How Toprak Razgatlioglu brought out the very best in Jonathan Rea… and still won

Toprak Razgatlioglu not only became the man to end Jonathan Rea's six-year reign as WorldSBK Champion... but did so against a legend racing better than ever

Jonathan Rea, Toprak Razgatlioglu

We all knew it would take someone special to swing the sword that would force Jonathan Rea off a WorldSBK throne he has comfortably occupied for a remarkable six seasons… but it doesn’t mean many hadn’t assumed Toprak Razgatlioglu would be the person to do it.

Perhaps more surprising though is that Razgatlioglu achieved it against an undisputed champion riding arguably better than ever, a master of his craft forced to raise his performance to limit-pushing levels to repel a staunch opponent. And it was all achieved with a level of calmness to chill even the iciest of queens.

Indeed, in motorcycle racing terms, Rea had become the veritable iceberg of WorldSBK… a huge, lime green one at that.

Each season rivals would talk up their chances of finally conquering Rea, only to watch their hopes sink as the Ulsterman’s sheer depth of metronomic consistency and raw pace emerged to penetrate the steeliest efforts year-after-year.

Moreover, while Rea’s margin of dominance has fluctuated over the last six seasons, there is an argument for him having gotten bigger, better and stronger with every passing season, stepping up his game to take on and dismiss new threats by the name of Alvaro Bautista and Scott Redding.

However, while these were bold newcomers empowered by their status as next-in-line to take Rea down, Razgatlioglu has presented an entirely different challenge for the Ulsterman, one whose route to the top has been painstakingly methodical, preceded by a well-planned path forged with Rea’s throne sighted as the target destination.

In WorldSBK terms, Razgatlioglu is a rare thing. A rider who has not only climbed the ladder of the production-racing ranks but in doing so becomes - quite remarkably - the first rider with a junior category championship win (European SSTK 600) to go on to win a WorldSBK title. That’s the first time in 33 years of the WorldSBK Championship’s entire existence. 

As much a damning indictment of WorldSBK’s nurturing platform - compared with GP racing anyway - as it is a ringing endorsement for what could be achieved for those beginning on the entry-level rung of that ladder, Razgatlioglu has climbed his way to the top by adapting to his machinery without losing the essence of a riding style that is as delightfully quirky as it is uniquely his.

In short, put Razgatlioglu in anonymous leathers and it wouldn’t take long to work out who was at the controls of a motorcycle… less if he happened to throw up one of his trademark party trick ‘stoppies’.

The inspirations behind Razgatlioglu’s WorldSBK success

And yet, while Razgatlioglu’s style is directly associated with him, it is one that has been nurtured and emboldened by drawing inspiration from numerous sources. 

His calm and confident acrobatics on a bike - especially under braking - can be attributed to his stuntman father, Arif.

His formidable focus under pressure is gleaned from his mentor and manager Kenan Sofuoglu, a rider whose uncompromising style has certainly rubbed off, albeit without the same limit pushing hot headedness.

Even Yamaha, which deserves immense credit for working closely with Razgatlioglu to give him a bike that leaned into his attributes, rather than demand it the other way around. All on an R1 that isn’t significantly different to the one finishing several seconds adrift each race two years ago. 

However, perhaps Razgatlioglu’s biggest inspiration is Rea himself, an honour the Ulsterman can take some heart in once the disappointment of losing his coveted No.1 plate wears off.

In some ways a mentor to Razgatlioglu during their time at Kawasaki, the pair should have been partnered at the factory team in 2020 but for a clumsy snub for the Suzuka 8 Hours that drove the Turk into the arms of Yamaha. It might not have seemed it at the time, but - much like a supporting actor evolving into a headline star - the change of scene gave him a platform to curate into his own.

Indeed, for all of his flamboyance and attitude on track, while the rawness of his riding style made Razgatlioglu quick, it is the Rea-imitation refinement of it since that has made him World Champion. 

Imitation is the sincerest form of rivalry

While you wouldn’t say Rea and Razgatlioglu share a similar style, you can certainly see how each has learned from one another to maximise their armouries this season..

While you have to go back to his Honda days to compare how often we saw Rea hit the deck in 2021, the crashes were a mark of a man pushing both machine and himself harder than ever to retain his title. 

In fact, there are certainly parallels to those Honda years, where the occasional risk of overstepping the limit masked just how much he was out-performing his machinery. Honda’s slump to coincide with Rea’s title-winning move to Kawasaki in 2015 certainly exposed that fact.

Kawasaki - perhaps unfairly - blames itself for not giving Rea a ZX-10RR that has been as glued onto the track as in previous years, but in reality Rea’s uncharacteristic crashes at Donington Park, Most and Portimao were evidence of him turning up to 11, questions the ZX-10RR has never really needed to answer before.

The WorldSBK King isn’t dead… he’s stronger than ever

Even so, that extra notch has revealed Rea to be the resilient racer some doubted he could be during his dominant years.  

Forced to get his hands a little dirty - arguably for the first time - while it certainly didn’t look to be coming naturally to him initially, by season’s end he could fight fire-with-fire against Razgatlioglu and win. 

So while the bumping and barging may have been a little bare-knuckle at times, it made for a great spectacle and proved Rea could think on his feet and respond in the moment like never before.

If anything, the final round in Indonesia was a fine example. Slower than Razgatlioglu all weekend, Rea brought his big match experience to the table when it mattered and didn’t back down, repeatedly coming back at his rival to raise the pressure. 

Credit to Razgatlioglu for not buckling - despite the odd nervy moment - but kudos to Rea too, who loses his title to a worthy adversary, but heads into the winter with more weapons than ever to develop in preparation for 2022.

Razgatlioglu may be Champion… but the King isn’t dead yet. Long live WorldSBK.