2022 WorldSBK Season Preview | Razgatlioglu vs. Rea… and Bautista?

The start of the 2022 WorldSBK Championship is just moments away... but who will be the riders to beat and the riders to watch this season? 

Toprak Razgatlioglu - Pata Yamaha R1, 2022 WorldSBK
Toprak Razgatlioglu - Pata Yamaha R1, 2022 WorldSBK

There is something not quite right about waiting until April for the opening round of the WorldSBK Championship to take place.

Call me old fashioned, but I miss waking up a stupid o’clock to watch the first turns of the season take place in late February at the brilliant Phllip Island circuit weeks before MotoGP kicks off in Qatar.

Alas, the hangover of COVID means WorldSBK has enjoyed a nice long winter period and plenty of pre-season testing prior to this weekend’s Motorland Aragon curtain raiser, a circuit that - again - doesn’t rank terribly high on the ‘iconic’ scale.

This will (hopefully) change again next year with a return to Australia as the season opener, but there are some benefits to this current set up, namely there is precisely no excuses or lack of preparation for those tipped to come out fighting from round one.

Indeed, the championship has a lot to live up to in 2022 after a fantastic 2021 campaign fizzed with superb racing and delivered a first-time champion in Toprak Razgatlioglu. So what can we expect coming into this year?

Jonathan Rea - Kawasaki Racing Team, 2022 WorldSBK
Jonathan Rea - Kawasaki Racing Team, 2022 WorldSBK

A three-way fight for the 2022 WorldSBK title?

You might disagree, but the 2021 WorldSBK title race was essentially a two-and-a-half-way affair between Razgatlioglu, Jonathan Rea and (partly) Scott Redding. 

Coming into the season there seems little doubt Razgatlioglu and Rea will be picking up where they left off. The two have been consistently quick in testing as ever and both have been working on small but effective adjustments to their Yamaha and Kawasaki machines to good effect.

Testing aside though, their battle takes on an interesting dynamic which could either way this year. While pound-for-pound there was ultimately little to choose between them in 2021, both have different strengths.

Razgatlioglu has immeasurable confidence and rhythm on the bike, Rea is a wily fox who can turn it on and slug it out when things aren’t going his way. What will be interesting to note is whether Razgatlioglu can withstand pressure from a neutral starting point.

The Turk was superb in blinkering himself to ignore the hubbub off track last year but that will have been impossible to ignore with four months off the bike during an off-season where his talent was unanimously praised and talk of MotoGP accelerated. That weight of expectation might tell as much as it might take him to a new level… time will tell.

Rea, meanwhile, is a rider scorned and will see the chance to claw back the initiative as his greatest success yet. Indeed, we saw towards the end of 2021 as the title he’d held for six years began to slip away that he can dig deep and go toe-to-toe with his rival.

It didn’t come easy to him and there were moments he looked loose on the Kawasaki, but a winter of honing this new aggressive streak might make him as formidable as it could push him too far out of his comfort zone. Again, time will tell.

Alvaro Bautista - Aruba.it Ducat Panigale V4 R
Alvaro Bautista - Aruba.it Ducat Panigale V4 R

The one anomaly in the title fight, however, is surely Alvaro Bautista. While Redding was title-fightingly quick at times, it wasn’t consistent enough for him to ever really be considered a contender.

Bautista’s return was initially met with some raised eyebrows but the Spaniard’s smile since returning to the Ducati Panigale V4 R has barely dropped and he has certainly been quick on the timesheets.

From this standpoint he looks capable of mixing it with Rea and Razgatlioglu, while a couple of seasons buried in the mid-pack with Honda might have honed his race craft enough to be a person of interest in this title fight. However, he has shown again he can be a little too hard on the front-end, with a fair few tumbles over the winter to go with the table topping crashes he suffered the past three years.

There are many - Ducati included - that are convinced the Panigale V4 R is the quickest bike on the grid but hasn’t had the rider to exploit its otherwise slender optimum operating window. Pint-size Bautista appears capable of doing that, but it could come down to whether he is capable of keeping it upright enough to penetrate the sheer consistency of Rea and Razgatlioglu.

