When Jonathan Rea first set foot in the World championship paddock back in 2008, to contest his debut season in the then World Supersport category, few could have imagined the impact the amiable Northern-Irishman from Ballymena would have.
14 seasons, 100 wins, six consecutive titles; and arguably one of the greatest ever? Quite possibly…
At the 2021 season opening race in Spain, Rea pushed things further again, by claiming his 100th career win; taking a lights-to flag victory at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Crossing the line with a near four second lead, Rea becomes the first rider in the history of World Superbikes to rack up a century of race victories, and joins an elite group of riders to win over 100 races at world level - including Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi.
After the 18 lap race Rea said: “We reached 100 race wins, and it was done with a lot of hard work. Over the off season Kawasaki really dug in with a new bike and we were able to make a step. Also in the off season I worked really hard on myself and I know I improved in all areas. I was born with the dream of racing motorbikes, and going with my parents to ride around Motocross tracks in 1993, ’94. The history is mad. Getting the opportunity to come to the world championship, in 2008 in Supersport, and straight away after my rookie season going to Superbike.Taking my first race win at Misano in 2009 as a rookie and now with 100 wins… It’s mad!”
To understand just what it takes to achieve this prodigious set of results, you need to look closer at the man aboard the machine. Because there’s an interesting division of personas with Rea - who now carries the accolade of ‘the most successful rider in WSBK history’ on his race leathers.
At any given point when the 34 year old isn't hanging off his screaming Ninja ZX10RR Superbike at near 200mph, he exudes total calm; preferring to talk about home, family, motocross, or even cycling instead of his on-track exploits with the factory Kawasaki team. Where some riders ring their own bell constantly at even the smallest glimmer of success, Rea refreshingly doesn’t.
It’s only until the very last required moment, when the visor drops, that Rea unleashes his otherworldly talent and frankly brutal focus on the competition with pin-point accuracy. The second he’s off the bike, it’s back to easy going JR again. It’s an incredible feat considering the expectation and pressure Rea carries with him now, and is the mark of a true champion.
Better still, he makes it look all too easy.
“I think growing up in Northern Ireland - and watching my father race - we were never in an environment where when you did well you got lots of back slaps and got built up to the sky,” explains Rea.
“You were always taught to be humble. Role models like Joey Dunlop for example - they were the people’s champion because they were just normal guys that got on with it. When I was younger and winning races in motocross for example, and did a big whip or a one-hander across the finish line to the crowds, my dad would tell me off for it! So I’m sure that attitude of just staying humble even if you are winning - and then move on to the next one - had an effect on the way I stay focused now. The older you get you realise more just how much goes into making results happen, so the drive to keep investing in yourself and work harder and harder definitely increases as well.”
Back in 2008, Three wins and three further podiums in his first season - netted him the runner-up spot in the championship. That wasn't all though, Rea actually did all this while skipping the final race of the year in the category. Instead being promoted to throw his leg over a full-fat Superbike machine for the final race weekend of the year in Portugal. Fast forward to 2018, and with a commanding victory at Brno in the Czech Grand Prix, Rea further staked his claims in the record books by overtaking the then most successful rider in the WSBK career victory standings.
“There was a lot of noise made when I overtook Carl Fogarty in the all time race winners list,” continues Rea. “I think he had 59 wins at the time - and I overtook him in Brno 2018. So that was a pretty big deal to get 60 wins. So now - only a few seasons later - to be talking about 100 wins it’s mental.”
So what’s his secret? It’s often been said that the difficulty in success is in the repeatability. However in trademark Rea-style, he insists there is a simple formula. So much so that he jokes that it would be possible to coach just about anyone to a pole position time.
“There’s definitely an instruction manual to put a perfect lap together,” says Rea with a smile. “To me it’s literally like an A-B-C procedure. You know the track, you know the bike, and you know there’s a set routine to go fast. Generally year-to-year that doesn’t change either. It’s not like motocross which I grew up on, where the conditions would change from lap to lap. I can go to a winter test for example, having been off the bike for several months, and be pretty close to a lap record pace straight away, because it’s a learned experience.
“Subconsciously you know how to do it. I’ve never physically written down notes, but I know that each and every track has a definite step by step process on how to put a quick lap together. I often joke with my mates that I could talk them into doing exactly my lap-time if they just follow exactly what I say.”
With 85 wins having been netted under Kawsaki’s stewardship, perhaps it is the relationship with the team, as well as the family atmosphere fostered by the brothers Guim and Biel Roda, as well as Rea’s crew chief Pere Riba.
“When I joined Kawasaki, I had come from another great team - the Ten Kate Honda Team - and I had a great relationship with all the guys there. But when I joined Kawasaki, the team are based in Barcelona in Spain - that sort of Southern European way of life was a great shift that worked well for me,” continues Rea. “The team owner has what I would call a very healthy obsession with being the very best he can be.
“You could almost compare it to what Team Sky tried to do when they came into cycling and were looking for marginal gains. Anything we can do better to improve performance, Kawasaki does. I found they actually invested quite a lot in me as a person, and as a rider in a physical and mental aspect. For example you’d get a lot of phone calls throughout the winter checking up on how you are. You’d have to go and see their doctors and have physical tests and checks done throughout the season too. At first I got dead defensive about it, but then I quickly realised they were just trying to get every last percentage out of me as well as the bike, which was actually pretty cool.
