EXCLUSIVE WSS: Kenan Sofuoglu - Q&A
30 May 2013
An exclusive interview with triple World Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu in which the Turkish star discusses his 2013 title challenge with Mahi Kawasaki and also reflects on his past experiences in WSBK and Moto2.
Sofuoglu also reveals what really happened from his point of view during the 2012 Aragon 'headbutting' incident.
The interview was recorded prior to last weekend's Donington round, where Sofuoglu finished second to Sam Lowes, who leads Sofuoglu in the WSS standings…
You have a famously aggressive style. When you are riding, do you feel angry?
The team have often told me that I look aggressive and when I see it, it can look that way but I don't feel that way on the bike. I accept it's seen as my style though. I think that the fact that I don't crash so much shows I don't ride too aggressively. Also people who know me would say that my character is totally different to what it looks like when I ride, perhaps you could say there are two Kenans.
Off the bike I have good relations with the people I work with and I like to have long-term relationships with people. Even when I was in Moto2 I was still good friends with and in contact with the Ten Kate team. Also I can't remember having a problem with another rider.
I remember reading an interview with Sam Lowes some time ago where he seemed uncertain about my riding but recently he has a better opinion because he had met me and knows me better. I think my reputation and what I am like when you meet me is different.
It's fair to say that Sam Lowes is keeping you pretty honest this season?
I'm really enjoying this season because Sam is there; if he weren't there I wouldn't have the same feeling of competition. I really respect him, his style is good and he is a very talented rider. I would say that Sam and I are at about the same level.
Having a strong rider to fight against makes me happy in my racing and means that the series is interesting to watch. When I win against a rider like Sam, I actually enjoy it more and his presence in the championship inspires me to work harder.
At the moment I'm waiting impatiently for the bad weather to pass so that I can continue my training because I know that Donington will be a hard race and he will be super strong there, I know I have little chance of beating him there but I will fight to the end.
Also importantly he has a great package with the Yamaha. I feel that Sam's bike's great strength is in the handling as you saw at Assen whereas mine does better with the engine and power. For this reason before Assen I felt sure that Sam would be the man to beat but for Monza I was confident I was going to win, as it turns out, over confident.
Some riders prefer to lead, but others prefer fighting in the pack, which are you?
I take a very strategic approach. In all the track sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday we work out what we need to do in the race and we always make a plan for the race and that's what we race to regardless whether it's at the front or in the pack.
It's only when I have an unexpected pace during the race like for example when I have tyre problems or the competition isn't as fast as expected that I change from the plan. At Monza after looking at our pace we felt that we would have to run with the pack, but at that moment when I saw the 0.6s gap, it was at that point where I thought I could get away and started to push.
You have always been very successful in WSS but you results in WSBK weren't so good, why was that?
Up to 2007 I had always been very successful so I felt confident to go to WSBK. Unfortunately it was that year that Honda released the new Fireblade and it was my mistake to go there on a new bike.
You can see that even now in 2013 only Jonathan Rea has been able to get some decent results on it. Carlos Checa also had problems with it but when he moved to a different bike he won the title. When I asked Carlos how to ride the Fireblade he told me that in his long career he had never ridden such a difficult race bike.
When I raced it it was still a difficult bike like now but there wasn't even the data and experience to get it to this year's level. After doing so well previously, coming 13th or 14th was a bit of a shock.
With hindsight, it was a bad move and I should have waited another year in WSS before moving up. When Eugene Laverty moved up to WSBK, he did really well and at the time I texted him to ask him how it was possible. He told me that the Yamaha felt really similar to his 600 bike because the electronics were so good on the Yamaha, I think the way modern electronics work have made it easier to move up now than when I did.
Perhaps more importantly after three races of that season, I lost my brother to racing. It was hard to have those things come together. I remember I became desperate not to crash because this was the second brother of mine who had died and my mother was always asking me to stop racing.
