There’s no doubt Toprak Razgatlıoğlu has a superhuman ability to ride a motorcycle. Watching the WSB king is like watching Marc Márquez at his best – your jaw drops when you see him surpass the limits that constrain others.
Razgatlıoğlu can tie his motorcycle into knots – front tyre locked, rear tyre six inches in the air as he charges towards a corner – and still go around the corner as fast as anyone, which shouldn’t be possible.
He can do this because he was a stunt rider before he was a racer. His dad was Turkey’s most famous stunter, so Toprak grew up doing wheelies and stoppies. This is why he’s perfectly happy when the motorcycle is doing things that would freak out most riders.
Razgatlıoğlu definitely has the talent to compete with MotoGP’s best, but motorcycle racing isn’t purely about talent. It’s also about technology and how different talents deal with different machinery.
“A Moto2 bike doesn’t twitch… There’s one tiny movement and then you crash!”
The history of motorcycle racing is littered with the broken careers of riders who for one reason or another couldn’t adapt to different bikes or tyres, so the real question is this: can Razgatlıoğlu adapt from a superbike to a MotoGP bike and from Pirellis to Michelins?
Why is this? Because superbikes and GP bikes are very different, even if their level of performance, measured in lap times, isn’t that different.
Superbikes aren’t so rigid, so they move around when riders push them to the limit, which acts as a kind of early warning system, so riders can feel when they’re approaching the point of no return.
GP bikes are very rigid, so they can be pushed harder and further but the difference between being in control and out of control is a knife edge, so riders get very little warning of impending doom.
This is three-times MotoGP race winner Franco Morbidelli talking about moving from road bikes to GP bikes in 2014. The fact that it’s 600s, not 1000s, makes no difference.
“When I changed from Superstock 600s to Moto2 it was really, really difficult to get used to a prototype bike,” says the Italian. “The stiffness of the bike and the tyres is the big difference. At first I couldn’t feel anything, so I crashed a lot. On a road bike you ride a bit looser – you can feel the bike twitching beneath you. So when I first got on a Moto2 bike I was looking for the twitching, but the bike doesn’t twitch… There’s one tiny movement and then you crash!”
Riders therefore must retune and heighten their senses, until they can ride that knife edge just as well as they used to ride the comfy armchair of a road bike.
“GP bikes are very stiff compared to superbikes,” says former MotoGP and superbike rider John Hopkins, who now works for the American Racing Moto2 team. “If you really move around on a superbike the thing just bounces all over the place, whereas GP bikes are so stiff that they allow those movements and you have to make those movements to go fast.
“That’s one of the biggest things we’ve had to teach Cameron [Beaubier, five-times MotoAmerica superbike champion, who switched to Moto2 last year]. He was so stationary on the bike because he was used to letting the superbike do its thing. The more stationary you are on a superbike the better, because those things are so floaty.
“In Moto2 we’ve had to teach Cameron to really get his body into it, to really use the core of his body. With a GP bike you’ve really got to dig your outside knee into the fuel tank and use that as a tool for steering. That’s why so many of the guys are using special-shaped tanks now, so they can use that as a latch for their outside leg, so they can really dig into that and help make the bike turn.”
Like Morbidelli before him, Beaubier crashed a lot during his rookie Moto2 season, as he tried to feel the limit and understand how to get the best out of a GP bike.
Razgatlıoğlu is significantly more talented than most, but he if he does make the switch to MotoGP he will still have to go through the same learning process.
The huge task of recalibrating mind and muscle to work with different machinery is further complicated by changing tyres.
Razgatlıoğlu has spent the last seven seasons using Pirellis and if he goes to MotoGP he will use Michelins. Changing rear tyres isn’t usually a big deal for motorcycle racers, but changing front tyres can be, because riders rely so much on the feel they get from the front tyre to go fast.
The Pirelli and Michelin front slicks are very different. The Pirelli front uses a softer construction, because soft road-bike chassis need to be matched by soft-casing tyres. The Michelin front uses a stiffer casing, to match stiffer race chassis.
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The Pirelli’s flexibility makes it more friendly, because the tyre has an early warning system like a superbike chassis, so the rider can play around with the limit a lot more, as Razgatlıoğlu does so spectacularly.
When a WSB rider charges into a corner, asking too much of the Pirelli front, the tyre goes like this – going, going, going, gone! – so the rider may have time to pull back from the brink.
When a MotoGP rider charges into a corner, asking too much of the Michelin front, the tyre goes line this – going, gone! – so the rider ends up on the ground.
Comparing Márquez’s crash rate during his first three seasons in MotoGP on Bridgestones against his first three seasons on Michelins gives you some idea – his average annual rate rocketed from 13 crashes to 22!
By the way, Dunlop’s Moto2 front is similar – another stiff tyre designed to work with stiff chassis.
The Pirelli’s softer carcass deflects (squishes) a lot when Razgatlıoğlu stands on the brakes, giving him that expanded footprint to play with. The Michelin front won’t handle the same kind of treatment.
“The Pirelli front deflects a lot, so we can deflect the tyre and go into corners really hard, while the MotoGP guys have to use a much larger radius into corners,” says six-time WSB champ Jonathan Rea.
Therefore Razgatlıoğlu won’t be able to do the things he does with the Pirelli front if/when he switches to Michelin, so changing tyres could be a bigger challenge than changing bikes.
On the other hand, Michelin plans to introduce an improved MotoGP front slick for 2024, so perhaps Razgatlıoğlu might be better staying in WSB until then.
If and when he does the make the switch it will be fascinating to watch him take on these challenges.