Up the underdogs | The unsung standouts of the 2021 WorldSBK season

In with the young, out with the old... The 2021 WorldSBK Championship has seen a changing of the guard but which of the next generation are standing out?

Andrea Locatelli - Pata Yamaha

The absorbing 2021 WorldSBK Championship title fight reaches a pivotal stage this weekend as Portimao in Portugal prepares to host Round 11 of 13, with Jonathan Rea coming into the final stretches in the unusual position of chaser to Toprak Razgatlioglu.

Just three rounds remain to resolve the title fight, a tussle that has been elevated by the very real prospect of Rea and Kawasaki ceding their WorldSBK crown for the first time since 2015.

With Yamaha’s Razgatlioglu well placed to dethrone the long-serving ‘King Rea’, his potential feat mirrors what has been a broad ‘changing of the guard’ across the entire WorldSBK field as fresh faces dazzle over the so-called ‘old guard’. 

With Chaz Davies, Tom Sykes and Leon Haslam among the experienced hands poised to exit WorldSBK at the end of the season, who are standouts of the series’ exciting next generation?

Andrea Locatelli - Pata Yamaha

There were a few raised eyebrows upon the announcement that Andrea Locatelli had landed the factory Pata Yamaha ride for the 2021 WorldSBK season, beating Garrett Gerloff and Loris Baz to the prize seat alongside Toprak Razgatlioglu.

Indeed, though the Italian arrived with a remarkable 2020 WorldSSP title win on his CV, one that bulged with a record 12 wins from 15 races, recent examples of Supersport to Superbike graduates, such as Federico Caricasulo and Randy Krummenacher, had suggested the transition was tougher today than a decade ago.

The opening rounds appeared to support that theory, Locatelli proving a trusted pair of hands but battling around the bottom end of the top ten, form that was spotlighted further by the podium-winning efforts of Gerloff, plus his in-form team-mate.

However, just as Gerloff began the start of a slump in form at Assen, Locatelli went the other way, landing his first podium in a race he’d lead for a time too. Finding his groove on the Yamaha R1, Locatelli has been a regular front-runner ever since, anchored by a run of 15 top five finishes from the last 17 races.

What initially looked to be an error of judgement from Yamaha has become a tantalising prospect for the future, with Locatelli rewarded with another two-year contract alongside Razgatlioglu. Expect the duo to be a formidable double-pronged force for 2022.

Michael Ruben Rinaldi - Aruba.it Ducati

Michael Ruben Rinaldi came into the 2021 WorldSBK season with a lot to prove and some sizeable shoes to fill in the factory Ducati team - and for the most part he has succeeded.

Replacing long-serving Chaz Davies to partner Scott Redding, Rinaldi’s appointment came with some controversy, with Ducati accused of favouring nationality and being disloyal to Davies after making the decision late and giving the Welshman few competitive options for 2021.

Moreover, this was a second chance for Rinaldi, who was tipped for stardom under Ducati’s factory-backed tutelage in 2018 and 2019, before indifferent results saw him shuffled over to the smaller Go Eleven outfit in 2020.

While Rinaldi hasn’t had the measure of Redding and hasn’t shown consistent form at times, on his day he has proven he can run with the best with his double win in Misano alone going a long way to silence doubters.

Another win in Barcelona via an enjoyable battle with Razgatlioglu emphasised his potential, which coupled to Davies’ lacklustre campaign on the Go Eleven bike Rinaldi vacated shows Ducati probably made the right choice.

Axel Bassani - Motocorsa Ducati

Of all the riders on the 2021 WorldSBK grid, Axel Bassani came in as arguably the least-known.

Those with a keen eye on the junior ranks though will have recognised him from a superb rookie WorldSSP campaign in 2016 - aged 17 - when he picked up a series of top six results. Though this didn’t lead onto anything notable in the seasons after, he has been a revelation with his switch to WorldSBK machinery.

Competing with the privateer Motocorsa Racing team - itself in only its second season of WorldSBK - Bassani has steadily crept into loftier contention as the season has progressed to emerge as one of the leading independent riders.

Culminating in an assured ride to a surprise first podium in rainy Barcelona, it has been followed up by four top six results that place him on the cusp of the overall top ten.

Earning him interest from the Honda works team, though it appears as though he won’t go factory for 2022, it hasn’t taken long for Bassani to go from unknown to hot prospect.