Joining Michael in 2020 is proven race winner and 15 times podium scorer, Toprak Razgatlioglu. At only 23 years-of-age, Toprak has blossomed into a rider who can already beat the best in a fair fight and who is now looking to the new R1 to allow him to do that on a more consistent basis. Few in WorldSBK think there is a greater natural riding talent around than Razgatlioglu, making his inclusion inside the Yamaha camp a statement of intent in its own right.
Already a star in his native Turkey and a protégé of compatriot and WorldSSP legend Kenan Sofuoglu, Toprak has made a swift transition to the latest Yamaha R1 after a five-year career spent with a rival manufacturer. Like Michael, Toprak was a Superstock 600 European champion before moving up inside the WorldSBK paddock.
As well as one new rider and the new 2020 R1, the team has made another change in its structure to try to hit a higher target, the line-up of its crew chiefs. This is a decision never taken lightly - such is the importance of this close link between rider and technical staff on each side of the garage.
Double WorldSSP champion Andrew Pitt has moved across the garage from his 2019 crew chief duties with Alex Lowes to maximise van der Mark’s on-track efforts. Toprak, after two seasons of real achievement as an independent rider in WorldSBK, has his 2019 crew chief Phil Marron joining him at Pata Yamaha, keeping their connection strong as they move into the realms of official team racing on a machine which is all-new to both. So far, so very good as the young Turkish rider has topped the timesheets at some winter tests and Michael has exploited fertile new areas for race-long performance gains.
After all the technical staff have made the best possible preparations in testing and practice sessions, the riders are the final determiners in the outcome of each race. It has always been thus. Although there are recognised championships for manufacturers, teams and riders, when someone asks who the champion is, we all know – even without asking – they mean the rider.
So how do Yamaha’s official 2020 contenders feel about this coming season, their new bikes and possibilities ahead of them?
2020 marks your fourth season as an Official Yamaha rider on the YZF-R1 – are you feeling ready for the new season?
MVDM: Of course I’m ready! I’m looking forward to the new season with the 2020 R1 – which is not a completely different bike – but there are a lot of new parts and improvements that will help us. We need to keep making progress, and with this new bike, that for sure will enable us to make another step.
So, what changes have been made to the new R1?
MVDM: One of the improvements is the aerodynamics; it works much better for tall riders like Toprak and me. It is a lot more protective and I think we can get a little bit better top speed. Also, I think the fairing design has brought some other benefits, so again it’s a positive feeling. Together with Öhlins and our performance engineers we’ve made a good step forward to find grip – as it’s always been our main issue. Already last year we made a step and it was really important, I felt like we have found a really good direction and exactly what we are looking for. I don’t know any numbers, but this new bike feels a bit faster as well – that’s always nice!
You have a new crew chief this year in Andrew Pitt – a two-time World Champion in his own right. How is that relationship developing?
MVDM: I knew Andrew a bit already because he was working with Alex [Lowes] and we always got along well. It honestly feels good, the communication is great and there’s a bit of a mix in the team now; I have some different guys on my side of the garage. I think it’s good to have some new ideas and styles of working, some new motivation and changes; also with Toprak joining the team. So at the moment things are good! From the first moment I worked with Andrew I really enjoyed it and we did some other stuff together as well. I like the way he works as an ex-top rider. He really understands the problems I have and what I am facing when riding the bike, but also the deep technical side he understands really well, so I'm really happy.
What about your new teammate, Toprak?
MVDM: I like him! With Alex the relationship was always great, but it’s also good to have Toprak in the team as a young up-and coming-kid. He’s fast right from the start and we’ve had some really nice battles in the past. I’m really looking forward to the season, I think we can have some good battles again and I’ll be working hard to make sure I’m on top! He’ll keep me on my toes, but that’s what everybody wants. His style is so different to mine, but that’s interesting to learn from as well.
What is your target in 2020?
MVDM: Win races. If we can win races then we can build a challenge to fight for the championship. Boom!
Toprak is the ‘new boy’ but like Michael, already able to beat some of the greatest riders the WorldSBK paddock has ever seen. In the Pata Yamaha team his possibilities may also only just be opening up to their full potential. He seems enthused by his latest career move.
Welcome to the Yamaha family and Pata Yamaha WorldSBK Official Team with Rizla. How is the experience so far?
