There is no dispute that MotoGP is the pinnacle of two wheel bikesport but there is also a massive worldwide appetite for all forms of club and National racing which acts as a feeder system for this 'big league'...
So, which national motorcycle race series is the most watched? The massive American AMA Championship backed up by 10 million registered bikes? The Japanese JSB class where most of the world's sports bikes come from? The Italian Superbike Championship – from the land of Rossi, Ducati and the most passionate fans? The answer may surprise you. It's none of the above, the most watched national race series is the British Superbike Championship. A series held on a small and often rainy island, that last won the blue riband 500cc GP class back in 1977, regularly attracts over 400,000 paying spectators throughout the season.
The real question, and one that the organisers of the other series should be asking themselves, is simple - why? The reasons are numerous but include a long history of motorcycle sport, a multitude of excellent venues (including the world-renowned Silverstone, Donington Park and Brands Hatch circuits) and crucially an organising body that continually changes the rules to keep grids full and the racing close. This year the series travels to the Cathedral of Speed – the mighty sweeping circuit of Assen – possibly signaling even wider ambitions.
It is to this bubbling cauldron of competition that Öhlins takes great pride in its record of 14 British Superbike (BSB) crowns in just 16 years, relying heavily on its national distributors and service centres such as Harris Performance. Enormously impressive in a series that can only be described as 'talent heavy'. BSB has always attracted some impressive competitors with home grown stars Niall Mackenzie, Neil Hodgson, John Reynolds and Shane Byrne having mixed it up with living legend, and 1999 BSB Champion, Troy Bayliss as well as last year's runner up, GP hero John 'Hopper' Hopkins. What links all of these riders? Each one sported gold forks and shock absorbers on their bikes.
For 2012 the series organisers decided to try and curb costs with a number of measures including a single spec engine control unit (ECU) effectively outlawing traction control, anti-wheelie and launch control. If anything, these changes have meant that rider skill and the team's ability with chassis set-up have become even more important than ever.
Suspension technician Richard Brendish, from long-time Öhlins distributor Harris Performance, explains: "The relationship between the rider and his suspension engineer has probably never been more intense. Riders are much more savvy in terms of what change has what effect. There's a lot of analysing and the level of sophistication is higher than it has ever been. You can achieve such subtle changes, but in a field as competitive as the 2012 BSB, small changes can be the difference between first and fifth place.
"I've been in the paddock twelve years now, starting with our own Harris SP Honda SP-1 with Shakey Byrne, through Crescent Suzuki, Virgin Yamaha, GSE Ducati and then HM Plant (now Samsung) Honda. In that time the paddock has become more professional; teams realised they needed the best technical support and so we grew our support. We started out with a Transit van and it grew until we built the 'artic' – we expanded with the series and the bike market – which was burgeoning at the time.
"To start with there was a real battle between Öhlins and WP in BSB, but we worked hard and Öhlins is now the suspension of choice. We still have competitors in the paddock, which is good as it keeps everyone on top of their game – you can't become complacent in a series as fierce as BSB."
Niall Mackenzie was British Superbike Champion from 1996-1998 for Cadbury Boost Yamaha and the triple BSB champion continues to live in the BSB paddock, helping his two sons at the start of their racing careers; "I remember in 1996 when BBC started broadcasting BSB, it was a massive help getting sponsors and increasing the level of competition within the series. That ethos continues to this day, it's so professional with big crowds and a vast depth of talent.
"Our Yamaha YZF750s were ex-factory World Superbike machines and we had a great link with the Öhlins technicians. My crew chief Ade Marsh was very good at translating what I could feel on track and using his skill and knowledge to make the required changes to the suspension and chassis. We rode the two WSB events each year at Donington Park and Brands Hatch, both of which provided a great opportunity to catch up with the Öhlins guys.
"I have to say I've spent most of my career on Öhlins, including when I was riding 500GPs with Yamaha from '89 onwards. I've always been a big fan of Öhlins and was a lot happier signing for a team if I knew they were using it."
British Superbike Championship - Öhlins Successes
Niall Mackenzie – Cadbury's Boost Yamaha YZF750- 1996-8
Troy Bayliss - INS GSE Ducati 996 - 1999
Neil Hodgson - INS GSE Ducati 996 - 2000
John Reynolds – Reve Red Bull Ducati 996 – 2001
Steve Hislop - MonsterMob Ducati 998 – 2002
Shane Byrne - MonsterMob Ducati 998 – 2003
John Reynolds – Rizla Crescent Suzuki GSXR1000 – 2004
Gregorio Lavilla – GSE Airwaves Ducati 999 – 2005
Shane Byrne – GSE Airwaves Ducati 1098 – 2008
Leon Camier – GSE Airwaves Yamaha YZF-R1 – 2009
Ryuichi Kiyonari – HM Plant Honda CBR1000RR – 2010
Tommy Hill - Swan Yamaha YZF-R1 – 2011