Because I lost my father in 2011 she is more alone now and still wants me to stop, but I think she is starting to understand how deeply I feel about the sport and how much I love it and I think she can handle it better now than in the past.
She always watches my racing on television with my sister and aunts around her to give her support and the first thing I think when I crash is to call her to tell her I'm OK.
In 2008 I felt as if everything was going wrong and was thinking of giving up racing. Luckily the Ten Kate team helped me to move back to Supersport and I felt that my career could start again. Even now I can say that the Fireblade is not my favourite bike.
In Moto2 you did spectacularly in your first couple of races and then again there were no results?
I think it was a little political. When I went to Moto2 at the end of 2010, I think that Dorna really wanted me there because there was a chance of a race in Turkey for the 2011 season and that would have been great for the series. I went with the Technomag team who had a strong bike and unfortunately had an opening because of the tragic death of Shoya Tomizawa.
They were using a Suter chassis and offered me a number of chassis to test before the 2011 season to decide which one I wanted. Unfortunately I lost my father just at the time of the testing and couldn't attend so when I arrived at Qatar the chassis had been decided and I couldn't get a good feeling on it.
That season they seemed to only update the chassis according to how Marc Marquez liked it and other Suter users had to run with that. The frame was very stiff and I need a more flexible frame.
The team also seemed to forget what I had done in the last two races and didn't really seem to work with me to get a chassis I felt comfortable with. The testing we did was with a cheaper endurance tyre rather than a race tyre which meant that we couldn't get any useful data.
The team seemed to have budget problems and were always asking me to arrange testing details which they should have done, Ten Kate would never have done that as a world class team. I felt I had moved back to cup racing. My expectations are always to run at the front so my motivation went down and I felt slightly broken.
In the dry, I was down in 20th position on a bike with a similar engine to the rest and was often 20 kph down on speed and could only run further up in the wet. I don't like the wet but it was the only conditions where I could race and where the rider rather than the bike can make the difference. Honestly, I don't know why there was such a great difference between my 2010 and 2011 speed.
In the end I felt that I needed to enjoy my racing again or stop. Many people for example ask me why I'm not in WSBK this season and I say you have to enjoy your racing and feel as if you are a good combination with your bike, at the moment I feel like that with the Kawasaki and I don't know if I would feel that way in WSBK.
When I got the offer from Kawasaki in 2011, I asked them to wait because my season in Moto2 had made me question everything. I accepted though because in Moto2 there seemed to be nobody backing me politically or financially whereas in Supersport I feel as if Kawasaki are there and can help if there is a problem. The feeling that the factory is backing me is very important to me.
How is it going with the Mahi Kawasaki team?
It's a great team, it's at an excellent level and I think is good enough to win the championship. I get on well with the team and the team principal Amit Sandill is one of the best I have worked with, he can get anything we need to win. He expects high performance but in return really respects the riders. Also It's factory supported and I am the main rider for Kawasaki.
As I said it is a great team but I can't say that we've been lucky up to now and I have to be very careful about throwing away points now that there are 2 riders in it and I haven't finished in two races.
How do you rate your competition in WSS?
I think it is mainly between me and Sam with Fabien as a possibility. Riders like Jack Kennedy and Michael Van der Mark are also good but they need to manage their speed at the end of races more, they are fast at the beginning but the end is a different story. Probably next year they will be excellent, they need more experience though.
When I watched the race at Monza after I had crashed, I was almost 100% certain that Sam was going to win because only Fabien had the speed and experience to beat him and he wasn't there.
At a personal level, how does the fact that you are a practicing Muslim fit in with the heavy demands made by racing?
I always pray 5 times a day and that's quite easy because you can do it when you are taking a break. I pray whether I am traveling, racing, working or relaxing.
Ramadan is a bit more difficult this year because it is in summer and you can't eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset. Sunrise is about 5am and sunset is around 8pm, depending on the country. We get up at about 4 and have a huge breakfast and gather to eat at 9, and I have to say, eating a good meal at 9 after a days fast is one of the best things there is.
