It has evolved into a rivalry to compare with any that World Superbikes has produced in recent decades.
When Toprak Razgatlioglu snatched the championship crown from six-time champion Jonathan Rea by 13 points at the conclusion of last year’s series, it marked the culmination of a captivating season-long battle between the two.
Now, the pair are set to renew on-track hostilities as what promises to be another thrilling campaign gets underway at Aragon this weekend.
Both riders have had upgrades to their Yamaha YZF-R1 and Kawasaki ZX-10RR machines during the close season in an attempt to boost their title hopes.
And while Razgatlioglu, of Turkey, will display the number one plate that is traditionally the preserve of the defending champion, Rea will be reunited with the number 65 which he sported for most of his career as he aims to become just the third rider to reclaim the title the year after he lost it.
With talking points aplenty to ponder ahead of the Spanish curtain-raiser, we assess the prospects for the season ahead and get the 35-year-old Northern Irishman’s take on the challenge ahead as he aims to regain the title he had made his own between 2015 and 2020.
Can anyone else get in on the title act?
If anyone is likely to challenge the domination of Razgatlioglu and Rea, it is likely to be Spaniard Alvaro Bautista, who is back with the Aruba Ducati team with which he claimed 16 victories in his maiden season in World Superbikes in 2019.
The 37-year-old will be keen to make up for the disappointment of that campaign in which he won the first 11 races to build up a healthy 53-point advantage over Rea but ended up trailing the Northern Irishman by 165 points come the season’s end thanks in no small part to a series of crashes.
Bautista has endured two comparatively fallow years in the championship as part of the Honda Racing set-up but having gained more experience on a superbike will aim to be contending for race wins from the off.
A first title success for the Italian manufacturer since 2011 could be on the cards if the former MotoGP rider’s impressive pace in pre-season testing on the Panigale V4 R is replicated in a racing environment.
Who are the ‘best of the rest’?
While Razgatlioglu, Rea and Bautista are expected to be the three primary protagonists in the title fight, other riders likely to challenge for race wins include Michael Ruben Rinaldi on his Ducati, Yamaha-mounted American Garrett Gerloff and Scott Redding, who has switched from Ducati to BMW power.
Last year’s third-place finisher, Englishman Redding has seen his pre-season testing programme hampered by a back problem, while his BMW team-mate, Dutchman Michael van der Mark, will miss the opening round at Aragon after fracturing his leg while mountain biking.
Razgatlioglu has namechecked his team-mate Andrea Locatelli when asked about title contenders after his impressive rookie campaign, while Alex Lowes will be hoping to put together a consistent run of results as part of the Kawasaki Racing Team line-up.
Exciting prospect Axel Bassani, of Italy, displayed undoubted potential last season and will aim to make more progress in the campaign ahead on his Motocrosa Ducati.
Meanwhile Honda will be hoping to take a step forward with rookie line-up Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge as they look to become regular podium finishers and race winners.
What of the 2022 calendar?
This year’s championship is to be staged over 12 rounds, with the 2022 series less compressed than the 2021 version which did not commence until late May because of issues surrounding Covid-19 and international travel.
As last year, the campaign will begin with the Aragon round in Spain and will end in mid-November with two rounds on successive weekends – a return to the Mandalika circuit in Indonesia, followed by the concluding three races at Phillip Island in Australia.
The opening nine rounds will be staged in Europe, before the championship moves to South America, Asia and Australasia for the closing three events.
Two circuits which the riders visited last term have been omitted from the calendar this time round – the Spanish rounds at Navarra, which was just introduced to the roster last year, and Jerez.
Could this be the final year of Rea-Razgatlioglu rivalry?
Speculation that 2022 may be Razgatlioglu’s final year in World Superbikes mounted during the winter when the rider revealed that he was set to test a Yamaha M1 MotoGP bike later this year.
Despite having signed a two-year contract with the Pata Yamaha WSB outfit to take him to the end of the 2023 season, the 25-year-old hinted that he might make the switch in 2023 rather than 2024.
“I always had a MotoGP dream, 2023, why not?” teased the rider on his Twitter account in January.
Rea is in the final year of his deal with the Kawasaki Racing Team and told BBC Sport that he is keeping his options open as to his future.
What Jonathan Rea says
“I really want to be competitive in Superbikes in the future. Let’s see what the next few months bring. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about my future beyond this year but hopefully by the summer we’ll have a better idea of what is ahead,” said Rea.
“Testing has been going well and the team has been working tirelessly on the bike trying to improve. Marginal gains are everything in the sport now.
“We’ve been pushing Kawasaki, all the engineers, to try to improve the package and they’ve certainly done that over the off-season.
“There are so many fast riders and manufacturers in the championship, I’m really excited about the challenge.
“We’ve focused on two areas in testing – the braking and also the tyre life. We’ve managed to improve that ten-fold.
“One area I really wanted to improve was engine performance and top speed. With the technical regulations, we’ve struggled to do that but if we think about ourselves in relation to last year, we’re in a much better position.
“I feel I’m still in my best years, constantly learning and trying to evolve with the sport.”
Follow News Everything for News Today, Breaking News, Latest News, World News, Breaking News Headlines, National News, Today’s News
#World #Superbikes #season #Rea