Jonathan Rea: Rings around the world
By Eric Johnson | RACER magazine and RACER.com editor at large
During Friday afternoon practice for the Superbike World Championship round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last July, a gasp went up in the box of the Kawasaki Racing Team. With all of the team members quietly monitoring the TV monitors inside the garage, three-time and reigning WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea and his factory ZX-10RR careened off the tarmac and into the gravel. The fastest Superbike on Earth was on its side and visibly torn up, and rising from it, Jonathan Rea shook his head, dusted himself off and patiently waited for a scooter and a free ride back to the paddock.
“Too much confidence,” quietly said Rea to Kawasaki Motors Europe team manager Steve Guttridge back in the pits. Clearly the strongest rider at Laguna Seca all day long, Rea didn’t look too concerned about the shunt at all.
“Yeah, I saw him when he pulled up here after the crash,” offered Guttridge, who has known Rea since the 31 year-old Isle of Man native won the British Motocross Championship on a Kawasaki KX65 as a 12-year-old. “That was unusual for Jonathan in a way. I spoke to him about the crash and he told me he was checking his limits, which again, is unusual. Jonathan went on to say he was under control, but he wanted to see how far he could push the bike. It was just a tiny mistake. Having had so many good sessions, and so many good runs, and being so far ahead on the times that he was comfortable in thinking, ‘I’ll take it to the limit and check it out’. He was checking his own limits!” laughed Guttridge.
Later, Rea talked about the crash.
“I didn’t look at it like I was testing the limits, but when you’re feeling the power and you’re feeling good with the bike and you’re pushing and pushing and pushing, there is a limit before you are going to go down,” he explained while watching crew chief Pere Riba and a small army of mechanics breath life back into the ZX-10RR.
“I was playing with that limit for a while. I could feel the bars moving and the tire was saying, ‘no more’. Then, unfortunately, I found the limit and the front tire just gave up. It was a long slide and I thought I was going to get it back, but I was too far off the bike by that point. Unfortunately, I created a bit of work for the mechanics.”
Rea is now the greatest WorldSBK racer in the three-decade history of the production-based championship. During the past four years, Rea has ruled the classification by surpassing the great Carl Fogarty’s mark of 59 race wins. And although Fogarty and his potent Ducati motorcycles were able to win for world titles, it took them well over a decade to do so. Furthermore, Rea spooled up more history this season, dominating the series to win his fourth consecutive WorldSBK title – a feat no rider has come close to achieving.
And he has no intention of rolling off the throttle anytime soon. Fast-forward to Jerez for the opening day of off-season testing for Rea, new teammate Leon Haslam and the entire Kawasaki Racing Team. Keen to get up to speed as quickly as possible, they made hay while the sun shined in Spain.
“Our 2019 ZX-10RR is a little bit different from this year’s model,” said Rea.
“There was an upgrade on the engine side, and we’re just running through a number of things and going through the motions and checking and rechecking and trying to get it where I like it. It’s sort of growing pains at the minute, just learning and understanding and what the bike wants and needs and what I like, so just going through it all and looking at set-ups here and there. We’re not so far away. It’s just work right now, really. That’s it, but it’s always good when you can see progress. Step by step.”
Kawasaki and its potent ZX-10RR had a choker collar slapped on it in the form of a14,100 rev limit.
“Of course we have to slightly feel like we came out pretty badly with all the newer rules, because out of all the other four-cylinder bikes, we suffered the most,” pointed out Rea.
“We had a preset rpm that is much lower than the rest of the four-cylinder bikes, so that makes it a little bit harder, especially on the acceleration and top power, but Kawasaki gave me an engine this year where we could exploit all the power that we had, so in the end I had a quite manageable bike that I built a really good relationship with. We maximized traction and braking stability and agility, and in the end we had a pretty good package.”
Rea’s history with the Kawasaki Racing Team started in 2015, when after six World Superbike seasons with Ten Kate Racing Honda, he just got tired of getting beat. Watching on while Tom Sykes won the 2013 WSBK title on the ZX-10RR, as well as a season-best eight times in 2014, Rea knew that if he wanted to win and to become a champion, a change had to be made. The stats since point to one hell of a good decision.
