until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Is World Superbikes' most important rider a MotoGP contender again?

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The ever-growing talk of BMW entering MotoGP has come nicely in parallel with it taking a major step in World Superbikes. And the rider central to that step is no stranger to being linked to MotoGP himself.

Toprak Razgatlioglu had been on MotoGP's periphery for years and, as Yamaha's lead WSBK rider, even secured a Yamaha M1 test last year - but when that didn't create a tangible path to a premier-class stardom, there seemed to be widespread acceptance that the ship had sailed.

Instead, the test and the lack of premier-class interest that followed, specifically from Yamaha, seemed to only help push Razgatlioglu back into the arms of BMW for a reunion in 2024.

There, he has remained arguably World Superbikes' most important rider - the heir apparent to veteran dominators Jonathan Rea and Alvaro Bautista, and the rider who both kept WSBK from being a total Ducati walkover last year and looks like he may well play that part again this year.

Yet the timing of the BMW move just won't let that MotoGP dream go. For just as Razgatlioglu has become BMW's talisman and its 'face of the franchise', the prospect of a BMW MotoGP programme suddenly seems more realistic than ever.

BMW's open secret

Rumours of the manufacturer - a long-time partner of MotoGP on the commercial side - seriously evaluating a programme in grand prix racing had intensified through the start of 2024, before Markus Flasch - the CEO of BMW's bike department - straight up acknowledged an interest.

"They're not 'rumours' when they say it publicly!" laughed MotoGP sporting boss Carlos Ezpeleta when asked about BMW on his appearance on The Race MotoGP Podcast.

But Ezpeleta also emphasised, as Flasch himself has done, that given this is a corporate entity a BMW entry is not just something that can or will be rubberstamped at a moment's notice.

"We've had rumours before, it's important to keep our expectations and aspirations [in check].

"But yeah, it would be amazing. BMW is an incredible brand, globally, both on two wheels and four wheels."

Ezpeleta reckoned that BMW has been relatively subdued in terms of its motorsport output as of late - with no Formula 1 entry and a prolonged absence from the top tier of sportscar racing (though that one has now ended with the introduction of the new BMW M Hybrid V8) - but stressed that it still retains "such a sporty perception".

"That's why I think it's an incredible fit," Ezpeleta said. "We've been associated with BMW for a very long time now, we're super-happy, I'm a huge BMW fan myself.

"It's a conversation that's happening - but of course there's a lot to do."

He also emphasised the value it would generate for "not only Motorrad [BMW's bike division] but for the whole BMW ecosystem".

In other words, MotoGP promoter Dorna is fully on board. And BMW's two-wheeled ambitions appear supercharged right now - also because of the investment received by its WSBK programme, including a test rider line-up of Sylvain Guintoli and Bradley Smith, two riders you could also absolutely describe as "who you would hire if you were planning to build a MotoGP bike".

But how does and should Razgatlioglu fit into this?

The scene-stealer

Razgatlioglu was obviously not hired with premier-class designs in mind - instead, BMW is rewarding him handsomely to be the centrepiece of a World Superbike programme that needed to get a move on.

The marque had won just one race since the end of 2013 - a shortened wet race, at that - despite having had bikes on the WSBK grid in some capacity every year. Even after properly restarting its works programme in the series, in 2023 it only narrowly saw off Honda in the fight not to be last of the fifth manufacturers.

This year, there's no Honda fight to speak of. And that's not just down to Razgatlioglu - but he has certainly played his part.

The win count since 2013 has now been tripled, both of the new wins coming in the dry, and if not for an engine going pop at Phillip Island he would be second in the championship at worst.

At Barcelona, Ducati was expected to dominate - and it kind of did. Yet Razgatlioglu was still the highest scorer, despite BMW's very dubious recent record at the venue. And it's making the previously impossible seem genuinely plausible.

His manager Kenan Sofuoglu, the World Supersport legend, described him as a "favourite" for the championship now - although maybe not the favourite - when talking to WorldSBK.com. And he said the 2024 title was now "definitely" the target.

"When we signed, we signed for two years - but we didn't know when [we could go for the title], first year or second year," said Sofuoglu. "We were believing more for the second season.

"But after winter testing, I told Toprak, 'This year we can win the championship'. Because the bike is even nicer than we expected."

Where things go from here

Razgatlioglu is already BMW's chosen one, already a game-changer. If he somehow gets a WSBK title over the line this year, he will have instantly made himself a BMW icon.

