It has evolved into a rivalry to compare with any that World Superbikes has produced in recent decades.
When Toprak Razgatlioglu snatched the championship crown from six-time champion Jonathan Rea by 13 points at the conclusion of last year’s series, it marked the culmination of a captivating season-long battle between the two.
Now, the pair are set to renew on-track hostilities as what promises to be another thrilling campaign gets underway at Aragon this weekend.
Both riders have had upgrades to their Yamaha YZF-R1 and Kawasaki ZX-10RR machines during the close season in an attempt to boost their title hopes.
And while Razgatlioglu, of Turkey, will display the number one plate that is traditionally the preserve of the defending champion, Rea will be reunited with the number 65 which he sported for most of his career as he aims to become just the third rider to reclaim the title the year after he lost it.
With talking points aplenty to ponder ahead of the Spanish curtain-raiser, we assess the prospects for the season ahead and get the 35-year-old Northern Irishman’s take on the challenge ahead as he aims to regain the title he had made his own between 2015 and 2020.Can anyone else get in on the title act?
If anyone is likely to challenge the domination of Razgatlioglu and Rea, it is likely to be Spaniard Alvaro Bautista, who is back with the Aruba Ducati team with which he claimed 16 victories in his maiden season in World Superbikes in 2019.
The 37-year-old will be keen to make up for the disappointment of that campaign in which he won the first 11 races to build up a healthy 53-point advantage over Rea but ended up trailing the Northern Irishman by 165 points come the season’s end thanks in no small part to a series of crashes.
Bautista has endured two comparatively fallow years in the championship as part of the Honda Racing set-up but having gained more experience on a superbike will aim to be contending for race wins from the off.
A first title success for the Italian manufacturer since 2011 could be on the cards if the former MotoGP rider’s impressive pace in pre-season testing on the Panigale V4 R is replicated in a racing environment.
Who are the ‘best of the rest’?
While Razgatlioglu, Rea and Bautista are expected to be the three primary protagonists in the title fight, other riders likely to challenge for race wins include Michael Ruben Rinaldi on his Ducati, Yamaha-mounted American Garrett Gerloff and Scott Redding, who has switched from Ducati to BMW power.
Last year’s third-place finisher, Englishman Redding has seen his pre-season testing programme hampered by a back problem, while his BMW team-mate, Dutchman Michael van der Mark, will miss the opening round at Aragon after fracturing his leg while mountain biking.
Razgatlioglu has namechecked his team-mate Andrea Locatelli when asked about title contenders after his impressive rookie campaign, while Alex Lowes will be hoping to put together a consistent run of results as part of the Kawasaki Racing Team line-up.
Exciting prospect Axel Bassani, of Italy, displayed undoubted potential last season and will aim to make more progress in the campaign ahead on his Motocrosa Ducati.
Meanwhile Honda will be hoping to take a step forward with rookie line-up Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge as they look to become regular podium finishers and race winners.
What of the 2022 calendar?
This year’s championship is to be staged over 12 rounds, with the 2022 series less compressed than the 2021 version which did not commence until late May because of issues surrounding Covid-19 and international travel.
As last year, the campaign will begin with the Aragon round in Spain and will end in mid-November with two rounds on successive weekends – a return to the Mandalika circuit in Indonesia, followed by the concluding three races at Phillip Island in Australia.
The opening nine rounds will be staged in Europe, before the championship moves to South America, Asia and Australasia for the closing three events.
Two circuits which the riders visited last term have been omitted from the calendar this time round – the Spanish rounds at Navarra, which was just introduced to the roster last year, and Jerez.