“Well, a lot of people are quick to point the finger at the bike or at what I’m doing with all of our winning at Kawasaki, but honestly, you can get someone who prepares better or spends more money or makes a new bike, but you can’t manufacture what we have in this team with the atmosphere and the ambiance and that winning mentality,” says Rea.
“Everybody from backroom staff to mechanics to technicians to people at the KHI factory is geared towards winning. It’s almost borderline obsession, but it’s healthy. I mean we understand how to win and how to lose. Of course it’s never nice losing races, but we win together and lose together and I think it really helps. They’re all good people and real good guys. They’re my friends. We holiday together and spend a lot of time away from the track together.
One can’t talk about the Superbike World Championship without footnoting Fogarty, who was statistically the greatest WSBK rider of all time until Rea matched his career tally of 59 at Imola.
“It was incredible to equal Carl’s tally,” said Rea of one of his idols. “If you told me this when I was 10 years old, I would never have believed you. Carl was the greatest Superbike rider of all time. He had a really, really high profile in the UK, so to surpass his win tallies and records – and the fact that we now both have four world championships shared – it’s really, really nice.
“It’s kind of surreal now. I don’t look at myself in the same way I looked at him because it’s very hard to look in the mirror and see one of your heroes, but I guess there are lots of kids that send me amazing messages and give me a lot of inspiration, and that was me with Foggy. It seems like my time, and I’m enjoying it.
“And Carl is a great guy. He sort of vanished off the face of the Earth a few years after he retired because he couldn’t face watching racing at all. He’s really famous in the UK, actually. From a lifestyle point of view, he’s on a lot of realty TV. I see him at a few awards and dinners and some shows and stuff, and it seems like he’s having a great time. He’s enjoying retired life.”
Through a new two-year deal signed back in June, Rea will remain with the Kawasaki Racing Team through 2020. To most in the WSBK paddock, this was not considered a good thing…
“It’s just a wining bike and a winning team,” said Rea. “That’s very hard to find. I’ve been on the side where you’re trying to force things to happen and they’re not happening, and I feel like I’ve found my place here.
“I mean, MotoGP is one of the biggest stages. Part of me would have loved the opportunity to go there on a factory team, but it never came way. From when I was racing 50cc motocross, I’ve been a winner. To go to MotoGP and to be on competitive machinery in that class would be interesting. But Kawasaki has provided everything for me to win in World Superbike. In this team and in this environment it feels fun, and I’m enjoying my racing and I’m enjoying my life. We have 13 races all around the world and I take my family to loads of them, so I feel like I’ve got the balance between work life and home life down really well. I put a lot of that down to the team. They’ve let me have that little kind of atmosphere and entourage around me, and realize it’s part of me, and they help.”
And of the MotoGP circus that has been putting stakes in the ground since 1949, has Rea, resoundingly looked at as one the greatest motorcycle racers in the world, sensed any sort of interest from that sphere? “I had one official offer from a team, but it wasn’t that interesting,” Rea said. “It was a factory team, but not one that finishes at the front. I was also speaking with a number of interesting prospects, but unfortunately, they went with other options in the end. I’m just fine right here win World Superbike.”
In late November, the FIM and Dorna WSBK Organization announced the 2019 MOTUL Superbike World Championship calendar, set to kick off at Phillip Island. Jonathan Rea, world titles, career records and all, knows it will not be easy to keep dominating as he has.
“It’s going to be tougher than ever in 2019,” he said. “Everyone always moves forward, and Ducati have come with Alvaro Bautista from Grand Prix and a new bike. BMW have come back as a factory and Tom Sykes has gone there. Honda HRC has also come back into the championship. We can only focus on what we can control here at Kawasaki. We know that it’s going to be a super-competitive season, and we’ve just got to attack it the way we do every year. We just want to go step-by-step and make no mistakes, and try to be there after 26 races.
“I just want to try and stay healthy and focused and take it step-by-step. I just want to concentrate on what I can control and get a good relationship with this new bike. I really want to create a good feeling with it. From there, we can achieve whatever we want, I reckon. I’m just starting a two-year contract now, so 2019 and 2020 is where my future lies. After that I’m not thinking too far ahead of that. I want to try and get there first, and be competitive, and see what happens.”
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