Jonathan Rea | 2017 WorldSBK Champion
No one has won three WorldSBK titles in a row—until Jonathan Rea came along. We chat with WorldSBK’s number-one rider right now, and it wouldn’t be much of a conversation if we didn’t ask him if MotoGP is in his future, now would it?
At precisely 11 O’clock in the evening beneath the almost impossibly bright floodlights of the Losail International Circuit in Lusail, Qatar, 2017, Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea was a bit exasperated. The first rider to win the lauded WorldSBK title three consecutive seasons—not even the legendary four-time World Champion Carl Fogarty managed to pull down such an accolade during his storied career—nine-year WorldSBK veteran Rea was being pulled in all sorts of different directions in the Losail paddock at the series final.
“Right now it’s 11 o’clock in the evening here and I’ve got three interviews lined up—including yours right now!—and then a paddock show and then a technical debrief with my mechanics, so hopefully I get to bed before 1 A.M. tonight.”
So dominant has the resident of Larne, Northern Ireland, been throughout the 2017 season that he actually clinched the WorldSBK Championship two rounds early when he flashed across the finish line in race-one at rain-lashed Magny-Course with an astonishing lead of over 16 seconds. Still not enough for the Kawasaki Racing Team Z-10RR competitor, three weeks later at the Circuit de Jerez in Spain—a place he had never won—he absolutely dominated both races to spool up his ’17 win total to 14 races. Yes, 14 wins in 24 races! So, and understandably, he knows why everyone wants a piece of him at the year’s curtain dropping event.
A good problem to have, huh, Tom?
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By Eric Johnson
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“Well, not a good problem, but it’s an acceptable problem and you can deal with it with a smile on your face when you’re winning as opposed to when you have tough days or when things aren’t going your way and you have to put a brave face on in front of the media,” he reasoned. “It’s easy to do when you’ve got a good bike and you’re winning.”
All fun and games and late nights aside, all is well in Jonathan Rea’s world and none of the brilliant success he’s experienced over the last three seasons with Kawasaki has been lost on him.
“Yeah, it’s really nice with my career right now,” he said from Qatar. “Things can’t really get better for me. I’m right at the top of World Superbike right now and my family is really healthy and they’re traveling with me to these races. My team and all the staff in the team are really good friends, as well, so it’s like we enjoy all these moments together. And of course it’s always easy to enjoy it when you’re winning. I think the mark of the team is going to be when we face difficult moments. I can’t complain right now. I’m really happy. The more success I have I find the busier I am. Even though the season ends this weekend, this month of November is so busy with all the trade fairs and sponsor commitments. I’ll go to Japan to see Kawasaki and then I’ll go to Thailand after that to see their headquarters there and to do some marketing activities. It’s going to be sort of a whirlwind month, but like I said, it’s always easier to do it when you’re winning.
“Of course I’m racing in World Superbike and the pinnacle of motorsport right now is MotoGP, but I’m really lucky to ride for a factory team like Kawasaki,” he tossed in for good measure. “It’s really good fun developing the bike. Superbike suits my style.”
Renowned as one of the world’s premiere road racers in recent years, Rea’s MotoGP resume consists of a mere two races. Slotting in for an injured Casey Stoner at Repsol Honda in 2012, he road admirably on the RC213V to place eighth at San Marino at Misano and seventh at Motorland Aragon in Spain. From there it was back to Ten Kate Honda and World Superbike, and in 2015, to the Barcelona, Spain centered Kawasaki Racing Team. Three FIM titles, 37 wins and 68 podium finishes later, he’s still there. And, at least for now, doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
But never say never.
“Next year I’m staying with the same team, which I’m really excited about, but 2019 and 2020 are kind of up in the air,” says Rea. “A lot of seats are open in MotoGP and also in World Superbike. It seems like every rider in the motorcycle world is out of contract at the end of next season. It’s going to be a fun time for team managers and rider managers and the transfer market, if you like. Yeah, my focus is all on 2018, but thinking past that, I have no real idea to where my future lies. Most motorcycle racing athletes sort of have to always work year to year. Nothing can happen in the next 12 months so now I’m trying to get another crack at trying to win another world championship.”
2018 will not be easy, however, because on Tuesday, October 24, 2017, the Superbike Commission dictated some rather comprehensive technical changes for the 2018 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship—changes that very well could, in some ways perhaps, trip up the omnipotent Kawasaki WorldSBK works effort.
“We will have new motivation for 2018,” says Rea. “DORNA has come with a new set of regulations to try and balance the field a lot more, so there is a lot of motivation to try and win under the regulations. After that, we’ll see. I think next year is probably going to be the most difficult season to date, so we have to be ready. But I’ve got a good crew around me and I feel more motivated than ever. My support crew around me is pretty strong, so I’m excited for the challenge.
