pointed out that it wasn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison, because the SBK teams’ Pirelli tires worked much better on the cold track that day. (Maybe it was more like an apples-to-quinces.)
But, it’s pretty clear: The mere fact we were all fascinated with the comparison pretty much proves that a.) MotoGP engineers aren’t getting that much marginal speed despite an exponentially larger spend; and, b.) the top SBK riders don’t give much away to their snottier peers in MotoGP.
Would a top Superbike rider on a top bike actually be competitive in a MotoGP race? I doubt it.
Whenever I think of radically different machines on track at the same time, I am reminded of the glory days of Formula USA, where anything-goes rules pitted bikes as different as 1,100cc superbikes against 250GP bikes (with nitrous oxide push-to-pass capability).
I don’t have to go back that far though. I’m traveling and away from my records. But if memory serves it was around the mid-‘90s when the top 250GP qualifying times were nearly competitive with 500GP times. That realization prompted Aprilia to build a radically overbore (was it also stroked?) 400cc version of their 250, which they entered in the 500 class. It went nowhere. The speed of the fastest 250s was also probably a factor in Honda’s decision to build some 500cc twins, which they offered as a customer motor to teams in the class. (It’s hard to imagine that, not so long ago, there were than many teams in the premier class, but there were.) Anyway, the Honda twin also underwhelmed.
The experience of 250GP riders in F-USA in the ‘80s, and twins riders mixing it with four-cylinder riders in the 500GP class in the ‘90s proved that bikes that are capable of putting in similar qualifying times on a clear track are not necessarily inherently competitive in the cut-and-thrust of racing, where the way your bike makes power dictates cornering lines. To say nothing of the braking advantage MotoGP bikes would have in a real race.
My guess—and that’s all it is, but it’s informed by historical knowledge of natural experiments in the world of racing—is that even the most dominant SBK rider/machine combination would finish quite far back (close to last) in any dry MotoGP race. That’s not to take anything away from the top riders over there; I am sure that if you gave any of the top six SBK riders a few test days and a competitive MotoGP machine, they could ‘pull a Bayliss’ and embarrass the prima donnas. I just don’t think they’d be able to use an SBK bike to full advantage in a MotoGP race.
All that said and as noted above, it’s clear that MotoGP bikes are not much faster than production-based bikes. That brings me to a mental experiment I love to imagine, which is not comparing production-based race bikes to the fastest premier-class racing prototypes; rather, it’s comparing actual production motorcycles to premier-class bikes.
So… Imagine a time machine, big enough to take a current production bike back in time. The question is, How far back do you think you’d have to take the fastest current production motorcycle, before it would be competitive in the top World Championship class?
About 15 years ago, I asked Freddie Spencer if he thought that he could have put a then-current CBR1000 on the grid in a 500GP race, during his racing heyday. He told me, “Not at the fastest tracks, like Hockenheim, because we were already going over 300kph. But I think it would have been competitive at the most technical tracks.”
At that time, Freddie was about 20 years past his 500GP prime. So, you’d have to set the Gardiner Machine at about 20 years to achieve machine parity.
Maybe some time this winter, I’ll parse the lap times at open-class sport-bike launches—to look for a launch with some fast ex-racer testers, held on a track that’s been in use in the World Championship for decades—and make an informed guess about the fastest current production motorcycles. How far back I’d have to take one in the Gardiner Machine, before it would be competitive with premier class bikes of that day. I’m not sure it would be more than 20 years.
And that’s incredible, really. I mean it’s just a mental experiment of course, but it clearly illustrates the fact that we’re living in a Golden Age of production bikes, especially when compared to production cars. Any guy with a regular job can go buy an open class sport bike that is as fast as the fastest prototype motorcycles were a few decades back.
The fastest production cars are an order of magnitude more expensive, and more like 40 or 50 years behind F-1 car lap times.