Iker Lecuona - HRC Honda
Iker Lecuona - HRC Honda

Honda making strides with rookies Lecuona, Vierge

Honda has hit the big reset button to come to the grid with arguably the most intriguing set-up for 2022.

Though you’d be hard pressed to tell, the CBR1000RR-R has undergone some significant revisions under the skin both on and off track in an attempt to give its renewed full factory WorldSBK effort some much needed vigour following two exploratory seasons that were competitive, but anonymous all the same.

Praise for the punchy engine was negated by a stiff chassis that scrubbed all of that time off in the corners, with the Fireblade undergoing revisions in this area to cure the problem, while a shift to Showa suspension puts it on a par with Kawasaki too.

The bike has looked quick at times in testing, albeit mostly in Barcelona where HRC carried out much of the development work with the Fireblade, but it appears to have made a step forward overall.

As for its riders, Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge come from the GP paddock with points to prove. While the MotoGP-to-WorldSBK path is well worn, Lecuona is in the first flush of youth and has looked up for the challenge. Expect him especially to be knocking around the top five from the start of the season.

Loris Baz - Bonovo Action BMW M 1000 RR
Loris Baz - Bonovo Action BMW M 1000 RR

The best of the rest

While there is evidently a defined top three heading into the season, there are others more than capable of penetrating it at times - or regularly - this year.

Each of the Yamaha, Kawasaki and Ducati ‘second string’ - Andrea Locatelli, Alex Lowes and Michael Ruben Rinaldi - are capable of race wins in 2022, with a particular spotlight on Locatelli, who turned around what looked like being a flop of a rookie campaign into one of immense promise by the season’s end.

Indeed, Yamaha looks in fine fettle for the new season with Garrett Gerloff seemingly back to his podium-competing best following the difficulties he faced in the wake of high-profile incidents last year, while his GRT team-mate Kohta Nozane could be a dark horse with a year’s experience under his belt.

Elsewhere, some alarm bells might be ringing at BMW after a pre-season in which it has not only looked down on the top three again, but also Honda this time.

Having occupied that middle ground between the top three bikes and mid-pack for much of 2019, 2020 and 2021, it was hoped BMW would make a stride with big name signing Scott Redding in 2022, but he has been hovering just inside or just outside the top ten for the most part.

On the plus side for BMW, its satellite Bonovo Action outfit could spring a few surprise results in 2022, especially in the hands of the very underrated Loris Baz.

The Frenchman proved he deserves to be on the WorldSBK stage following some eye-catching super-sub outings last year. He was on top five pace in Aragon, but outside the top 15 in Catalunya, so the jury is still out perhaps on what he can do aboard the unfancied M 1000 RR…

Philipp Oettl - Go Eleven Ducati
Philipp Oettl - Go Eleven Ducati

 

The rookie standouts

Excusing the factory-backed Lecuona and Vierge, Philipp Oettl appears to have the measure of his fellow privately-run rookies with some strong performances on the Go Eleven Ducati that have put him around the top ten for much of the pre-season.

Elsewhere, Luca Bernardi is certainly much earlier in his career than Oettl, which may explain why he has been loitering in the bottom half thus far but certainly stands to improve on the well-backed Barni Spark Ducati.

Hafizh Syahrin is another strong grab from the GP ranks but his fortunes will ultimately be dictated by the competitiveness and reliability of his modestly-supported MIE Honda outfit.

One name that could spring a surprise - much like Axel Bassani in 2021 - however could be Roberto Tamburini. Called up to replace Isaac Vinales in the Motoxracing Yamaha team just a week before the season opener, the Italian is ultra experienced but has never raced in WorldSBK before.

However, he is a rider that has raced with and beaten the likes of Razgatlioglu and Rinaldi at Superstock level and Michael van der Mark in WorldSSP, while he was instantly top 15 on his first touch with the Yamaha R1 in Aragon testing. A dark horse that could be top ten within a few rounds.

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