Do race wins sell bikes?

Author: Bike Social's Chief Investigator Posted: 22 Dec 2015

Kawasaki, Ducati, Aprilia and Honda all represented in World Superbikes but how many road bikes are sold as a direct result?

Figures suggest British buyers aren’t swayed by on-track performances

BACK in the 1960s American Ford dealer Bob Tasca coined a phrase that summed up the massive effect that racing had on his business: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was his mantra to reflect the direct impact that competition had on his business.

It’s a line that’s gone down in history, and for decades held true on both two wheels and four; racing was the crucible in which technologies were tested and heroes were forged. If a bike could defeat its rivals on track and survive the white heat of competition then, the thinking went, then it would also prove superior for road-going owners. Racing, after all, should test a vehicle’s strength, speed and handling, and if one offering does better than another, surely that’s as close to an objective test as you can get?

And when applied to motorcycles, racing should – in theory at least – be an even more effective marketing tool. Motorcyclists are people who’ve made a conscious choice to opt for a particular form of transport, unlike the majority of car drivers who simply use their vehicles through necessity. So while a tiny percentage of drivers pay any attention to car racing, a vast number of bikers will be glued to motorcycle racing all season long.

But, logical or not, the old adage doesn’t seem to hold water.

Let’s start by taking a look at the world’s foremost production-based motorcycle series, World Superbikes, and the direct effect it’s having on sales in the UK – probably the most motorsport-mad country on the globe. The chances are that you watch it, at least casually and probably keenly, but does the bike you ride reflect what’s winning? Sales figures suggest that the answer to that question is almost certainly “No.”

For the last few years, three brands have dominated WSB: Kawasaki, with 42 race wins, one manufacturers’ title and two riders’ crowns since 2010, is way out in front. Followed by Aprilia, with 43 race wins, four manufacturers’ championships and three riders’ titles. Ducati has 32 wins and one title in each category over the same period, and all the others are scrabbling for the scraps with fractions of those figures. BMW has 12 wins to its name, Honda’s had 13 since 2010, Yamaha has nine and Suzuki just four. Between them they account for all the race wins since the start of the 2010 WSB season.

Kawasaki's Jonathan Rea storms toward the 2015 World Superbike title

Given that most superbikes cost about the same amount, and all the main contenders are readily available for sale here, you’d think that those firms winning all the races would be reaping the rewards in the showrooms, but that’s just not the case. The graphs you see here tell the story. According to UK registration figures, some 335 Kawasaki ZX-10Rs were registered for the first time in 2014, that’s a fraction more than the 324 registered the previous year, which itself represented an increase from the 272 that hit the road in 2012. A rising trend reflecting the firm’s improved performance in superbike racing? Unlikely, given that in 2011, after finished 7th in the previous year’s title race, 552 ZX-10Rs were registered. Why so many in 2011? Because it was the first full year that the latest model was available, showing that the launch of a new model, unproven in racing, gives a far bigger sales boost than even the most impressive on-track performances can achieve later in its life. The gradual pick-up in sales over the last couple of years is more likely to reflect improving economic conditions than any impact from the bike’s racing success.

We’re by no means picking on the ZX-10R, here. It’s a great bike. But it’s virtually impossible to see any correlation between its race results and its sales performance. In 2013, when it took Tom Sykes to the riders’ title in WSB, the ZX-10R was out-sold two-to-one by Honda’s Fireblade – a bike that’s seen little WSB success in its current form. BMW’s S1000RR, which again has comparatively few race wins under its belt, did better still in the showrooms that year.

World Superbike dominator: Kawasaki ZX-10RThe winner in the showrooms: BMW S1000RRWinner of the Isle of Man Senior TT: Honda Fireblade

If Kawasaki is being ill-rewarded in pure superbike sales terms for its racing success, that’s nothing compared to Aprilia. The RSV4R has been a revelation on the track, winning four WSB titles since it was introduced (at the same time as the BMW S1000RR, remember). But in the last five years the model has struggled to manage 200 annual registrations in the UK, while the BMW – a bike that was launched in the same year, has been upgraded a similar number of times and closely matches the Aprilia for performance and price, has generally achieved between four and nine times the sales figures.

A breathtakingly good road bike which doesn't get the recognition it deserves in terms of sales figures

Of course, it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence from potential customers as to why bikes like the S1000RR and Fireblade have sold so much better than their championship-winning rivals, but whether it’s down to customer confidence in the product itself, the number of dealers, the availability of discounts, the fact is that all these things rank higher in the minds of buyers than the on-track successes of the bikes themselves. Of course, these figures are UK-centric, but we’re the most sportsbike-mad nation in Europe so they’re likely to be reflected elsewhere.