And of the said FIM changes, Rea and the entire Kawasaki Racing Team will have to address and counterattack upon, Rea talked about what they’ll be up against, stating, “Basically, with the new regulations, the biggest difference is an RPM count on each manufacturer. Right now our bike is revving higher than the proposed limit, so we have to change our engine character and strategize to adapt to that. I think that transition period is going to take some time. Also, the riding style of the bike is probably going to be a little bit different. But the crew here is incredible and there are a lot of good engineers and hopefully we can hit the ground running.
“Also, there is a balancing rule in place that if you start dominating the championship like we have in certain races this year that the organizers can take even more RPM off you. It’s going to be a very difficult year to have the same level of domination that we’ve had the last three seasons because they’re making it more difficult on the factory supported teams, but at the end of the day I feel like I’m riding the best I ever have and the team is working harder than ever. We’ll see. All teams are in the same boat, so it’ll be who reacts the best.”
All too aware that the glaring success both he and the Kawasaki ZX-10RR have inflicted on the WorldSBK competitive landscape, Rea, on some levels, saw it coming.
“I mean if they made us rider scooters, I would ride and do my best,” he said with a bit of sigh. “Regulations are going to be what they’re going to be. The factories can adapt quickly and make the best bike properly and quickly. If I look at superstock in the European Championship right now, Kawasaki has done a really good job. We’ll see. What’s going to be is going to be.”
Tail gunning for Jonathan Rea in 2018 will be ever-steady teammate and 2013 WorldSBK World Champion Tom Sykes. And while the two are quite professional with one another, they both see the other as the man they must beat.
“I mean we have to be professional with each other,” says Rea of his relationship with Sykes. “He’s the first guy I have to beat. We have the same material. I have my target to win the World Championship and he has the same, so it’s impossible to be close friends because you put so much sacrifice into winning. But we’ve got to be respectful because we work for Kawasaki and we try to do the best job for them as well, but we both have our own personal goals. It conflicts, of course. It’s impossible to be happy for a guy if he is beating me every weekend, but we try and keep it professional and give each other space we need.”
With Cycle News obviously being an American-based motorcycle magazine, the interview with Rea wouldn’t have been complete without bringing up the late, great Nicky Hayden.
“Nicky was just a good guy and it was a huge loss,” said Rea of his former friend and competitor. “Not just to family and friends and motorsport, but the whole world in general. He touched many, many people. Nobody is going to ever replace Nicky. He had that infectious smile in the paddock and a work ethic like no other. It’s really, really sad and it was nice that I could win in California this season and dedicate that race win to him and his family. He’s sorely missed by the whole World Superbike paddock.”
The instigator and curator of one of the most spectacularly successful runs in the 29-year history of the Superbike World Championship, both 2018 And 2019 will put even more glare in the form of fan and media interest on Jonathan Rea. Can he win again in ’18? And could he, in the right situation, be a challenger in the Formula 1-eque world of MotoGP? Both good questions deserving of answers.
“MotoGP is nice and has the bright lights and all that, but you have to go there with a good team and a good bike. I mean I was winning 50cc motocross races when I was six years-old and I have no interest to go to MotoGP and to struggle on non-competitive machinery or just to be there and park my motorhome in that paddock and say that I’m a MotoGP guy. I feel like I deserve my chance at a factory bike. Even if it doesn’t happen I won’t lose sleep over it because I’m really enjoying life here. I think superbike right now is in a fun transition period.
“I know if I went MotoGP with the right bike, I could do a really good job and show my full potential. Time will tell. We’ll see. Of course, the MotoGP people always have their eye on me and my manager has his finger on the pulse as well. I’ve always had opportunities in the past, but never with a team with a good machine and factory support. Like I said, I’m really not interested to go there and just make up the numbers. I want to go there with a good bike, which I feel I deserve. If I did, I feel that I could do a good job.”
No matter what plays out in the immediate and near future for Jonathan Rea, there are two records he would like to try and topple. Both belonging to, arguably, the best and most prolific World Superbike racer of all-time, Rea, with three world titles and 52 career wins, is one title and seven wins away from matching the records of the great Carl Fogarty.
“Foggy is a good friend and he’s left me messages and has told me he really respects what I’m doing and that’s nice because he’s one of the greatest and he’s the superbike GOAT, if you like,” says Rea. “What he has said means a lot to me. It’s been very nice to be mentioned alongside him and I’d be thrilled to match his records.” CN