World Superbikes invest in new entry-level 300 cc class
As of 2017, the World Superbike Championship will incorporate a brand new racing discipline specifically designed to offer affordable access to fresh talent. The World Supersport 300 class begins proceedings with an intriguing mix of very lightly modified production bikes from four major manufacturers.
The official announcement from the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) and Dorna – the owners of both MotoGP and World Superbike (WSBK) rights – introduces a new production-based world championship with four-stroke motorcycles from 300 up to 500 cc. The World Supersport 300 is an addition to the current WSBK format, complementing the existing Superbike, Supersport 600 and Superstock 1000 disciplines as an incubator for tomorrow's champions, with the minimum rider age set at 15.
"This new platform will be the perfect environment for developing future talent," said FIM president Vito Ippolito. "The intention of World SSP300 is to create a benchmark for National Championships to follow. We want to offer an environment that is regulated and relatively equal in which future talent can grow, and where manufacturers can accompany young riders as they take their first steps towards stardom."
The provisional regulations specify four homologated models from different manufacturers, with the door remaining wide open for more. Confirmed for 2017 thus far are the Honda CBR500R, Kawasaki Ninja 300, KTM RC390 and Yamaha YZF-R3.
This group of motorcycles does seem a bit uneven at first sight. There are two in-line twins designed and marketed as road-legal lightweight supersport models, launched with press kits full of track action photos. The R3 and the Ninja (equipped as standard with a slipper clutch!) are exactly the kind of motorcycles one would expect to see in this new championship.
The same can be said for KTM's RC390, a true child of a brand that is synonymous with competition. The largest of the three RC models (125, 250 and 390) was introduced in 2014 together with the RC Cup – a MotoGP-supporting class of ambitious youngsters competing on identical RC390s. Despite its undeniable track aptitude, it will be very interesting to watch the single-cylinder KTM against the twin screamers on world championship circuits vast enough to accommodate MotoGP and F1 races.
Then, there's the Honda. Strangely enough, its current line-up does include a single-cylinder CBR300R, yet the homologated racer is in fact the 500. Leaving aside the obvious advantage due to the extra capacity, the 471 cc in-line twin has been designed primarily for commuting and excels in fuel economy, with its almost perfectly square (67 x 66.8 mm) cylinder dimensions favoring low-end torque over high-revving power. It does have some racing pedigree to brag about, though, powering the WSBK-supporting European Junior Cup in 2013 and 2014.
Just a few weeks ago Honda unveiled a brand new CBR250RR in Asia, with a new two-cylinder in-line engine and obvious track aspirations. Would it be too far-fetched to assume that a 300 cc version lurks around the corner? It would be an ideal match for the new job description.
In an apparent bid to even the field, the rules set different minimum weight limits for each type of motorcycle; for the bigger CBR500R it's 150 kg (331 lb), the other two Japanese bikes (Kawasaki and Yamaha) may go down to 140 kg (309 lb) and KTM can be even lighter, at 136 kg (300 lb). A second important limitation concerns the maximum rotation rate for each engine, setting the cap at 13,000 rpm for the two 300 cc twins, and at 10,500 for Honda and KTM.
The stock models' performance is fundamental as the regulations allow for only minimal interventions. Some suspension work, brake disks (but not calipers), an exhaust system (strictly retaining the original layout), homologated ECU kits and bodywork sum up the list of allowed modifications. The tires will also be the same for all, although the supplier has not been named yet.
Targeting the 300 cc segment makes a lot of sense in view of the booming sales of lightweight sportbikes around the world. Especially in Asia, this capacity class essentially represents the feasible high-end of sport performance, whereas the large capacity superbikes are an unattainable luxury for most. Chances are that the creators of SSP300 would very much like to attract Asian manufacturers.
Bajaj is already indirectly involved as it builds KTM's small engines, including the 390 single, and is just one of several Indian constructors with models suitable for the SSP300. Hero is planning to produce the XF3R sport twin, while BMW's partner, TVS, is developing the Akula concept racer based on the G310R. Mahindra already enjoys podium results at the Moto3 class of the MotoGP World Championship, and has a 300 cc twin-cylinder naked bike named Mojo in the pipeline. Finally, the Italian legend of Benelli thrives in Asian markets under the ownership of China's Group Qianjiang with several engine platforms, including the 302 in-line twin.
Most of these brands have their sights firmly fixed on western markets, and now are presented with a solid opportunity to enter a world-level competition with their existing machinery and at costs that are supposed to be reasonable. Presumably they are also familiar with the quintessential racing mantra – win on Sunday, sell on Monday.