But are we focussing our search for evidence to narrowly by looking only at sales of the road-going versions of the WSB bikes? Perhaps the knock-on effect of race success is actually spread out across entire ranges. But even looking at overall sales figures for firms, it’s hard to find evidence in the UK that backs up the suggestion.

If you look at our graph of total new bike registrations by the manufacturers involved in WSB over the last few years, it’s easy enough to pick out those that are doing best. And they aren’t the race-winning ones. Honda’s sales, which dipped below Yamaha’s in 2009 and 2010, are heading back towards their pre-recession figures now despite the firm showing little interest in WSB, and Yamaha’s – which also showed a recession drop, albeit slightly later than Honda – are also increasing despite the fact it’s had no interest in WSB since 2011.

Steady decline of new registrations of 1-litre supersports bikes

Kawasaki’s sales are showing an upturn recently, overtaking Suzuki in UK sales. Can any of that be down to WSB? It’s possible, but digging deeper into the registration figures suggests it’s the addition of new models in parts of the market that Kawasaki didn’t cater for before – notably the Z1000SX and Versys 1000 – that’s behind its recent upsurge.

Meanwhile that other WSB star, Aprilia, is showing little sign of reaping any rewards from its racing efforts. Before the recession – and before the firm saw any notable WSB success – it was regularly shifting 4000-plus bikes in the UK, a figure that dropped to little over 1200 by 2014 – its worst year in this country since records in this form began. And that was to be the year it took its fourth WSB title, the last three coming on the trot.

Another two key players in the scene, BMW and Ducati, have shown steadily increasing sales for the last decade, appearing to be immune to the financial woes that have crippled others. Their constantly reinvented ranges and the seemingly-endless investment in R&D leading to new models is the likely reason for their success. Looking at the superbike sales alone, Ducati saw a massive upturn in 2012 when the Panigale replaced the 1198, despite the new bike initially struggling in WSB.

So road-bike-based racing results aren’t reflected in large sales figures in the UK, so why do manufacturers keep pouring money in to WSB and similar national championships?

Kawasaki UK’s marketing manager Martin Lambert explained that the equation is far more complex that simply looking at sales figures.

“For Kawasaki – especially in 2016 – we think the benefits are important in technical, sales and brand terms,” he said, “Having just launched a new Ninja ZX-10R which has been jointly developed by KRT and the Kawasaki factory for the next sales and racing season, the technical advantages are obvious with the adoption of the lighter inertia crank etc. – something that Tom Sykes specifically requested for the new bike.

Kawasaki's 2016 ZX10R with input from Rea and Sykes

“Allied to that, we have such a depth of electronic expertise in terms of rider aids now and that translates directly across to the road bike programme with advanced traction control, sports ABS and now an IMU  that aids multiple functions including accurate cornering while braking.  

“In sales terms of course we hope to see the Ninja ZX-10R as number one litre class Supersport in the showroom but the global implications are equally important.

“For emerging and developing markets racing, WSBK and the ZX-10R are on an aspirational level, they reinforce Kawasaki as a successful performance brand. Riders may be buying 250cc machines in the Far East but they are following WSBK racing and buying into the brand.

“If you look at the huge numbers of machines sold in these markets (figures that overshadow European sales) you soon see that it is too narrow to simply see WSBK in terms of just the Ninja ZX-10R or showroom traffic in Europe. It’s a technical, engineering and brand exercise that, although expensive, benefits Kawasaki on a truly global level.”

That analysis puts WSB into the same category as MotoGP, where the lack of direct connection to road bikes makes it even harder to draw direct correlations between success on track and joy in the showroom. In MotoGP the involvement of big characters adds to the confusion – it’s virtually impossible to put a figure on the number of sales that Yamaha gains directly from its association with Valentino Rossi, for instance, over and above the ones it might have gained with a less charismatic but equally successful rider.

There’s no doubt that the conversation about the pros and cons of racing in terms of sales success is one that regularly rears its head in the boardrooms of every company that takes part, and in some ways the fact that firm figures to prove its effectiveness aren’t easily found is incredibly reassuring. After all, racing is about passion above all else, and none of us would like to see it become nothing more than a cynical marketing tool. The fact that these firms all take part, even in the absence of definitive evidence of racing’s impact, goes to prove that the passion lives on even at the highest corporate levels.

Have you ever bought a bike because of its racing successes?  or !