Gordon Ritchie has covered World Superbikes for over a quarter of a century, and is widely regarded as the world's leading journalist on the series. MotoMatters.com is delighted to be hosting a monthly blog by Ritchie. The full blog is made possible by MotoMatters.com subscribers. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.
The greatest WorldSBK championship fight for many years has just gone all the way to the very last day of competitive action. The new best Superbike rider in the world managed to become the most tip-top Top Cat after a season-long fight with the greatest WorldSBK rider of all time. And don’t forget another bloke in red, not blue or green. He also won more than a fistful of races.
Five of the top six riders also won at least one race, on four of the five competing manufacturer’s flagship products. All five manufacturers took multiple podiums.
When you see the final WorldSBK outcome written down like that then obviously 2021 will be regarded as a classic.
The past season will be remembered for many things, but primarily for Razgatlioglu vs Rea. It was, as even the most cursory glance under the roller-shutter pit garage doors proved, much more than just enthralling man-to-man combat.
Closer than ever
Toprak Razgatlioglu and his Pata Yamaha with Brixx R1 finished 13 points ahead of Jonathan Rea’s KRT Ninja ZX-10RR. Rea, in his turn, finished 50 points up on Scott Redding and his Aruba Ducati V4R.
Three different riders, three very different bike designs, all fundamentally competitive, as all the eligible bikes have had the opportunity to be for several years.
Be happy because we have had similar ‘open’ looking seasons and potential performance parity in the past few years that didn’t quite turn out that way.
Take 2019 as an example, when Alvaro Bautista and Ducati’s new rule-baiting, budget-blasting V4R smashed the hopes of all rivals - including the pre-eminent Rea and Kawasaki - until several red plots seemed to be lost all at once. Rea’s calm persistence and pure racer’s instincts saw him go from well beaten every race (if not that far behind in the points because of his own podium prowess) to suddenly right back in it, and then miles in front by the final round.
The right stuff
What made 2021 different from that or any of Rea’s six championship wins was not just the screamingly obvious fact that Rea didn’t win this time but that he was up against a bike and rider combination that had no obvious weaknesses or inherent flaws, all the way to the very end.
Let’s do the 2021 rider metrics first. Toprak Razgatlioglu has been a top Superbike rider for some time, earning his first podium and race-winning spurs on a Kawasaki that was not even a true factory entry. Kawasaki Puccetti Racing had been the happy home for Razgatlioglu since he took his first ride in Stock600 racing. He won that Magny-Cours race, of course, and then the championship the year later. He nearly won the Superstock 1000 Championship too but as soon as he got on a Kawasaki Puccetti Superbike he showed his true talents, if fleetingly at times.
Looking like Kawasaki’s guaranteed next factory rider to join Rea inside KRT, a perceived snub in not being allowed to actually race at the Suzuka 8 Hours in 2019 (and probably being told to wait a bit before he could get on the factory WorldSBK Kawasaki too?) saw his personal manager, mentor, trainer and general guru Kenan Sofuoglu whisk him off to the loving embrace of the Pata Yamaha squad. Not all in blue were convinced initially, but winning his first ever race on the R1 at Phillip Island in 2020 probably went a long way to proving it was a good move for all concerned.
The right move
It was Rea v Redding in 2020, ultimately, but in year two on the Yamaha Toprak and his crew found ways to make him not only fast but astonishingly consistent. They even rebuilt his confidence in his title-winning ability after he had been T-boned and finally made pointless in an important Sunday race at Assen. By his own man in Yamaha blue, Garrett Gerloff.
From that point on, until the very last weekend of a race season that went to an unexpectedly full duration, Toprak just set his gaze on the top step of every podium, and stuff the clever-clever strategic approach.
If you are good enough, if you have a winning bike, that is usually the best approach. But it was more than that. Toprak proved to be mature enough to only ride up to his really quite incredible limits. He only appeared to be riding over the top; in reality he never made any big mistakes in races. (Well, just two small ones via green paint penalties on the last laps at Assen and Magny-Cours).
The big mistakes were made by others in the Yamaha camp. That Assen clash and crash with Gerloff, of course. A faulty generator/battery charging relationship and subsequent no-score while leading at Catalunya. A broken mudguard mount that took his front wheel from under him at the hyper-fast final ‘curvone’ at Portimão.
