WorldSBK 2021 | Seventh heaven for Rea or can Redding, Razgatlioglu raise hell?

The 2021 WorldSBK Championship is here so it's time to ask THAT question again: Can anyone at all prevent Jonathan Rea from making it a straight seven?

WorldSBK Class of 2021

We have waited a long time for this weekend’s opening round of the 2021 WorldSBK Championship. In fact, six months has passed since Chaz Davies took the flag in the final race of the weekend in November 2020 at Estoril.

Since then, we have twiddled thumbs as engineers have twiddled settlings in what has been (and felt like the) the longest off-season yet. The flexing consequence of a lingering coronavirus pandemic, WorldSBK has chopped and changed its calendar with such frequency the schedule barely has any of its original dates.

Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja and ZX10RR (2021) Review | Jonathan Rea WorldSBK For the Road Tested

Which is why the short turnaround of wintery test sessions between November to February gave way to a pampered lead-in of excessive testing mileage to such an extent the Honda CBR1000RR-R probably isn’t far off distance covered during the whole of 2020.

Still, six months is a mere flick of a calendar for Jonathan Rea, who heads into the 2021 WorldSBK season looking directly at a seventh consecutive title while his rivals plot how to hit the bullseye painted on his back.

Six months is a long time, but when you’re racing against Rea, time takes on a different meaning.

Can anyone stop Jonathan Rea from seventh WorldSBK title?

Well, it’s going to be no easier than it has been in previous years based on pre-season testing, which as ever went swimmingly for the rock solid ‘as one’ Kawasaki-Rea pair. 

Rivals might have hoped the launch of a new ZX-10RR might see some hurdles emerge but an evolutionary approach - coupled with te  and was clearly a meticulous process of development behind closed doors saw it come out of box as fast - if not faster - than its predecessor.

Developed around Rea’s input, this is as tailored a Superbike as you’ll probably ever see, which is reason alone to assume the Ulsterman might be even more of the favourite this year than any other. If that was at all possible.

That said, Rea and Kawasaki might be predictably consistent but in six years he hasn’t had a true dog fight for the title. Chaz Davies pushed him on occasions, Alvaro Bautista was either way out in front or picking himself out of the gravel and Scott Redding had the confidence to get his elbows out but not the finesse at times to string it together.

However, for a first year in WorldSBK, it would be reasonable to assume Redding - with the whiff of a world title in the offing - has gone away and worked harder than anyone to come back with a game plan that has the potential to ruffle Rea’s feathers simply because he hasn’t had to get the ruffage out for some time. 

Beyond Redding, Toprak Razgatlioglu is tipped for a title tilt if the Yamaha R1 can sustain a decent pace. Indeed, with BMW and Kawasaki bringing updates, the R1 - which is nimble but was already down on power - there is a question mark over whether the Yamaha is simply good enough.

As for Razgatlioglu himself, the Turk didn’t always look terribly comfortable on the R1 at times in 2020 but a more precise style will serve him better in the long run. 

Can BMW and Honda get in the mix?

Honda has been conspicuous in its decision to largely avoid group tests and lap behind closed doors, a method that creates a certain amount of intrigue. Or at least it would if the muted noises coming from Alvaro Bautista weren’t so flat.

The Spaniard is heading for a make or break year in 2021, a remarkable thing to say about someone who won the first 11 races of his WorldSBK career in 2019. There is no doubting Honda has the resource and, based on the CBR1000RR-R’s form in more stock spec series’, suggests there is a very quick bike there.

Hiring Leon Camier as team manager was a curveball nobody saw coming… as much as no-one is sure how it will transpire. Who knows, it could be Leon Camier, Honda HRC MotoGP team manager… or Alvaro Bautista.

BMW too will be crossing everything that the M 1000 RR - a beefed up, electronics laden brainier version of the S 1000 RR - lives up to expectations. After all, it’s one thing to realise your acclaimed sportsbike is flaccid in the performance area, leading to an costly ‘exclusive’ upgrade if it proves no faster than what you already had..

Michael van der Mark arrives to push Tom Sykes on a bike that we will have to reserve judgement for since testing in the run up to the opener hasn’t exactly blown anyone away.

Bigger, more international grid makes wait worth it

It has been a tough period for all and WorldSBK - which has fluctuated in popularity in recent years - was perhaps the series we would have expected to suffer most in the financial downturn.

Instead, all but two teams (Brixx and Ten Kate Racing) have returned for 2021, while in comes BMW’s two new satellite entries with an M1000RR each for Jonas Folger (MGM Bonovo) and Eugene Laverty (RC Squadra Corse), while a historic name in Alstare makes a surprise return to WorldSBK with Christophe Ponsson on a Yamaha.

With Pedercini back to two bikes and MIE Racing hoping to fill the second Honda CBR1000RR-R seat, it means a grid of 24 bikes are proposed as permanent with competitors from as diverse a reaches as Japan, Turkey, Argentina and the USA.

WorldSBK 2021 | Dark horses to watch out for

Chaz Davies’s 2021 WorldSBK campaign has fairytale written all over it. Bumped off the factory Ducati team after years of loyalty, Davies lands at the tighter budget but less pressured GoEleven. It is the manufacturer’s second-string satellite arm (after Barni) but was a race winner in 2020 for the first time with Michael Ruben Rinaldi, who has replaced Davies.

It might not be the route to that elusive WorldSBK title but Davies vs Rinaldi (and therefore Ducati bosses) will be fascinating to watch. 

Garret Gerloff may have taken a little time to get into his stride but once he did the American turned his season around in rapid fashion. Suddenly springing from circulating in around tenth to battling it out for wins during the final three events, it was as though Gerloff had taken several big steps in one go.

It’s no wonder Yamaha have put faith in him to ride the factory R1 - under the GRT banner - not least because it puts him up against Andrea Locatelli, the WorldSSP dominant force emerging as the surprise rewardee of the works Pata bike. Testing hasn’t gone well for the Italian though with a number of crashes and pace that is well down on team-mate Razgatlioglu

Others to watch include Gerloff’s team-mate Kohta Nozane, who accepts Yamaha’s offer of a WorldSBK ride, fulfilling an ambition turned down by Nozane’s legendary Yamaha counterpart Katsyuki Nakasuga, who never competed in WorldSBK despite being a MotoGP podium winner and dominating the Japanese racing scene 

The latest MotoGP star to make the switch to WorldSBK, Tito Rabat has landed on the well sorted Barni Ducati for his maiden campaign. Having been primed for a Kawasaki seat alongside Rea in 2020 before choosing to stay in MotoGP, Rabat will hope he can rediscover the flair that won him the Moto2 title but deserted him during five years of MotoGP.

As well as Rabat, Jonas Folger brings MotoGP credentials to WorldSBK in what will be his first international season since his burgeoning career in the top flight was halted by Epstein Barr syndrome. He will get a good foil to compare himself against in Eugene Laverty, racing the same bike under a different name but with the same quasi-works’ backing from BMW.

Finally, having conquered WorldSSP on the increasingly outdated Kawasaki ZX-6R, Lucas Mahias gets to stretch his legs on newer and very competitive ZX-10RR Puccetti Racing and has the potential to be the quickest of five WorldSSP graduates.

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