Yamaha’s intra team battle is the one to watch this weekend. WorldSBK commentator Steve English looks at why the dynamics within Yamaha have been an interesting subplot to WorldSBK 2020.
It’s cold, wet and windy but the Pata Yamaha team are excited. A new era is dawning for the Crescent Racing-run operation. The signing of Toprak Razgatlioglu marked a major coup for the team. They had stolen the Turkish rider, the rising star of WorldSBK in 2019, from under the noses of Kawasaki. Today, he’d ride the R1 for the first time. Today they’d see what they had bought.
To understand what it’s like for a team and rider at the first test think back to Christmas morning and waiting to open presents. The latest toys are always something to savour but will they live up to the hype? Will they be as good as you imagined? Or will you want to cast them aside after only a few hours? That’s what Yamaha wondered when the #54 rolled down pitlane under dark skies. At the end of the first day he was only a few tenths slower than his teammate, Michael van der Mark. Had Yamaha pulled off a master stroke by signing the Turk?
They’d taken advantage of a unique set of circumstances to sign Razgatlioglu. No matter the pretence from the green corner, the expectation had always been that Toprak – a Kawasaki rider from STK600 to STK1000 to WorldSBK – would eventually be the rider to take on the mantle of Jonathan Rea’s successor. His talent has never been in doubt and that’s what marked him out as a potential SBK® star from an early age. In a bar-to-bar battle, most riders on the grid say they respect Toprak more than most of the field because of his feel and ability to save a situation. He’s still a rough diamond but applying his talent, which was an issue at times before, is no longer a concern.
From the first test, Yamaha were thrilled with what they got when they opened the wrapping. He was as good as advertised. Round 1 of the 2020 season did little to dissuade them from that belief with a stunning victory opening his Yamaha account in style. He followed that up with a second place to Jonathan Rea in the Tissot Superpole Race before a technical problem blotted the copybook in Race 2. Leaving Australia he was third in the standings and in the eyes of some had asserted himself as the Yamaha team leader.
Since then, the world’s changed and so has the view of the Yamaha riders. At the second round at Jerez, it was a continuation of Australia with two podiums and van der Mark sitting in the shadows. The Dutchman had signed a deal to leave Yamaha and the reasons are easy to see. The perception that Toprak had become the darling of the manufacturer wasn’t just felt outside the team and, after three years, it must’ve hurt van der Mark to suddenly see Yamaha enamoured by a shiny new toy.
He’s redoubled his efforts and been able to wrestle double podiums at Portimao and Catalunya but, more importantly, he outperformed his teammate at the Aragon rounds. This was important for van der Mark because these were the rounds that Yamaha had struggled on. He was fighting in the trenches and he dug deep to find his form again.
It would’ve been easy to sit back and know that at the end of the year, he was moving to an exciting new project. Instead, he wants to go out on a high and take the fight to Toprak. With two rounds to go, both have had their share of bad luck. Toprak’s injury last time out, a Sunday morning crash took him out of action for two races, means that there are 21 points separating the teammates. Overall, they’ve been very closely matched. They’ve both shown themselves to be very competitive at different points in the season but they know there’re six races to assert their authority. For van der Mark, he wants to leave the team on a high. Toprak wants to show the team that he’s their future.
The final two rounds, at Magny Cours and Estoril, are going to be interesting. Toprak’s style is incredible at tracks that demand an aggressive style. Last year, the Turk claimed two wins in France but van der Mark has five Superbike podiums at the track and crashed while leading in 2019. We could see them go head to head for the win this weekend. Last time out in Catalunya, the Yamaha was the bike to have. This weekend could be a case of the riders being the difference.
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