Thank You, Kenan

Estoril 2010. That was the first time I saw Kenan Sofuoglu race, in the Portuguese Moto2 Grand Prix, as a wildcard. He rode a Suter, which then was quite a competitive chassis, and for much of the race he was leading by what you might call a ‘country mile’. He then ran into some problems with his brake lever, though, and finally finished fifth. But it was an alarming debut in Grand Prix racing by the, then, two-times World Supersport Champion. I remember watching the race, I was at my dad’s house, and I remember him telling me how Sofuoglu was a dominant rider in WSS, but I didn’t really know what that meant, I had never seen a Superbike race, let alone Supersport. It’s fair to say that I had two ideas about World Supersport when I tuned in for the Aragon round, in the middle of the 2012 season (yes, it took me that long). In my head, there was the option that Sofuoglu would be light-years ahead of the pack, or that everyone else would be as stunningly fast as Sofuoglu. As it went, there was a battle at the front in the early laps, and for me the race sort of ends at that point, I don’t remember much else, because of what happened at the end of the straight on lap eight. Sofuoglu was slipstreaming fellow Kawasaki rider, Fabien Foret, popped out of the slipstream and threw his body at the Frenchman in an aggressive manner which I had not seen before. It is this aggression which makes Kenan one of the most controversial figures in racing.

Immediately, my head is telling me to make the comparison with Marc Marquez, that both have proven themselves to be both absurdly fast, extremely successful and yet also potentially dangerous on the race track. I guess the comparison would be valid. Marquez proved in Argentina this year that with the correct circumstances he can be dangerous, as Kenan did in Aragon. But, in reality, they are not so similar at all. Marquez’ aggression comes purely from his ambition to win everything, every corner, every lap, every session, but Kenan’s aggression comes from his background, which gives him similar ambitions as Marc.

Kenan was not born into money, or a nation which has a strong support system for young motorcycle racing talent, like Spain. Kenan hails from Turkey, a country on the border of Europe and Asia, and the instability of its continental allegiance is born out in politics too – not so long ago the country’s government was the subject of a(n) (unsuccessful) military coup. Kenan had to make his mark in racing early on, one bad race and his career could be done – there was no second chance for him. As such, he forged his career from outstanding aggression, and the aggression that helped him to the World Supersport Championship crown in 2007 for Hannspree Ten Kate Honda stayed with him throughout his career, because he always had something to fight for. That 2007 title put him on an unparalleled level in Turkey, the kind of fame that David Beckham might be accustomed to in Britain. Sofuoglu was Turkey’s idol and he knew it, so did the government, who took a vested interest in Kenan’s career.

In 2008, Sofuoglu made the move up to World Superbike, but it was ill-fated, with a best position of ninth and a final championship standing of eighteenth. But it was not a winless season for the Turk, who made a wildcard appearance in the final race of the season in World Supersport where he was victorious.

A move back to World Supersport in 2009 followed, but he was beaten to the championship by Cal Crutchlow – it was third that year for Sofuoglu, with Eugene Laverty taking second in the championship.

But the three wins he took that year helped set him up for championship number two in 2010, when he continued in WSS and took another three wins to beat Laverty to the championship by eleven points. That was a remarkable year for Sofuoglu, as he did not finish off the podium all season, and had that aforementioned wildcard in Moto2 in Estoril, too. Of course, that set up the opportunity to move to Moto2 full time in 2011 – the hope being that the familiarity in engine characteristics compared to what he had been riding in WSS would help Kenan make a smooth transition, or at least smoother than his attempted move to WSBK. It did not work, though, as Kenan scored only 59 points and finished a lowly seventeenth in the standings.

Back to World Supersport, then, for 2012, where he had that controversial moment with Fabien Foret, as well as one in Magny-Cours with Dan Linfoot at the Adelaide hairpin, but still came out of the season with World Championship number three.

2013 would not be the same, though. Sam Lowes had left Bogdanka PTR Honda and joined Yakhnich Yamaha over the winter, and had been blisteringly fast in testing. Sofuoglu would take the first win of the season in Phillip Island, but the pair would battle strongly for the entire season. My biggest memory of that season is the battle they had in Turkey, visited for the sole reason that Kenan Sofuoglu would bring in the crowds. It was a stunning fight Lowes and Sofuoglu shared, and somewhat fittingly it was Sofuoglu who won his only ever home race in a World Championship. Looking back now, that victory was extremely important. It was not enough, though, for the championship – Lowes took that in Magny-Cours.

The next year, 2014, would be worse for Sofuoglu. The Mahi Racing Team India Kawasaki he was riding had numerous issues throughout the year, most notably when Sofuoglu was leading convincingly at Imola on the 20th anniversary weekend of Ayrton Senna’s death at the same track. Sofuoglu retired and that allowed the Pata Honda of Lorenzo Zanetti to take the victory, sporting a Senna replica helmet design. Just one win and two other podiums that season were of course nowhere near enough for the number 54 to stop Michael van der Mark clinching the championship.

