Toprak on Top | How Razgatlioglu stands poised to end the Rea WorldSBK era

Why Toprak Razgatlioglu is arguably the favourite for the 2021 WorldSBK Championship title as he piles the pressure on Jonathan Rea for the first time

Toprak Razgatlioglu - Yamaha 2021 WorldSBK

The bristling 2021 WorldSBK Championship ramps up from this weekend with the first of three events on the bounce that could provide a significant steer on which side the fiercely contested title battle will fall.

Three events and nine races - at Barcelona, Jerez and Portimao - will up the tempo significantly, leaving just two (still TBC) flyaway races in Argentina and Indonesia to settle the fight.

As for the contenders, they need no introduction with Toprak Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea primed to square up against each other in a rivalry between two friends that became a little bitter last time out in Magny-Cours after a complaint from Kawasaki over track limits saw the Turk lose one of his deserved trio of wins. 

To his credit. Razgatlioglu didn’t take it too personally but it has definitely created a Yamaha vs Kawasaki stand-off in the paddock.

While we have discussed the merits of the penalty - in short, Kawasaki and Rea would have been foolish not to raise the issue, but the punishment itself didn’t exactly fit the crime - attention will turn to how the two respond in Spain this weekend with the stakes having taken a leap.

For Rea, with six WorldSBK titles under his belt, he is no stranger to championship fights but this has to date been both his most error-strewn and hardest fought, the Ulsterman arguably forcing himself to find the limit as he contends with a rival that he knows well and has even advised in the past, but one that is blossoming into the material of a World Champion many predicted he’d become.

Indeed, Razgatlioglu has been a joy to watch over the last few years. He is one of the few products of the WorldSBK system to come good, focusing his attention on a route through Superstock before multiplying his skills and experience on a privateer Kawasaki before getting his factory shot at Yamaha. 

It’s admiring to see a rider with a clear career path in mind. It is known Kawasaki was priming him to replace Leon Haslam for the 2020 WorldSBK season, but when it flew him out to Japan as a late addition to its Suzuka 8 Hours only to decide against using him, he took it as an affront, severed ties and accepted a Yamaha deal instead.

He did it again earlier this year when MotoGP came knocking with a tempting deal to ride the satellite Yamaha next season, Razgatlioglu turning it down in favour of two more years in WorldSBK. Eyebrows were raised, but he insists he wants to become a World Champion first… at least he has time on his side.

The key development in Razgatlioglu’s WorldSBK title quest

As it happens, that title could well come this year, Razgatlioglu’s form having snowballed into a force of momentum that has for the first time in six seasons seen another rider match Rea for consistency.

Indeed, this has been the key development in Razgatlioglu’s armoury. Rea is blisteringly fast all-year round, but it is his metronomic consistency that rivals have repeatedly said is the weapon needed to prise his iron-like grip on the WorldSBK crown.

With only one DNF this season - at the hands of a rash move by Garrett Gerloff at the start of Race 3 in Assen - Razgatlioglu has a better finishing record than Rea and while it took a little time for him to find both his best and his first win, since then the Turk has been a fearsome competitor for the Ulsterman.

It has led to Rea being forced to push outside of his comfort zone, though it must be said this is not just because of Razgatlioglu. Indeed, Rea has made mistakes trying to repel Scott Redding as well, which has then played into the hands of Razgatlioglu.

Why Toprak Razgatlioglu has the measure of Jonathan Rea

To understand why Razgatlioglu has been the most exciting thing to happen to WorldSBK in a long time, you have to go back to 2014.

A protege of Kenan Sofuoglu, Razgatlioglu grew up learning tricks from his stunt riding father - hence the famed ‘stoppies’ - before turning his attention to circuit racing, where he soared through the domestic ranks.

This led to him making his European debut in the final round of the 2014 Superstock 600 Championship at Magny-Cours on a bike that had barely scored points in other hands all year. An unknown youngster with a difficult to pronounce name showed up and won. Job done.

This led to a full season campaign in 2015 and he romped to a comfortable title win. Superstock 1000 followed, where he’d finish runner-up in 2017. WorldSBK was next with Magny-Cours setting the stage for a stunning double win from 15th on the grid in 2019.

During this time Razgatlioglu’s eye-catching riding style was the talk of the paddock. He had never been a great qualifier but his sheer confidence and aggression in early laps meant it almost never mattered… and not once did you see him do so while angering other riders or coming off. In fact, Razgatlioglu crashes very little.

It was a thrilling but unrefined riding style that has propelled Razgatlioglu forward but ultimately held him back in a more professional factory Yamaha setting. The R1 developed around Michael van der Mark didn’t quite suit him and he spent much of 2020 looking like a very much neutered version of the Razgatlioglu that has won him a worldwide fanbase.

With van der Mark departing for BMW, Yamaha spent the winter developing the R1 around its lead rider and despite it having some limitations (more below) it is credit to the Crescent Racing outfit that it has chipped away persistently at the bike to align with Razgatlioglu’s unique style.

Central to this focus has been getting the bike to stop properly, maximising Razgatlioglu’s sheer accuracy and bravery on the anchors, as demonstrated at Magny-Cours when he completed most of his passes on Rea in the braking zone of the Adelaide hairpin.

By getting this right, the rest has followed with the R1 now firing out of corners quicker without chewing its tyres. More importantly though, the ‘stoppies’ are as epic as ever...

Has Kawasaki lost its WorldSBK advantage to Yamaha?

One argument for Rea’s occasional staccato form could be traced back to the new Kawasaki ZX-10RR machinery, which hasn’t looked as assured as in previous years.

Admittedly Rea is keen to steer clear of suggestions the bike is to blame and really despite its new look it hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, there were so few changes to last year’s bike that the FIM didn’t feel the need to re-homologate it.

However, this is probably the first time Rea has had to really ask more from his machinery. Previous years would see Rea almost toy with his rivals as he planned his attack, but today he is fighting a battle on all fronts against his key rivals with Razgatlioglu far better on the brakes, while Redding on the Ducati has a quicker bike in a straight line.

It’s this swinging pendulum that seems to hamper Rea on the Kawasaki, knowing he will find it hard to out-brake Razgatlioglu or keep a close-following Redding behind him on a straight. Finding the balance has been key, but in the heat of battle mistakes have duly crept in as Rea tries to repel two riders that can overtake him more easily than he can overtake them.

As we intimated before, what’s interesting about the Razgatlioglu - Rea fight is that you wouldn’t necessarily say the Yamaha is quicker than the Kawasaki. The R1 has always been sure-footed and stable, but its always lacked some oomph in a straight line.

What’s different here is that Razgatloioglu appears to now have a bike working to his liking, whereas Rea seems to come up against some unsavoury answers when he asks new questions of his ZX-10RR.

Much will therefore come down to the style of tracks we have coming up, but even then the two machines will be hard to tell apart.

That said, while Barcelona saw a Yamaha 1-2 in 2020 with Michael van der Mark and Gerloff, Razgatlioglu didn’t start two of the races due to injury. Jerez has been well suited to Yamaha in the past, while Portimao leans towards Kawasaki. 

Looking at past results doesn’t really help though because the Yamaha R1 is definitely a step forward in 2021 and has been notably quicker at all venues in Razgatlioglu’s hands. 

With the points margin between the two swelling and contracting with every race, it really is anyone’s guess who will prevail. 

Rea has the experience but that appears to bringing pressure. Razgatlioglu lacks the ‘match point’ knowledge, but if he is feeling any stress about what is at stake, he certainly doesn’t show it.