One of the major success stories inside the WorldSBK paddock in recent seasons has been the rise-and-rise of the Kawasaki Puccetti Racing team, claiming victories and titles as they have grown and expanded.
If you want a textbook lesson in how to get promoted from a small national-level racing team to be the top Independent Team in WorldSBK, look no further than the boys and girls from Reggio Emilia in Italy. Started by former racer Manuel Puccetti, what we now know as Kawasaki Puccetti Racing enjoyed its first partnership with Ninja-power in 2007, in the Italian Supersport Championship, supported by Kawasaki Motors Italy.
“I saw racing potential in the Supersport bike,” said team principal, Manuel Puccetti, about how the relationship started. “The Ninja ZX-6R engine was fast and reliable, the chassis was a little bit heavy in the turns and chicanes but there were positive points and generally it was a good bike. So I contacted Kawasaki Italy with the possibility to run the Italian championship with their support - to be like a factory supported team in CIV. It was a very high level championship, with almost the same lap times as WorldSSP.”
It was an immediately fruitful union. “We rode many seasons like this, always in the top two or three positions, through 2008 to 2012,” affirmed Manuel, “In 2013 I made a good partnership together with the Italian Federation. In that season we joined in the European Superstock 600 championship, inside the WorldSBK paddock, as Team Italia. We won, with Franco Morbidelli, who now rides inside MotoGP! That season we also won the Italian Supersport Championship.” It was, in fact a 1-2 for Puccetti in Superstock 600, via Morbidelli and Alessandro Nocco.
A Stock 600 championship win again in 2014, for Marco Faccani, was part of an expanding Puccetti Racing set-up, with Roberto Tamburini and Nocco taking part in the full Supersport 600 class. And then a legend arrived… “In the last three rounds of the 2014 World championship, we also rode with Kenan Sofuoglu, who's team had finished,” explained Puccetti. “To take one extra rider is always difficult. But it was good for us to get to know each other. In Magny Cours he had been leading in the wet, by many seconds, before crashing out. But in our first full season together in 2015 we won the WorldSSP Championship... We also started to work with Toprak Razgatlioglu, permanently, in Stock 600 and we finished that season first, second and sixth in that class, with Toprak, Michael Ruben Rinaldi and Andrea Tucci.” It was the final Stock600 championship season in its stand-alone form, before it was rolled into a new concept, as the European Supersport Championship inside WorldSSP.
Axel Bassani and Alessandro Zaccone placed first and second inside that 2016 championship-within-a championship. Said Puccetti, “We won four seasons in a row, 2013 to 2016, we won almost everything in the European championship, and then left to focus on WorldSSP and then our ‘next future’ became WorldSBK.” Not until Sofuoglu had once again won the WorldSSP Championship in 2016, the last of his five world titles in all. Kenan had been teamed with Randy Krummenacher that year, and the Swiss rider won his very first race with the team in Australia! He was third overall in his rookie season.
Old hands already at WorldSSP, WorldSBK championship racing was an all-new thing for Puccetti’s crew, and thus the team redoubled its efforts in 2017.
Without a significant hip and pelvic injury at Magny Cours, suffered after he had secured five race wins in the season and was leading the championship, Kenan could well have been WorldSSP champion again. Even third place in the final Losail race for the tough Sofuoglu was not quite enough despite his unbelievable bravery and determination. And almost too much for his team-manager. “I almost had a heart-attack on the final two laps in that Losail race,” said Puccetti. “Almost all of the other team managers came to Kenan and me and said, ‘guys, you did something unbelievable this year, an incredible job.’ We also rode that season with Randy Krummenacher in WorldSBK. We also had a podium after only four or five rounds with Leon Haslam, as a wildcard a Donington. It was a first podium for us in our first season in Superbike.”
Anthony West and then 2014 WorldSBK Champion Sylvain Guintoli also rode the Superbike in the final few rounds, with Guintoli inside the top six. “It was important to understand the potential we had in Superbike,” said Puccetti, who planned a full season of winter testing as Razgatlioglu took the step up to the top flight of production-derived racing. “We had Toprak in his first Superbike season with us in 2018,” said Manuel, “Then Kenan rode in the first race and then again at Imola, to say goodbye to everybody. It was, unfortunately, the season that he quit racing.”
It was more positive for Razgatlioglu in Superbike, after a solid start. “Toprak was riding a normal rookie season until Donington, Race Two,” said Puccetti of Toprak’s first podium finish at this level, “and then he took two more podiums in Argentina. He beat Jonathan Rea at Donington and this is something not normal for a rookie rider. He had a really special talent. We grew him in 2018 and in 2019 he finished his growing up stage with his opening podium at Imola. All the staff and the team made something really special together with Toprak. I think 13 podiums in one season in the main class, including two victories? That is something that many, many factory teams cannot say that they have done in one season. It was special for us. We will be always thankful with Sofuoglu, he is the iconic rider of the entire WorldSSP class and he is the man that changed my team from a good team to a multi-world champion team. We will never forget this. Our collaboration with Kenan continued with Toprak’s management in WorldSBK in 2018-19 and continues still with the management of Can Oncu in the WorldSSP Turkish Racing Team in 2020.”
The support from Kawasaki was an integral part of all the team’s achievements, as Manuel knows very well. “It made us very proud and I have to say a big thank you to them – Kawasaki Italy then Kawasaki Europe and Kawasaki in Japan – as they have invested in my team for many years. We have won titles in WorldSSP and to have four championships in Superstock 600 is good. But, to win races and take many podiums in the main Superbike class is a very nice way to say a very, very big thanks to Kawasaki. And we can also say that they probably found the right way to invest in a good team, because we have given back to them very good and positive results.”
Importantly, 2019 was also an upward trajectory for the Kawasaki Puccetti Racing team in their traditional WorldSSP championship challenge, as 2017 world champion and new Kawasaki signing Lucas Mahias showed all his quality to win two races at the end of the season, especially pleasing after a challenging start. Maybe the most amazing thing about the 2019 showing of the Puccetti WorldSBK effort was that all their success as top independents was achieved while already having a fully official two-rider Kawasaki Racing Team effort on the grid, and in a dominant position.
Now back in Superbike in 2020 with proven podium runner Xavi Fores, Puccetti understood something new about Kawasaki’s overall approach in 2019. He said, “Johnny Rea is probably the best rider ever in WorldSBK and KRT is such a good team that they have won six world championships, but this project is not the only one that can work with Kawasaki. In the top class they have shown the whole world that it is also possible to win some races with a private team, a satellite team. This is very unusual.”
Right now, with the globe under lockdown there is no racing but when the circuits open their gates again Puccetti’s 2020 efforts in WorldSBK and WorldSSP will be raring to go and trying to be even more successful. “We are still in our racing base and preparing everything to be ready when we restart,” said Manuel, the driving force behind Kawasaki’s ‘other’ king-making team.