TR: It’s a different team and for me, the first time with an official team. I was used to being in a small team, and now coming into an official manufacturer team. I don’t know all the people in the team yet and always I say, for me it is not easy because everyone is different to work with. But already it’s feeling very good and I like it a lot. In the beginning, I was a little… scared! Because I don’t know the team and everything is new. But now I’m very happy and enjoying it. Like with the stoppies at the end of the test, I thought at the start, ‘ah maybe I won’t try because I don’t know if it will be allowed!’ But after one time, somebody asked me ‘can you do another stoppie?’ So then I say ‘OK!’ I didn’t know in the beginning if it would be OK because it was all-new but these are racing people – serious about their jobs – and they also want to enjoy it.
What is your impression of the new 2020 Yamaha R1 – what are the strong points?
TR: Again, the Yamaha a new bike for me but now I have the 2020 R1 – between the two I would say there is not a really big difference, just nice improvements. I feel like it is very easy to turn, really good at turning and with the power I am feeling much better. I’m learning that my new bike with Yamaha has a different character from what I rode in the past. After more laps, I feel much better. I’ve always liked Yamaha; my first bike was a PW50! I have ridden Yamaha bikes over many years – I ride a Niken on the streets at home - and now after five years on a different bike, I have come here and I’m very happy.
You are working with Phil Marron again as your crew chief, is this important when you are inside a new team and with a new bike?
TR: Yes we work together well and I am very happy. Because we worked together in 2019, he knows me and I feel this is very important because he understands what I need to go fast. Before, my crew chiefs understood me a little and I would just ride the bike, but in 2019 working with Phil, he understands me more and the result is different! I’m very happy because we’re coming together to this new team. For Phil and me it is new: a new team and a new bike. But now already it is a better feeling, but I keep saying, I need more time, more laps and after, it will be a much better feeling!
Are you enjoying having a teammate for the first time? What are the good and bad points compared to being the only rider?
TR: In 2019, I raced in a team alone in WorldSBK and I think for me it was very easy, because with just one rider if I had a bad session I didn’t feel very bad. After a good session, I would be very happy. And now, coming to Yamaha and the first time having a teammate it is different [by having someone to compare to] – but I am very lucky because he is a very good guy! I know on the track we are fighting hard but outside we are already friends, feeling is like brothers. I say ‘abi’ to Michael and normally to say ‘abi’ in Turkish means ‘big brother’.
In 2019 you won your first races and made big improvements. What are your goals in 2020?
TR: I think last year I said the same – to get a podium at Phillip Island. I need this and last year I tried! It was not possible, but this year I will try again. First race, first podium and try to have a good feeling to start. After that, I try my best always, we will see…
Continuity can be key in many areas of racing but in 2020 the long-time leader of the Pata Yamaha team’s efforts – Paul Denning – has many new elements to help distil into one potent WorldSBK racing mix, ready to score consistent success at a higher level than ever.
He said of the coming campaign, “2020 marks the fifth season since Yamaha’s return to WorldSBK competition in 2016 with the R1 and we are excited to see the next step in our evolution.”. “Yamaha’s Official Team, operated in close partnership with Crescent Racing, has improved every year both in potential and result, made evident by race wins and third and fourth overall in the 2019 Championship. As we get closer to the top level, further improvements are of course more difficult to deliver, but to take the next step forward and challenge for the title must be the target.”
Denning is very much aware that changes have been made with one goal in mind – higher levels of achievement for all. “Yamaha has continued to improve their development capabilities, the team has improved its structure, and now we also have the new 2020 R1 to help us challenge for victories,” said Paul. “Alongside this, at Yamaha we now have one of the most exciting rider line-ups ever seen in WorldSBK, as Toprak joins Michael to create a talented, young and aggressive team that we hope will allow us to meet our targets and to deliver highly exciting on-track action throughout the new season.”
Now that winter testing in Europe has concluded, all eyes turn to the official pre-season test in Australia, between 24 and 25 February, which will give the best possible indication of how the new season could start for Pata Yamaha. The test and then the first weekend of a new era for Pata Yamaha will take place at the same Phillip Island circuit, one that has been host to so many spectacular moments in recent and more historic WorldSBK seasons.