All those final 13 Razgatlioglu race wins, part of a total of 29 podiums of all kinds, made up for the big three points losses (and the two smaller green-paint grazes he lightly bruised his points total with).
It was not just one-way traffic either. Razgatlioglu’s unique riding style made his crew, and Yamaha in general, work in different technical areas recently. Advantages they found there, added to all the good work in other areas, translated into improvements in everything from aerodynamics to braking performance and many assets in between. For all of the Yamaha riders.
In isolation, it seems that Razgatlioglu would have won the championship by much more than those final 13 points had he not had those aforementioned tech problems.
Yes, such was his enhanced prowess, pugilism and complete machine mastery that Razgatlioglu probably would have won the title by a greater margin in a more regular season.
The king is dead?
But what about Rea, and what could be considered a Kawasaki season that was hobbled from the start? Anybody who has been reading the end of season summations that I, and some others embedded inside the WorldSBK paddock every weekend, have written for some years now, will know that Rea has become champion six times in a row because his consistency matched his brilliant pace. Nobody else had been able to demonstrate such consistency at such class-leading performance level over-and-over as JR has. A few riders have wrestled with Rea and won races fairly, but until now not one has a been able to beat him to the title since he got on the Kawasaki, and inside the Kawasaki tech camp.
Rea’s will-to-win is fierce, unremitting, but second would grudgingly do if anything else meant too much risk. But this year? His previous psychological domination of his rivals has had it base in not making mistakes while still taking an increasingly old-tech Kawasaki to places no one else seemed able to. His bike had always been good enough, if seldom miles better than most of its rivals, but six championships in a row means Rea, more than his bike, has been something truly special. Check out how all the other Kawasaki riders have done in that time if that point grates on you.
Getting it (not quite) right
What has also made the difference in Rea’s previous seasons is that almost no matter what has come to pass in practice, Rea would have a well set-up race bike under him, and therefore be able to use engine performance and tyre capabilities better than most other combos over full distance. And finally over a complete season.
The actual on-track Saturday/Sunday KRT race set-up had been on point so often we had started to think it would be that way forever. But it has not been near perfection from all elements of the KRT bike’s set-up, and therefore Rea, this year.
We have to look at the tech packages that raced each other this year if we are really trying to get the full picture of how the new champion has blown WorldSBK as a whole right into the affections of the wider racing world again.
The complete package
Despite those obvious tech faults that lost Razgatlioglu races, the Yamaha proved to be the most rounded, most complete race-winning package in 2021, across a range of championships and in the most technically open and challenging one of all – WorldSBK. A thousand little performance gains, improved characteristics and set-up tweaks to allow the Yamaha to perform well enough to win anywhere and in any track conditions, allowed Razgatlioglu to ride with a confidence at pace that even Rea could not muster quite as often.
Everybody must get sick of hearing that racing is all about ‘the package’, so I’m sorry to tell you that it was just the same in 2021 as in any world championship ever run.
But all that said… the magic of watching Razgatlioglu’s very own punk stoppie ballet, with the Yamaha forced up en pointe at every opportunity under braking, captivated the world in 2021. Even old hacks like me are not immune to the dazzle and dash of the often aerial rear tyre combat Razgatlioglu indulged in. But however weird and extreme his riding style is, the bike and its whole set-up have to be right to compete. If they are anything less he would not be winning a title but ‘merely’ a supremely talented and entertaining top five oddity.
What Razgatlioglu had in 2021 was, indeed, the package. Even if he himself was the main content of the express parcel delivery. What Rea, too often in 2021, did not have was a championship winning package. Not quite. There were many reasons for this.
Talking about revolutions
In 2021 after winter testing on a ‘new’ homologation Ninja, its ultimate performance was reset downwards in terms of its expected maximum rev limit by the FIM. Not enough new parts to say the engine was truly a new one, they said. So although the overall 2021 model (with new bodywork the most obvious change) was homologated, its peak revs were capped at last year’s figures. Or to put it more clearly, capped at the lowest level compared to any other bike in the field, yet again.
Without those extra expected revs Kawasaki was up against it from point of peak performance, on a bike with relatively old engine architecture. It has been quite a long time since Kawasaki had any top end advantage in WorldSBK.
That made life difficult for Rea and all the other Kawasaki riders, and this year somebody had provided a technical challenge that had no real flaws or holes, even with an occasional appetite for self destruction as the result of preparation, we presume? Heavy points were lost as a result, but otherwise it really was this season’s ‘package.’
