This weekend sees the British round of the Superbike World Championship take place at Donington Park in Leicestershire.
Barring a brief hiatus from the calendar in the early 2000s, Donington has been one of the mainstays of the championship. This weekend will be the 25th time the championship has visited the venue, with only Australia’s Phillip Island having hosted more rounds.
The Midlands circuit also holds an immovable place in racing history as the venue for the first ever world superbike race, held on 3 April 1988, and has hosted some memorable meetings in the intervening 29 years. Here are just five of the best…
1988 – The beginning
No one quite knew what to expect when world superbikes lined up for the first time on that overcast early April afternoon.
World superbikes shared the bill (and was arguably the undercard) on a weekend that featured the Eurolantic races (where the best riders from America challenged the top Europeans).
In stark contrast to the swanky hospitality units, big trucks and smartly uniformed mechanics that will descend upon Donington Park this weekend, the first ever world superbike race had the feeling of a big club race with private riders working out of the back of Transit vans.
Two 45 minute qualifying sessions on Saturday saw a mammoth 66 rider entry list whittled down to 40 starters, with British former TT winner and ex-Grand Prix star Roger Burnett holding the distinction of being the first ever pole position man in the class, as he lapped the shorter National layout in 1:14.810.
The 1988 Donington Park round also holds the distinction of being the only round where the results were determined by the aggregate time of the two races. Italian Davide Tardozzi won the first 30 lap race on his Bimota, but he crashed out late on in the second outing, meaning that he left Britain with no points at all. Recognising that the format was confusing and flawed, the championship organisers changed the format to the one that has more or less stayed the same today – where two individual races are held with separate points for each.
The official winner of the first world superbike round was 1981 500cc world champion Marco Lucchinelli on the only Ducati in the field. The Italian manufacturer would go on to dominate the series over the years, but for the first ever race had only just been able to meet the homologation numbers for their new 851, and only completed one bike for Lucchinelli. The Italian won the 60 lap aggregate race by over 40 seconds from the man who would become the first world champion, American Fred Merkel, and Isle of Man TT legend Joey Dunlop, who crossed the line third in race one and fifth in race two.
The racing may not have been classic, but the success of the 1988 Donington Park world superbike event ensured that the championship would continue and flourish for years to come.
1992 – arrival of the King
Now under the promotion of experienced Italian company Flammini Group and with a host of top class regular riders, the Superbike World Championship was starting to establish itself as a top class race series by 1992.
With Grand Prix racing becoming increasingly expensive, and with competitive machines becoming almost impossible to get hold of, superbikes provided a platform for privateers to showcase their ability – with Ducati in particular providing a very competitive customer version of its 888 designed for just that purpose.
Held on Easter Monday, Donington Park hosted the second round of the 1992 season and saw a massive entry list of 107 riders, battling out for 36 grid places. Among them was a 26-year-old from Blackburn who rocked up on his own 888 Corsa and would go on to become the greatest superbike racer of all time. His name: Carl Fogarty.
Foggy, as he was known, would be the poster boy for the impending golden era of world superbikes and the 1992 Donington Park round announced his arrival.
Starting from pole position, Fogarty crashed out of the opening race on lap eight but made amends in a blistering race two, in which he set the fastest lap before going on to win by almost three seconds.
Carl would only appear on the world superbike podium once more in 1992 (second in Assen), a year in which the jobbing racer also competed (with great success) in world endurance racing, and at the Isle of Man TT.
By then, the die was cast. Foggy picked up a factory Ducati contract for the 1993 season and went on to win another 58 world superbike races before retiring through injury during the 2000 season.
1994 – superbikes hit the big time Foggy narrowly missed out on the 1993 title to flamboyant American Scott Russell, but when the 1994 season kicked off at Donington on the May Day Bank Holiday, Foggymania was getting into full swing.
Powered by live TV coverage on Sky Sports and front page splashes on MCN, and no doubt helped by Britain’s dearth of talent in 500GPs, Fogarty became a household name due to his never-say-die attitude, forthright comments and prickly rivalry with Russell.
This race was particularly big news as it saw the arrival of the big budget Castrol Honda squad, debuting the new RC45 with big name stars Doug Polen and Aaron Slight, and the stunningly gorgeous Ducati 916, as campaigned by Fogarty in the Italian manufacturer’s factory squad.
