The legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said that “sports don’t build character they reveal it.” This season certainly revealed a lot about Jonathan Rea. He was utterly relentless in his pursuit of a fifth world championship but this season was one unlike any other.
Playing catchup through the season Rea was faced with his toughest test; Alvaro Bautista and Ducati. The former MotoGP rider arrived in WorldSBK like a hurricane. He was destroying everything in his path to win races by over ten seconds. By the time the paddock had arrived in Europe the Spaniard was commenting that he was “changing the level of Superbikes and forcing riders to change their styles.” It was a bold claim but one that couldn’t be challenged at the time such was his supremacy.
“If this was a fight in boxing I’d have been on the ropes in those early rounds,” said Rea after wrapping up the title. “I’ve never seen a turnaround like this one. Of course every season you target to win the championship but honestly after four rounds it was…a big dream. We couldn’t see any weakness in the package of Alvaro Bautista and Ducati.
“It’s the strongest package I’ve ever faced. Assen was a real moment where it opened my mind. I felt like that was one of the tracks that we could go to and pick up some wins. When we didn’t win our heads dropped a little. We went to Imola next and we managed to survive there and take some wins but one of the races was cancelled due to the weather. Up until then I felt like we were drowning but just to get that little bit of a gasp of air was enough to compose ourselves and give us the belief that we can aim for some results during the year.”
In the early rounds of the season, when Bautista was racking up eleven consecutive victories, Rea was forced to settle for runner-up finishes in ten of those races. It wasn’t enough to stay close to Bautista in the points, After Assen he was over fifty points adrift, at one point in the season the gap stretched to 61 points, but Rea kept the faith. More to the point his crew chief, Pere Riba, kept the faith. Mid-season the Spaniard said “you watch it. Johnny will find a way this season. He is the best. There’s no doubt about it in my mind. He’ll find a way.”
At one point that faith seemed like blind faith. There was little reason to believe that it was the case. History told us what Rea could achieve but Bautista was rewriting the history books. For Rea the reason was clear; the top speed advantage of the Bologna bullet.
“When we went to Thailand we really saw the advantage the Ducati had. That was a tough weekend. It’s really hard when you’re losing that much in the straight like we were in Thailand to make that up in the corners and the brakes. We were racing ourselves and carrying more corner speed and getting a better exit than the Ducati. With our bike in terms of stability and mechanical traction it’s probably the best out there. We just lost so much in the acceleration areas that around the lap that it was hard to make that up.
“Alvaro made a series of mistakes as well which didn’t make the championship easier but it meant that you could actually manage to be in the championship. I feel like he threw the championship away but we did stand up and won the races we should have won. It was just tiring in the beginning because even all the second places I was getting I was having to fight for them. It wasn’t like I was just riding around. The Yamaha’s were super strong at the start of the year. We had to dig deep to challenge.
“I didn’t know much about Alvaro until this year. I heard a from the outside about that I needed to keep the pressure on him because the season is long. To keep the lead all year is hard. At the beginning of the year you couldn’t really see much hope but the mistakes in Misano and Jerez were completely uncalled for. His crash in Donington I can understand because it’s a very, very treacherous part of the track in the wet. It’s easy to get caught out there. Even series regulars can get caught out there. Throughout all this I was just trying to keep doing my own thing. It’s really hard to manage the championship from the front, I’ve been in that position, and when you’re chasing you have nothing to lose at times.”
Having seen Bautista start to make unforced errors in Jerez and Misano Rea started to see a chink in his rivals armour. By the time the series travelled to Laguna Seca the transformation was complete. Bautista was crumbling and a crash filled weekend saw the Spaniard leave the United States with his title hopes in tatters. No points from three races had left him with no chance.
“In the middle of the year we saw a whole different side to Alvaro compared to the beginning of the year. Every time the cameras went in the garage in the early rounds he was full of smiles and double hand waves. He was an angelic kid. After the first crash it was still the same; he was still his happy-go-lucky self. After making a few more mistakes though he was a shadow of the beginning of the season.
“You could see the stress building on his shoulders. That’s when we just had to keep relentlessly delivering results every weekend. I didn’t need to win races. I just needed him to see me beside him on the podium. I wanted him to know that I was right there and he couldn’t have a bad weekend. Since Imola we’ve out-scored him every weekend. I’m really happy to turn the season around like that. But there was definitely a bit of help from his side.
