When Winning Races Is No Longer Selling Bikes

While some of the 2013 figures from big motorcycle manufacturers show improvements over the past years, with say, BMW reporting record sales in a row, it looks like some areas in the bike industry are not exactly doing fine.
The high-performance sportsbike segment is troubled with decreasing sales, and this seems to be a general problem throughout the industry.

One of the strongest signals was the recent agreement between the Superbike teams, the FIM, Dorna Sports and motorcycle manufacturers as far as the required numbers of bikes must be produced prior to homologation ahead of racing.

The former regulations were double the new 1000 bikes a manufacturer must produce by the end of the second racing year. Still, it appears that smaller makers are in for quite a troublesome future, as even these halved numbers may be too ambitious a target.

According to Motomatters, even Honda seems to be in the same trouble when it comes to selling the CBR1000RR SP. And when one of the biggest bike manufacturers in the world is having problems pushing 500 machines a year, things are really, really alarming. Mor details in this autoevolution piece.

With Honda present in almost any country on the planet and its huge retailer and dealership network, one does not need to be a bike marketing specialist to understand that if 500 decently-priced sport machines cannot be sold each year, things are amiss.

Still, someone in the industry should have seen this coming, seriously. The marketing analysts are paid big time, and they should have warned the boards that the future of exclusive, high-performance sport bikes looks a bit iffy.

And even more, with a cool mind and an optional cup of good coffee at hand, pretty much any guy who knows one or two things about the motorcycling world could have figured out that things are not heading for the brightest of horizons.

The economy of many countries took a heavy blow in 2009 and the world is not exactly much better that it was after things went down in flames at the beginning of the recession. This means that ordinary people, like you and me, have significantly less money to spend.

This also comes hand in hand with less things bought, no matter whether we're thinking about cars, bikes, houses, or more common acquisitions, such as clothing, food, and all.

Even more, with gas prices constantly on the rise, many guys started to be more careful about the financial side of transportation. The good-old "bigger is better" saying stopped being the most favored one, even in the US.

Cars and bike manufacturers started to feel the more pressing need of coming up with better engines and higher mileage, curbing the price of cars sold in high volumes, so that they slotted better in the market.

While luxury brands are still making a living manufacturing small-series, expensive products that bring a margin large enough to make things roll, some of the higher-placed bikes are not faring just as well.

More and more people are using motorcycles as transportation and are no longer interested in buying two-wheelers for weekend fun. People started to understand that spending 20 grand on a bike and getting to properly ride it 10 or 20 times a year is no longer the kind of small-scale luxury they can afford.

More so, I met guys who decided to sell their big-bore machines and replace them with smaller ones. Reasons for such a move? Plenty of them, but the most common ones were fuel efficiency and maintenance costs, size and usage.

While the mileage thing does not need any explanation, just like the running costs, the form factor was interesting.

People went for a smaller, more agile bike and rode it to work and around the town daily, and a slimmer, more maneuverable machine was definitely a hefty improvement over the CBR1000RR they used to ride. Others gave up the 1500cc Drifter, because streaking through slow urban traffic was impossible.

Finally, it was the usage. Guys who dreamed of buying a brand-new bike to travel the world with, but whose cash was no longer enough, for neither machine or such a vacation. And since they were not going to give up riding, only downscale their dreams a bit, they ended up with a smaller, more affordable bike better suited for their riding habits.

The same goes for liter-class sportsbikes. Their purpose is to offer adrenaline-doused track days and some similar pleasures on the roads. Still, they're not the most fuel-efficient machines in the business, and neither are the best commuter, especially because of their lack of comfort for prolonged periods of time.

Obviously, being forced to ride in the city also brings road conditions to the game, and the under-revved outings are nothing but pure frustration. Plus, a track day also means money, which for some guys is harder and harder to come by.

So you see, it's a rather big difference between the nice shiny posters in motorcycle magazines and our daily ways, and this kind of goes for pretty much any top-of-the line bike.

The fact that Lotus plan to make and hopefully sell 100 C-01 bikes for €100,000 a pop, or rich Ducati fans pre-order 75% of the 500 Superleggera for some other €65,000 or so is a good thing, but the industry cannot thrive on this.

Gone are the days when many riders afforded ownership and maintenance costs for 3 or more bikes they rode. Buying a bagger for showing off at rallies, an MX machine for fun in the forest and a city all-rounder is no longer a common thing. Or any other similar combination of bikes, for what's worth.

And this brings us to the title problem. What happens when even the bikes winning famous races are no longer helping sales?

There was a time when people bought Ducati because they wanted a winner's bike, and did not matter that they rode an off-the-mill machine, and not a MotoGP prototype. It was all fine and cool, but things stopped being all fine and cool a long time ago.

It doesn't mean that sport bikes will disappear, it just looks more and more like the dawn of a new era in the industry, an era once more dominated by practicality, affordability. People to buy high-performance machines will never disappear, but I believe it will be a rather long time before this segment of the industry is back in full force.

And by then, the FIM and Dorna should better try to find out ways to make the show go on, because there's so much more to this business than rigid, impersonal rules and numbers and almost sterile racing using similar bikes. Maybe creating a new set of rules to allow more and more makers into racing could be one of the good ideas. Or not.

One thing is sure, however: enjoying watching motorcycle races on Sunday is one thing, but it has almost nothing to do with reaching for the checkbook and bringing an 1199 Paingale home on Monday.

Remember the old editorial on Honda not earning enough from MotoGP?
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