Fogarty won the opener and although Russell gained revenge in race two, it was the Brit who led the championship.
Incidentally, Donington Park was to also host the penultimate round of the 1994 season. That day was wet and miserable, with Donington specialist Russell winning both races as Foggy floundered to 14th and fifth placed finishes. That meant that the rivals travelled to the final round in Australia level on points, where the Brit was able to get the job done and finally take his first world title.
2000 – wild cards go wild
One of the big attractions of world superbike racing used to be the inclusion of local ‘wild card’ entries at each round.
These one-off entries, usually from riders who competed in their national championships, added extra spice to proceedings. In Japan, where the locals enjoyed the best factory bikes and tyres, wild-cards won every race from 1996 to 2001, but in other countries the story was usually much, much different.
Rain master Michael Rutter had landed on the podium at a soaking wet Brands Hatch in 1997 on the V&M Honda Britain RC45, the same meeting at which British champion Niall Mackenzie had stood on the podium – only to be disqualified when his team had been judged to have used illegal fuel, but usually getting into the top 10 was a great result for the British superbike riders and their lower spec bikes.
Then came 2000. World superbikes arrived in the UK in a sombre mood following the career ending injuries to Carl Fogarty less than a month earlier. British superbikes, meanwhile, was shaping up for a vintage year and no fewer than six wildcards lined up on the Donington Park grid, most astride factory hand-me-downs from the 1999 world superbike series.
All six Brits made the one-lap Superpole shootout, with Hodgson on the front row, and the crowd went wild when Hodgy, who had spent three largely unimpressive seasons as a full-time world superbike rider, took third in race one.
Race two was an absolute corker. Race one winner Colin Edwards crashed out just before mid distance, leaving Pierfrancesco Chili leading from the feuding Hodgson and fellow wild-card Chris Walker. When Chili’s Suzuki slowed with tyre problems in the latter stages, the British duo pounced. Hodgson took the win by less than a second from Walker, reviving his stagnant career and setting up a monumental British superbike season with Walker.
One week later the pair clashed while contesting the lead at Oulton Park. Hodgson had stayed up and crossed the line first, only to be penalised. The grudge lasted for the entire season. Walker had led going into the last round, also held at Donington Park, only for his GSX-R750 engine to blow up. Hodgson was champ, and would go on to return to world superbikes – winning the title at a canter in 2003.
2012 – Rea triumphs in last corner drama
While the 1990s represented a golden era for superbikes, with big stars, fierce rivalries and strong media coverage, the Naughties proved to be a fallow period. The rise of four-stroke MotoGPs saw the departure of a number of factory teams from superbikes and a decline in interest in the championship. Without the strong characters and big rivalries of the Fogarty era, the series was in decline – but 2012 was to provide some of the best racing in a decade.
Factory entries from Aprilia, BMW, Ducati and Kawasaki, alongside strong supported entries from Honda and Suzuki, gave superbikes a strong grid that would see nine different race winners, and all but Suzuki topping the podium during the year.
Donington Park was the fifth round of the 2012 campaign, and there were eight points separating the top three riders coming into the race. Race one had seen Leon Haslam lead the opening laps on the factory BMW, before a mid race scrap with Tom Sykes on the Kawasaki and Marco Melandri on the other BMW. The Italian was able to pull away for the win, with Haslam second to give the German manufacturer its best ever result.
If the first race had been interesting, the second was an absolute thriller. Max Biaggi joined the top three from race one to create a four-way battle for the lead, while Honda-mounted Jonathan Rea was able to hang on in fifth.
Rea had moved up to fourth at the start of the final lap, with Haslam in the lead from Melandri. The Italian had tried a pass going into the Melbourne hairpin for the final time, only to run wide, but Rea’s similar attempt on Biaggi saw him move up to third.
Haslam looked to have the win in the bag going into the last corner, but his team-mate hadn’t given up and attempted a lunge from way back. That pushed both riders wide, leaving an opportunistic gap for Rea. The Northern Irishman made his move, only for Haslam to cut back onto a tighter line. The pair collided, with Haslam going down and skittling Melandri. Rea took the flag from the fortuitous Biaggi and Sykes. Leon’s ‘reward’ was a point for remounting to finish 15th. It hadn’t been pretty, but it was exciting and got fans talking about world superbikes once more.
The British round of the 2017 Superbike World Championship takes place at Donington Park this weekend (26-28 May).