“We worked hard all year but I still can’t understand it to be honest. I didn’t expect the Laguna weekend to turn around the way it did. For Alvaro not to score in all three races that really helped my cause. To go eleven races unbeaten and then to face the challenges he has, I just can’t understand it. I really can’t. I can’t understand how you can go to Phillip Island in your first race on a new bike and new championship and mentally be that strong to win races by fifteen seconds.
“To then go to Thailand and do pretty much the same. Then we went to Aragon and he was still winning by a distance. It looked like there was no chance for the season to turn around like it has. It’s really hard. I wouldn’t want to be in his position. I certainly wouldn’t want to be answering to Guim Roda if I did that because he would be the toughest guy on me when I make a mistake, even this year. So to have a catalogue this year has been I’m sure really tough.”
While Rea can be critical of the mistakes that Bautista has made he’s far from critical about his rivals style. Describing the Spaniard as “clinical on track. He does everything right and his level is very high.” It’s clear there’s a respect for the challenge he faced but that’s also why there was so much of a surprise for Rea to see the mistakes pile up.
“I think it’s clear that the window of setup for the Ducati is very narrow and we see that with Chaz, one of the top riders, dialing the bike in through the year. In those early rounds they looked had the bike in the window and the engine is so strong that he didn’t need to be last on the brakes or he didn’t need to put the bike under too much stress. He was already gaining tenths of a second on the acceleration areas. The yo-yo effect was clearest to see in Thailand. He would be long gone into the braking zone for turn three but we would have a chance because I could release the brake and have a go at him because of the strength of our bike.
“It’s been a crazy year but I stand by what I said at the start of the year [about taking a knife to a gunfight in races]. It was frustration that made me voice my opinion really early when I should have maybe stayed calm but the difference in speed is crazy. I’d need to really look hard to see how many times he passed someone in the braking area but generally it’s been down the straight passing one and two guys at the same time.
“I’ve had it in the past where we’ve lost 1400rpm in a season when they change regulations for this year Ducati lost 250rpm is absolute peanuts. The people that are on the defensive are guys inside Ducati, but if you speak with knowledgeable people inside the paddock, they know. They know what we’re racing against. The other riders, the other manufacturers they all know what we’ve seen this year. The Ducati is very strong in that aera but it’s not the complete package.
“I feel like as a real package we have top package. We just missed the speed they have. I’m sure if you give us whatever the horsepower difference is, we would run into our own problems. I’m just calling it as I see it but it’s just very demoralizing throwing the kitchen sink at it and just losing free time on the straights.”
While a season like this has left Rea with an unexpected world title it’s also one that he knows is just a stepping stone. In racing if you’re at the front of the field you’ll always have people gunning for you. You’ll always have to work harder to stay at the top than you do to get to the top. To win races is hard in this class but to keep wining races is even harder. There are very few times when a rider truly can reflect on their successes.
“You’re always in a competitive bubble. You never stop and take stock of where you are. It’s always about the next challenge. After winning the championship in France I was already thinking to Argentina. After Qatar you think about next year. It’s ticking boxes. I moved back to Northern Ireland last year and bought myself a dream home. We’ve a home cinema and sometimes I sit there, and I’ve got my world championship trophies on display, and I’m so satisfied. I can feel really proud of what I’ve done.
“For me, the motivation comes from being so happy doing it. I don’t know anything else. Until the lack of motivation comes or an injury or the lack of competitiveness I think I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can. It doesn’t feel like work. I’ve a family with two young kids. The dynamic has changed for me now because it’s not just about racing. Once I stop enjoying it and the sacrifices you make aren’t worth it that’s the time I’ll hang up my boots. I can’t see it happening anytime soon though because I’m really having a lot of fun.
“I feel like I can still be competitive as well for a few more years. You think about what more can I do? You think about how can I keep going and achieve the same thing? There’s no better or worse.”
There’s no better or worse but there are bigger numbers. More wins to chase, more podiums to stand on, more points to be had. More titles to be won. Five world championships aren’t enough for Rea. He’s chasing more and more. Winning is a drug for a serial champion. They get up in the morning and train harder than ever to stay on top. Can Rea keep the run going in 2020? Only a fool would bet against it.