I always take part in Ramadan but if there is a race weekend I can do things a little differently because so many people are relying and depending on me to take part. In our tradition if there are difficult days like this, we can eat as normal and then fast at a later date. I simply can't fast on a race weekends because I have to respect the people who are working with me and also my body.
For example if it were Ramadan at Donington I would arrive on track on Wednesday and fast on that day, but Thursday to Sunday I would eat as normal and when I got home and Ramadan was finished I would do an extra 4 days to make up. So after this summer, I may have perhaps 12 days to make up.
I always prefer it when Ramadan is in winter when the days are shorter and colder and the race season hasn't started.
When interviewed about the danger of racing, you simply say 'Life is dangerous' is this part of an inshallah attitude?
Life is dangerous. In a way in life we are traveling, we're in flight and we don't have full control. A good example is my older brother, he was 24 years old and he was always on a motorbike racing or around town and everybody was scared for his safety. But he died when he was crossing the road carefully outside our house when a car hit him. We can't decide when life is taken from us.
When racing we wear leathers and a helmet and make the tracks as safe as possible and that is our responsibility as what we can do and the rest is in God's hands. My religion says that I have to do everything I can to protect myself and others but I can't make a decision about my fate.
In a way I feel that God led me to racing, in Turkey there is almost no motorsport and in 2001 in Turkish supersport there were only 4 riders; the 3 Sofuoglu brothers and one other.
From there it was so difficult and unlikely for me to make progress. I had to move to Germany and had a very difficult time there because my family had no money, but Yamaha Germany took me under their wing paid for language classes and provided me with a living.
I also started racing late when I was 17 or 18 years old when many club racers start at 5 or 6 and here I am at a high level in world racing. I think that God must have had a hand in that story.
How famous are you in Turkey, are you recognised?
In Turkey yes, I've done many television commercials and on the Gillette adverts here, where they use Roger Federer and Tiger Woods in England, they also use me in Turkey. I've also been used in some government campaigns.
The president of Turkey will sometimes mention me as a great example of a Turkish man, has invited me many times and if I crash he often calls me to ask if I'm OK. I remember when I crashed in Moto2 he called and asked the Sports minister to make sure I had everything I needed and I was just saying 'No, everything's OK, I'm fine'
My results are always in the news and if I go to a restaurant, everybody knows me.
I wouldn't say I enjoy fame though because I just like a quiet life. Normally for my job I would need to move to Istanbul because of my travel needs but I have moved to a small town because I like it quiet and am happy with my life.
Lastly Kenan I have to ask you about the 2012 Aragon 'headbutting' incident, what happened there?
This has been taken wrongly so many times.
In Aragon I had a serious problem with my knee, it was heavily swollen and we didn't know if I would be able to race or not. The knee was heavily strapped and I was being careful in the race.
First I got in the lead and then Sam took over and I decided to stay behind Sam until the end of the race. Fabien at the time was my mate and it was our job to win for Kawasaki and not from each other and Fabien was just holding for second and letting the win go to Sam. He was braking so late into corners and holding me behind and I feared that riding like that would put my knee out again.
When I passed him on my right hand side I wanted to tell him 'Go and stay with Sam or if you can't, don't try to stop me'. It felt like a fellow Kawasaki rider was blocking me. Because I was passing him on my right side, I couldn't use my hand because it was holding the throttle open so I had to make a 'Don't try to block me' gesture with my head.
We were going at such a speed that when I moved my head out into the slipstream the wind caught my head and made it look like I was trying to hit him with my head, but that's not possible to do.
After the race I was talking with Fabien and he had no problems about it. Things often look very different on television than they do from inside the helmet.
So why didn't you take your demotion penalty during the race?
I think that was my team's mistake, from my pitboard I couldn't understand what I had to do. The pitboard said '+3' and 'position 5' and I had no idea what that meant, I asked them afterwards why they didn't just show 'Drop position', but that's in the past now.
Thank you very much Kenan and good luck.