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 will be available each month for MotoMatters.com subscribers. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.
I am striking while the iron of competition is hot here. In addition, it is halfway through the season now, so time for a recap. This is a chance to indulge in a bit of fortune telling and then possibly a nightcap when the laptop lid closes on another busy workday.
It’s just a short time since the racing fates piled into the 2021 WorldSBK street fights that took place in the shadow of a heavenly Czech Castle in Bohemia and the reflection of a ‘flame-off’ from whatever satanic mill was blasting away just down the hill from the Motodrom Most.
At a characterful but sporadically outdated new WorldSBK venue, the 2021 WorldSBK championship trendometer swung to full scale deflection once again as those aforementioned racing fates jumped on Toprak Razgatlioglu’s pillion and helped him win two, and nearly three, races on his factory Yamaha. Fairly turbocharged him they did, and a treble was almost achieved.
The significance was profound in the points table, as just like Donington, Jonathan Rea crashed (twice this time, in one race) to no score in Most Race One and allow Razgatlioglu to get to within three points of the six-times champion’s series lead.
The points advantage has been positively concertinaing in the past few rounds and the neutrals are, of course, loving it.
It looked like not only Razgatlioglu but also one other had the jump on Rea’s pace at Most, but never say never where Rea is concerned. He has won all six of the last championship titles, and in a different fashion almost every single time. He could win every race from now to whenever the worsening Covid situation shuts the championship down. (I know, I know… I should be less cynical, but I’m a journalist, and I don’t know how… But, inside, I am hoping and expecting at least 12, maybe all 13 rounds). That said, a late season Rea whitewash does look unlikely given how things have changed in the championship this year.
Not quite as invincible
At times, and despite Rea’s astounding form at Assen that has seen him win 15 races there now, the Kawasaki looked like it needed those 500 extra revs the green guys never quite got his year, even though they had tested all winter with a new character of engine tuned for more top end.
Whatever anybody says the Kawasaki is the oldest design, the least majorly reworked overall package in recent times. Just maybe it is no longer the best all-rounder on track. The overall package of rider, joint experience and back-up in many ways still makes Rea and the KRT Ninja most people’s best bet for a narrow championship win in 2021, but nothing is certain as we approach Navarra and the real halfway point of the year.
The harder you have to ride, the higher the competition pushes the pace, the more risks you have to take, even for the GOAT in green. That’s what some recent falls have looked like from outside. Simple fact is that some of the competition have closed the gap, in riding prowess and in machinery.
To his credit Rea was cool even in defeat at Most, but more to the point, Razgatlioglu was fearless and very nearly peerless at a circuit that could do with some safety improvements.
(And while they are there, some better asphalt in one or two areas and a paddock rather than a collection of small paddockettes, strung loosely together. Reality bites in 2021 and WorldSBK can no longer pick and choose where it finds a home in certain territories but truly, once improvements are made, Most should be a belter in all regards. The track layout is cool, flowing, fast and promoted good close racing. They say give it time as they carry out their programme of improvements, so we shall, but bulldozers and/or slight track redesign in places for added safety before we go back, please. Not for my sake, for the riders’ sake).
And it was not all Rea and Razgatlioglu at Most. Only a final race recovery from what looked like a bad-tempered and mystifyingly up and down weekend for the factory Aruba Ducati squad saw Scott Redding win Race Two after a superb display of control and pace. Like Rea and now Razgatlioglu Redding looks every inch a potential champion if he could just do anything like that every single weekend. And three times at each round, not just once.
Redding is a still-gnarly 50 points behind Rea, 47 behind Razgatlioglu, but you could not help but get the feeling that this year we will have at least a real two rider fight, and it maybe three simply because so little has been predictable so far. There are in theory 14 full distance and seven sprint races still to go. And nobody is having all good or all bad luck so far.
Three ways to win it?
Three top riders, three different machines to boot, and here we are with a genuine championship fight on our hands at mid-season.
Yamaha has come into strong form this season, as not only Razgatlioglu is getting the R1 to fly this year. Garrett Gerloff has been a podium man in among the occasional early laps crash-fest he has been inflicting on himself and others, and he’s not even on the factory bike.
Actually more accurate to say he is not in the factory team. The bikes are all more or less factory now, with just who looks after them, with what experience and resources, is what is making the difference are all through the class. (For a Bolognese aside, look at what rookie WorldSBK youngster Axel Bassani can do in a privateer Ducati MotoCorsa team when the red, white and green colour balance is set to the right ratio.)
