JONATHAN REA’S RINGS AROUND THE WORLD
“People ask me ask me all the time, ‘How do you keep motivated?’ It’s so easy for me. When I get to the track, I just want to win”
By Eric Johnson
During Friday afternoon practice for the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme Superbike World Championship round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last July, a gasp when 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 simply went careening off the tarmac and into the gravel via a spectacular shunt. The fastest Superbike on Planet 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 omnipotent rider at Laguna Seca all day long, Rea didn’t really look too concerned about the shunt at all.
“Yeah, I saw him when he pulled up here after the crash,” said 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.
Cloaked in shadows as the California sun has dipped below Pacific Ocean and while most of the WSBK was off eating and drinking and carrying on over on nearby Cannery Row, Jonathan Rea talked about the shunt.
“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.”
Jonathan Rea is now the greatest WorldSBK racer in the tree decade history of the production-based championship which launched in 1999. During the past four years, Rea has declared totalitarian rule in the classification by surpassing the great WorldSBK legend Carl Fogarty’s mark of fifty-nine 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, utterly dominating the series to win his four consecutive WorldSBK titles—a feat no rider has come close to achieving.
And he has no intention of rolling off the throttle anytime soon.
Welcome to Jerez de la Frontera in Spain for the opening day of off-season testing for Jonathan Rea, new teammate Leon Haslam and the entire Kawasaki Racing Team. Keen to get up to speed as quickly as possible, the Spanish-based race organization, Rea and company made hay while the sun shined in Spain.
“It’s day one of testing and we just finished up,” said a calm, cool and collected Jonathan Rea. “We were able to try some new stuff out today. Our 2019 ZX-10RR is a little bit different from this year’s model. There was an upgrade on this 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, really. 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.”
As they were forced to stare down at season long, Kawasaki and its potent ZX-10RR had a choker collar slapped on it in the form of a rev limit of 14,100 draconically forced onto down the machine from the good old boys at the FIM.
“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,” Rea pointed out. “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.”
Jonathan 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 straight-up 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. Four consecutive world titles and an astonishing total of seventeen wins in ’18 clearly made 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. 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. And winning? Well, it has sort of become a bit of an obsession. It’s just that motivation now is coming from the fear of losing. That’s exactly how it is because when you win, you want that feeling again and again. It becomes additive and then you understand how to win. Once you start experiencing a few wins throughout the season, then it starts to become normal, so the pressures and the focus of actually getting yourselves there becomes normal, as opposed to someone that is always fighting for that feeling that they’re looking for.”
One can’t talk about the Superbike World Championship without footnoting the one and only Carl Fogarty. Up to 2018 the greatest WSBK rider of all-time, that moniker moved on over to Jonathan Rea after the 31 year-old won race two at Imola, the triumph matching Fogarty’s career win total of 59.
“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. I feel like that as a kid, he was the guy to look up to. 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 kind of seems like my time and I’m enjoying it.
“And Carl is a great guy,” added Rea. “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 things and 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 his name to back in June, Jonathan Rea will remain with the Kawasaki Racing Team through 2019. To most in the WSBK paddock, this was not looked at as very good news at all..
“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. The team is great and as much as it can be stressful and intense and there is a lot on the line every time you go in a race, you know? 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 kind of put a lot of that down to the team. They’ve let me have that little kind of atmosphere and entourage around me and I realize it’s part of me and they help.”
And of the MotoGP circus that has been putting stakes in the ground at world class race facilities 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.
“It’s going to be tougher than ever. Everyone always moves forward and Ducati has come with Alvaro Bautista from Grand Prix and a new bike. BMW has 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 twenty-six races.”
Can Rea win the championship again?
“Yeah, for sure. 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 bond with it. From there, we can achieve whatever we want, I reckon.”