Rea found the combination of Razgatlioglu and the R1 just too much of a handful in 2021, and even pushed himself and his bike’s ultimately limited performance beyond its real boundaries, particularly during corner exit and entry.
Now, let’s gather in some perspective here. Rea won 13 races, rode as well as he has ever done, but for once he met a human and metal foe almost always right there in his face. Razgatlioglu didn’t melt under the pressure that Rea was always trying to apply.
It is too simplistic to say that Rea was pushed into the mistakes he made in 2021 by the now-complete riding package of Razgatlioglu alone. That is a truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was at least as much about the relative performance of his own bike, with its too-few revs, comparative lack of acceleration, higher overall inertia under braking and inability to use the grippiest tyre options when the Yamaha almost always could.
To keep up in races Rea had to try to go to places the package could not go, not without overstepping the mark, even for a six-in-a-row package. Maybe he should have not tried so hard in the races he fell in, at Donington and Most. Then again, his crystal ball could not have foreseen so many tech no-scores for Razgatlioglu that would have more than kept him in even greater contention. Portimão’s brace of Rea errors and no scores? Even King Jonathan the Sixth Rea is fallible, obviously.
So much for the rider’s part through the season.
Kawasaki tried re-inventing set-ups and balances in 2021, sometimes finding fruitful outcomes and sometimes not. It is, as already stated, all relative, as Rea matched Razgatlioglu’s win totals, and even scored one more podium than the champion. He only lost by 13 points, despite dropping a few big scores along the way. But every week, bar a couple of clear exceptions, Rea’s bike seemed to have a shorter reach, no height advantage and fewer tricks tucked into the lining of its big green gloves to be able to punch its way out of trouble. Even with Rea’s many years of championship winning performances pushing things on.
Kawasaki has aeons of data from the Ninja ZX-10R and RR models to reach back into but this year the vault was not quite deep enough to counter the latest threats. Kawasaki already knew it needed more for 2021, hence the attempt at running higher revs with the new bike.
2021 was therefore a significant season in a technical sense, too.
We all have to ask ourselves if the thrilling past season would have been even better had Rea’s bike been able to fight more closely with the talent of Razgatlioglu just as he reached full bloom? Would Toprak and Jonathan have pushed each other to even greater feats of riding talent, and drawn greater gasps from the crowd, if Kawasaki had its 2020 peak revs plus 500 or so more?
Or did Razgatlioglu and Rea’s unexpected no scores and subsequent inability to pull too far away from each other make it even more of an unmissable 13-round bare-knuckle fight?
We probably all know the answer to that one, but it is a question that had to be asked as we look back at the full season, given that major early rev limit controversy.
And let us not forget the third main attraction of the big 2021 fight, Redding.
His V4R was sometimes unbeatable, as not only he but his three time race-winning team-mate Michael Ruben Rinaldi demonstrated quite often. The quasi-MotoGP refugee machine was also as enigmatic and unpredictable as ever, hence another ‘not quite’ season for Redding and Ducati, eclipsed not only by Rea but even more clearly by Razgatlioglu. Scott more than kept ‘the other two’ honest almost every weekend, even if there was less consistency of top line rides than the eventual leading duo.
The unmissable fact that we have a new WorldSBK boss man, a new winning manufacturer and team, plus a rookie of the season in the shape of Razgatlioglu’s team-mate Andrea Locatelli, shows that it was Yamaha’s year in WorldSBK. As it has been in so many other classes.
We can also justifiably point to Razgatlioglu as a deserving champion in his own right. Many from inside the WorldSBK paddock will do so with pride. He has been a success that is unquestionably ‘home made’.
Overall, what made 2021 must see TV, or a thundering trackside treat for the lucky few, was the simple unpredictability of each and every warlike outcome. Three race wins at Assen for Rea was about the only thing that went as we expected, but even then the human error and last minute podium changes, and that internecine Yamaha crash, turned what could have been just one headline story into a multilayered spectrum of subplots, despite Rea’s utter dominance. ‘Track Limitsgate’ at Magny-Cours? Don’t get us started on that one…
Multiply that kind of ‘what next’ anticipation and unexpected dramas by all 13 rounds, then add in blue/green/red paint-swapping of mesmeric proportions, and no wonder WorldSBK left us sniffing around its exhaust pipes like feral dogs on heat. More of them same in 2022? Bring it!
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