But will that be enough to make BMW pick him as the rider to bring it to MotoGP?

Sofuoglu, who incidentally sounds very convinced that BMW really is pushing hard for a premier-class programme, has certainly entertained the thought.

"Considering what Toprak is doing, I think they'll be very interested in him [for MotoGP]," he told UK publication Motorcycle News.

"Of course, Toprak would love to do MotoGP. We will look at any opportunities and see which is best. For 2026, when his current contract is over, he'll have a tricky decision - if he's won World Superbike with BMW, I think many MotoGP teams will be interested in him."

A BMW MotoGP ride would presumably be in question for 2027, which is when MotoGP starts its next regulations' cycle. A 2026 move instead would logically be with someone else, for the final year of the current rules.

Razgatlioglu will be 29 to start the 2026 season. And if he debuts in 2027, he would do so as an age-30 rider, which would be a humongous outlier in modern MotoGP. Excluding wildcards/injury replacement rides, you would have to go to 2018 with Tom Luthi to find the most recent example, and Luthi was a slightly left-field pick and off the grid after a single season (with the team that employed him also off the grid).

So the idea that multiple MotoGP teams would be lining up to hire Razgatlioglu seems far-fetched. And while BMW already has every reason to revere him, the idea that it would plunge into a new MotoGP programme with a 30-year-old rookie rider, without premier-class experience - it's just not how these things are done at the moment, really.

It will also be keenly aware and mindful of the fact that Yamaha didn't take the plunge when it had the chance. It ran Razgatlioglu in a test but felt the takeaway was that it would take too long to get him adapted to MotoGP - especially in its situation of having just the two works bikes and no current satellite outfit.

And there has been a long-lingering doubt over whether Razgatlioglu's big strength - his ability to hammer the brakes - would be blunted on MotoGP's Michelins compared to WSBK's softer Pirellis.

Iker Lecuona, who raced extensively in both categories last year, explained the difference during his Dutch TT 2023 appearance: "With the Pirelli, the bike dances more on the exit and then the braking area you can push a lot. You can brake hard until the end of the braking, until the corner.

"I remember in qualifying I made a lot of mistakes on the first tyre, I went wide, because I had the Superbike chip on my mind, and I wanted to brake later and later, and it's the opposite.

"It's a completely different way to work with the tyre."

Nobody is saying it's something Razgatlioglu wouldn't crack, because the respect for his talent is immense.

Fellow BMW WSBK rider Scott Redding, himself an occasionally handy if very inconsistent operator in his time in MotoGP, said to Germany's Motorsport-Total after Barcelona that Razgatlioglu was just a flat out more talented rider than him. And Razgatlioglu is now a rider who's won on three different bikes in WSBK.

But there's no sensible case to fault Yamaha for snapping up Alex Rins for its works MotoGP team instead, and the understandable feeling that MotoGP and Razgatlioglu are missing out on one another right now probably misses the bigger picture.

Instead of MotoGP getting a very talented rider in his prime who probably would be blunted a bit by an adaptation grace period and also wouldn't have the best bike at his disposal, Razgatlioglu stayed in WSBK and has arguably been the most important rider when it came to making it good.

In 2023, with the Jonathan Rea/Kawasaki partnership winding down, there was a serious risk of Alvaro Bautista and Ducati making things completely unwatchable - but while there were certainly bouts of dominance, there were also wheel-to-wheel classics made possible particularly by Razgatlioglu, and a title race that was closer than the points make it seem.

This year Ducati has a potential 'other number one' in its roster, having slotted in Nicolo Bulega alongside Bautista. Bulega's presence was always going to ensure at least some intrigue, and he's duly leading the championship right now - but Razgatlioglu remains the series' "magic man", the rider who makes things happen.

At Barcelona, he first reeled in and overtook Bulega despite an unassailable-looking gap in the opening race, then starred in what may well be the best race of the year: a mesmerising 10-lap dogfight in which the top two at the start-finish line changed in all but one of the 10 laps.

A dogfight capped off with an already-iconic last-corner overtake, too, immediately noted for its similarity to Valentino Rossi's vintage mugging of ascendant superstar Jorge Lorenzo at the same track in 2009.

The WSBK/MotoGP system is better off having Razgatlioglu where he is now. And that logic may well apply in 2026/27, too, when he's a 30-year-old still in his prime who should be fighting for more wins and titles rather than learning a new discipline.

But maybe by then he will have accomplished what he set out to do in WSBK - and maybe his curiosity and BMW's respect could combine to make something happen after all.

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