After a 216 day absence, the World Superbike Championship will fire back into life at MotorLand Aragon this weekend. 39 races at 13 different venues will determine who takes the 2021 title – and the competition is the most open and unpredictable it has been in recent years.
Jonathan Rea and the Kawasaki Racing Team have the target on their backs and the opposition has already taken good aim. If the pre-season testing times are anything to go by, only the narrowest of margins separate the manufacturers. With the factories reinforcing their satellite teams and increasing their commitment to technical and material support, surprise could become reality in the strengthened field.
Add unprecedented challenges that await the riders at three debut tracks on the calendar and all the ingredients are there for a thrilling campaign. Going into the 2021 season, there is plenty to look out for:
Who can dethrone Jonathan Rea?
Rea has claimed the crown in the past six years and seemed to be immune to all threats the opposition posed. He and Kawasaki are running out of superlatives and with a new fairing, upgraded engine and aerodynamical refinements on the novel ZX-10RR, they have taken the steps to ensure their run continues.
This season, however, could be their toughest challenge yet. A number of riders have a reinvigorated title assault lined up and are raring to go.
There is a strong argument that the Ducati Panigale V4 R is the finest bike on the grid and the Italian manufacturer has the riders to get the best out of it. 2020 runner-up Scott Redding clearly announced his intentions to go one better this campaign and alongside him, last season’s breakthrough talent Michael Ruben Rinaldi seeks to prove himself on top material.
Not to discount either, Chaz Davies is on factory machinery in the GoEleven squad. Historically being one of Rea’s greatest adversaries and with a point to prove to Ducati after dropping out the works into the satellite team, it’s all in for the Welshman.
In a case of evolution rather than revolution, Yamaha have introduced a modified front fairing as well as an evolved engine to the R1. Fast, aggressive and spectacular, Toprak Razgatlioglu has the potential to take the set-up to new heights. The young Turk has been tipped as a future world champion and the only thing he has been lacking so far is consistency. Sort this out and he is a contender.
A quintet of manufacturers at the top?
Honda came in hot with the new Fireblade CBR1000RR-R SP which more than anything impressed with incredible top speed. The engineers back in Japan have been busy over the winter and besides upgrading the engine even further, they added a new exhaust system, seat unit and swingarm.
Unlike the machine, the rider line-up is staying the same in Alvaro Bautista and Leon Haslam – the oldest and most experienced pairing on the grid. New team manager Leon Haslam joins the squad and with his track record in the series, he might be the one to unlock and unleash the Fireblade’s full potential.
2021 is a chance for Honda to push their project to the next level and podium finishes are certainly on the cards.
In contrast to Honda’s emphatic showing, BMW have somewhat stagnated recently. It is therefore hardly a surprise that the German manufacturer is putting an entirely new machine on the grid. The M 1000 RR is the first superbike derived from their M-series department. It comes with a number of innovations that effectively mean higher top speed, more downforce, less mass inertia and in consequence stronger acceleration and increased performance through corners.
Former world champion Tom Sykes goes into his third season with BMW, looking to continue the development and return to former glory. Joining him in the garage is one of the most respected riders in the paddock in Michael van der Mark.
In terms of development, BMW will profit from the data collected by two satellite bikes in the hands of Eugene Laverty and Jonas Folger who was the fastest rookie at the pre-season test at Catalunya.
A total of eight rookies are gearing up for their first full season in the series and there are some high-profile names among them. A well-known character enters the grid in Tito Rabat who joins the Barni Racing Team. The former Moto2 champion and MotoGP rider looked to have struggled with adapting to the Pirelli tyres during pre-season, but once he finds his rhythm, WorldSBK is a chance for the Spaniard to reinvigorate his career.
The aforementioned Folger impressed in wildcard outings last year on Yamaha machinery and heads into his first full campaign with BMW. The German is adapting swiftly to his new bike and declared top 10 finishes as his target.
Reigning WorldSSP champion Andrea Locatelli steps up straight into the Yamaha factory outfit following a dominant stint in the lower category. While he admitted that 2021 will be a learning season, he speculates that podiums will be possible at certain tracks under certain conditions in the later stages of the campaign.
Another rider stepping up from WSSP is former champion Lucas Mahias. The Frenchman is setting expectations low with his declared target being to improve in every outing and prepare for a charge in 2022.
The series enters unchartered territory as three new tracks make their debut on the calendar. The unprecedented settings could spring a surprise and throw the form book out of the window.
It’s a best of all worlds at the Autodrom Most with straights and tight as well as sweeping corners in almost equal measure. Adaptation will be key when the paddock heads to the Czech circuit in early August to exploit the areas suited to a bike and limit damage in the others.
Another journey into the unknown follows two weeks later at the Circuito de Navarra. In typically Spanish fashion, the venue combines technical and high-speed sections for a unique challenge. While the Ducati teams tested at the track, many riders will hit the tarmac for the first time in late August.
The 2021 season will conclude at the controversial Mandalika International Street Circuit as the championship returns to Indonesia for the first time since 1997.
History to make and records to break
If Rea’s career is not illustrious enough yet, 2021 offers the chance for him to set even more milestones. Sitting on 99 race wins, only one more separates him from a century of victories which he will be looking to complete sooner rather than later. Further, another 15 podium finishes would take him to an unmatched total of 200.
Redding again chases the ambition to become only the second rider alongside Troy Bayliss to win both the British and World Superbike championship. Staying with the Ducati squad, Davies needs two pole position to rack up a century while Rabat could become the first Moto2 world champion to win a WorldSBK race.
BMW are searching their first victory since returning to the series a full factory effort two years ago which could also be the one win Sykes needs to accumulate 35. Should Folger achieve a rostrum finish, it would be the first-ever German rider-team-manufacturer combination on the podium.
Honda too will be aiming to return to the top step for the first time since their factory return to the championship.