At Assen and again in Most even WorldSBK Andrea Locatelli smashed through the rookie’s glass ceiling into the podium palace. In a year with so many good bike and rider combos around, and five avaricious manufacturers involved, any podium is a prize worth having. ’Loka’ now has two at two different rounds. He is, of course, in the factory team. You cannot score a podium nowadays without a strong bike and the Yamaha is becoming the best all-around bike in WorldSBK right now.
Evolution not revolution
Last year one of the Yamaha team bosses was a tad miffed when it was put to him that there was still something missing from the overall Yamaha push as a genuine championship-challenger. Not pleased with me, it is fair to say, however civilly the denial was made. But given how potent the R1 is in 2021, in such a number of different hands, our difference of opinions is just 12 months out of sync. Not much looks missing now in Yamaha-land.
A game of endless small improvements and (I hate this following expression but it is doubtless the best one to use) ‘marginal gains’ have seen the Yamaha become very well rounded, and lifted far enough up the performance tower in all regards to work for a few different riders at most tracks.
Look at the competition, and you can see part of the reason Razgatlioglu is so close to Rea after suffering his own bad luck at times, and not Redding like last year. Or VDM, or Sykes, or Bautista…
The Ducati is an enigma of a bike. One weekend working great for the tall and broad Redding but not his tiny team-mate Michael Ruben Rinaldi. Then the opposite is true. Then it works for really no one, then Redding and his crew can find a Race Two that was so assured out front you thought Redding was floating along to victory, not riding. Then privateer Chaz Davies finishes on the podium and next round struggles, despite his many years of factory Ducati experience.
When it works, that V4R is brilliant, its high-revving design and pure race focus can deliver like not other bike. Then for no reason… off the very best pace and nobody seems to know why.
The Kawasaki is the oldest design, the lowest revving engine, and has 500rpm less than it could have, due to all that early season controversy on whether it was a new engine or not. FIM said, not, end of argument.
Only Rea is brilliant on it again, although his team-mate Alex Lowes is strong - in overall fourth place remember. But in carrying a niggling injury it is difficult to see his true race-long pace. The true measure of the Kawasaki’s abilities (and some would argue artificially reduced capabilities) come from the privateer riders. Nothing to write home about there. 500 extra RPM would really help those guys.
Lost at HRC
The Honda? It makes the occasional Ducati pitlane psychodrama look occasionally sane, with issues in rider feedback from the Fireblade, and depending on how well you can read between the closely guarded HRC lines, it’s a profound chassis issue, or similarly grey cloud lurking inside the electronics package.
Hold the potential final HRC result though, as both experienced riders, Leon Haslam and Alvaro Bautista, said they made strides in a super-heated Barcelona test session recently. Let’s see how hard the wings on the Honda can flap at Navarra and beyond before we say much more. But so far, in year two…
The BMW is still relatively new in its new M clothes and electronic reboots, but there are flashes and some podium precious metals below gold have been mined by the Brits and Bavarians, with some important Dutch influences too.
So back to our potential in WorldSBK for a genuine title fight, in the second half?
Even though the Ducati is clearly a skittish target for the combination of techs and Redding himself to hit bullseyes with every weekend, his rivals’ even greater misfortunes at times - and Scott’s ability to score big just when you think his flush is about to be bust - mean he is not out of anything at all as yet.
Mad last dash
As we approach a deeply intense period of action by WorldSBK standards, with five rounds in seven weeks starting at another new track in Navarra, it seems anything is possible.
So what’s different, in essence, this year? Rea has got more than a nose in front of Razgatlioglu twice now, and in every year for years that means he would just tractor away and break the tow to the following riders. Rea’s pure talent and endless desire to win, his adaptability, his gigantic experience to overcome all mean he is still front and centre but there is apparently no real advantage in being on the official Kawasaki now.
The bikes in blue may work differently from the Kawasaki, have a different interpretation of what an inline four should be and sound like, but they seem to be working at least as well as the previously consistent Kawasaki. No bad habits anymore.
Looks like a fight all the way at this stage and that is no bad thing for WorldSBK’s image and public appeal as we start to emerge - hopefully - from the second Covid-affected season with a championship more than worth watching.
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