So, onto 2015, and after some successful rounds at the end of 2014 with Puccetti Kawasaki (Mahi went bust before the end of the 2014 season, which also didn’t help) Sofuoglu signed for the Italian team full-time for 2015, and fought against Jules Cluzel for the championship, and successfully so, in part thanks to the Frenchman’s crash at the Sito Pons corner at Jerez in free practice for the penultimate round of the season, which broke his leg, leaving him on the side lines for the rest of the season. But the biggest thing to take away from Sofuoglu’s 2015 season is his superhuman mental strength and emotional toughness, as he spent part of the season travelling back and forth between Turkey and the races as his newly-born son, Hamza, was in intensive care. Hamza sadly passed away in July of that year, but Kenan continued to race, in the memory of his son, and the title at the end of the season was precisely why – after what had happened to him and his family there was no way that Kenan was going to let 2015 go by without having something to dedicate to his son.

2016 saw a more dominant season from Kenan, at least on paper. There was no consistent challenger to the four-time World Champion. Cluzel was the only rider who could consistently match Kenan for pace round-to-round but Jules’ MV proved too unreliable for him to mount a serious challenge for the championship.

Without doubt the seasons after 2015 for Kenan were fuelled by the memory of his son, from which he took great strength – everything after that was for Hamza, and for that Kenan Sofuoglu deserves great respect. 2017 was no different. An injury in preseason saw Kenan miss Phillip Island and Thailand, coming back in Aragon – still injured but just about okay to ride. He wanted the championship still, that’s why he was back, but Federico Caricasulo (unintentionally) took him out at turn one in Aragon. The first race Kenan finished in 2017, he won. That was Assen, which began a run of four victories in a row. It was second in Germany, before he won again in Portimao, but another crash in Magny-Cours, just as he had taken the lead away from Lucas Mahias in the championship, took him out of the French and Spanish rounds. He was back in Qatar, but unfortunately for Kenan he was unable to take the title away from Mahias. It was second again for Sofuoglu in 2017, which is anyway remarkable considering how it started, and that season probably represents the best of any the strength and determination of Sofuoglu – he did not know when to quit.

That changed this year. A tyre failure in free practice at Australia in Stoner Curve left the now five-time World Champion both injured and shaken up. He missed the first four rounds though injury and rumours of a premature retirement were circling. Press conference was called, then cancelled in Assen, before in the weeks leading up to Imola, one of Kenan’s most prolific circuits, it was announced that Kenan would be making his final appearance at the Italian round of the 2018 World Supersport Championship. He qualified third on the grid, but he did not start there. Before the weekend, Sofuoglu had promised both his mother and the Turkish president that he would not start the race in Imola. He pulled in at the end of the warm-up lap, and that was that – the end of a remarkable career that will be remembered for so much more than its on track performances and antics.

Kenan Sofuoglu scored podiums in 85 of his 126 World Supersport races, and 43 of those were victories. In between his stints in Grand Prix and WSBK, Sofuoglu exerted pure dominance on one of the most competitive classes in the world. But that is only half the story. His World Championship in 2007 was the first for a Turkish rider, and as of 16/05/2018 he is the only rider from Turkey to have a World Championship crown. But that will change, thanks to Kenan. Not only has the 33-year-old inspired a generation of Turkish youngsters to go racing, but, as Valentino Rossi in Italy, Sofuoglu is providing the support to the riders he deems talented enough to deserve it in order to smooth their path into the World Championship, so they don’t have to face the difficulties he did as a Turkish rider in the world of motorcycling. Already, Toprak Razgatlioglu, the first of Kenan’s youngsters to come through, is in the World Superbike Championship with Puccetti Kawasaki, who Kenan will continue to help after his retirement. Further than that, the Oncu brothers, Deniz and Can, are also under Kenan’s wing. Last year, they competed in both the Asia Talent Cup and the Red Bull Rookies MotoGP Cup, Deniz winning the ATC and Can winning the Rookies Cup. This year they are remaining in the Rookies Cup, but racing for Red Bull KTM Ajo in the Moto3 Junior World Championship too. In this, Kenan is ensuring his legacy is never lost in the abyss of motorcycle racing history, whilst at the same time building on the foundations he has laid for Turkish motorcycle racing.

As he goes off to pursue a political career, in combination with his commitments to Toprak and the Oncu brothers, as well as any other riders who he takes on, Kenan Sofuoglu leaves the legacy of the greatest 600 rider of all time (and before someone points out that he couldn’t do it on the big bikes, at which point did Angel Nieto prove himself to be a big bike specialist?), a rider whose aggression on occasion overpowered his immense talent, and a rider whose will to win is almost unparalleled. But, most importantly, Kenan Sofuoglu leaves behind twelve years which demonstrate how to overcome difficult moments, how to find strength from vulnerability, and how to be a great person, in every sense. Easy-going (off-track, to which I can testify), a nice guy, and a giant person, Kenan Sofuoglu is them all.

With Kenan, the racing only tells half the story, if that. Thank you, Kenan, not just for the memories, or the incredible battles, or for the numbers, but also for being an example both as a racer and as a man.

Thank you, Kenan, very much indeed.

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