So now, with 100 wins in the bag, where to next? Or does Rea even pay the records and statistics much due? Fresh from the record breaking 2021 season opener in Aragon, Spain, Rea gives us his thoughts…
Huge congratulations! What an incredible achievement, especially after the ups and downs of the last 18 months
Jonathan Rea: “Thank you! It really has! To be honest I’m still just glad to be back racing. Last year it was a tougher start to the season because I crashed out of race one. I made a silly mistake and got hit on the back. Lost a lot of points and opportunities - so it was just a silly mistake. I was looking forward to going to Qatar for the second round, but then the world swung 360 degrees, and we’ve all had to face the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. To be honest a side of me was thinking it was really nice to have a break from racing. In my career I’ve never really had a break. Whenever I’ve been off the bike I’ve been injured, and even that turns into a busier period of time, because you are either at physio or trainers or something else. So it was actually nice to hit pause and take stock.
Given what you have achieved, are records something you think about as a rider - or is it something that all the people off-track are more concerned with?
Jonathan Rea: “Each and every race win is special, and I have never been a statistics guy, but when I was closing in on 100 wins that was a big goal. It is such a cool number and a career landmark. I am very proud of it. We had been a little bit unlucky in the winter tests with bad weather but my team have left no stone unturned and turned up at every test we could. They reorganised and rescheduled things so huge thanks to all the staff. Not only the management but all the mechanics and their families for making this sacrifice.There will always be someone that comes around in a different generation and goes one better. I just try to be as competitive as I can, and enjoy it. That’s enough - more than the stats.”
What was sweeter, your first win or your latest win, and why?
Jonathan Rea: “I think the first one was the biggest stand out to be honest. When you get to World Championship level racing, generally speaking you deserve to be there because you are good and you’ve got there on merit. But beyond that the only way to confirm potential is by winning races. There’s always a lot of pressure on you to do that, and when it finally happens it’s magical. It was 2009 for me at Misano, and I sort of remember it like it was yesterday! I had a great battle with two Ducati riders, and came out on top in my rookie season of Superbike racing as well. It’s hard to remember every one - but they all have the same feeling when you cross the finish line and see the chequered flag. It doesn’t get any less exciting, that’s for sure.”
Hitting 100 wins is surely a landmark of some sort though…
Jonathan Rea: “It’s massive certainly. It’s of massive significance. Being able to do this is unreal. Sometimes when you’ve been winning and winning - and I don’t say this lightly - you sort of start to take it for granted. I’ve not celebrated race wins like I should have potentially. It’s a massive impact for everyone involved - for the team, the manufacturer - and when it keeps happening it almost gets normalised in a strange way. But 100 wins is mad, and it’s definitely at the top of my CV now.
“In fairness to the riders before me, it is certainly much easier to achieve that now that we have three races per weekend. If not easier - then potentially faster to be able to notch up so many wins. Not that I’m beating my chest about it - but I do recognise that the opportunity to get these records is bigger now that we have more races each weekend.”
Is there a secret to repeatability in success? Or can it become something of an obsession?
Jonathan Rea: “Yes, it can become obsessive - and it has been! I’ve learnt from experience to channel it in the right way though. Being obsessive can be unhealthy and healthy depending on which way you use it. Early on in my career, when I started winning - I would obsess over my diet and training. It was my sole purpose for existing. After I had kids, there’s a sort of bigger picture to life, and I have become more at ease with myself even. That’s really meant I can manage the obsession and the desire to succeed a lot more easily. It just shifts your priorities. When you first win, the emotional impact is huge, but as the time goes on, with each win, you can refocus on the next race. It’s a strange facet of a personality to have - almost like the impact of winning doesn’t sink in any more. In some ways I dont think it will until I stop racing.”
Does the pressure on yourself and externally increase with the results?
Jonathan Rea: “Not pressure as such. I don’t really feel the pressure, because I’m in such a great environment at Kawasaki now. Of course it gets tough at times - especially when things aren’t going right. When you’re riding absolutely on the limit, risking everything, but you are still trying to find tenths of a second - and you still need to be faster! But when you break it all down, you are paid to go there and get results, and sell and market bikes too. You’re not just there because you’re a good fast rider - it’s actually a business. But the team creates such a nice atmosphere that it protects you from all of that in a sense. My crew chief - Pere Riba - I have a great relationship with him. And I feel pretty lucky that he has helped create this family feeling in the team. I’m not an empty head by any means, but I don't tend to dwell on thoughts, feelings or the emotional aspect. I sleep great, and I can literally walk out of the garage and not think about bikes until I walk back in the next time; whether it is a good day or a bad day. I think that’s a good strength to have.”
Does the change in perception from competitors bother you, as the win count increases?
Jonathan Rea: “A little bit yeah. The regulation change was a big thing, because our bike was a lot more competitive in the past, when all manufacturers could have open tuning. We could have a really high revving engine and make a lot of power over a broad range. So when the organisers brought the rev limits in 2018 in - we actually had the least out of any of the teams, in the region of 14100 rpm as a maximum limit. That really gave me so much motivation to win because I felt like that it was the ‘anti-Kawasaki rule’ if you like, and that wasn't cool! So often when the perception changes or the challenges come in, I’m just motivated more to win.”
In the long term would you consider a move away from WSBK? Nobody would blame you for seeing WSBK as solidly checked off now…
Jonathan Rea: “It would have to be something that really lit up my fire now, because I’ve become really comfortable in the Superbike environment. I really enjoy it, and most importantly I’m able to have a bike that is competitive and capable of winning races. That’s ultimately what really drives me. I’ve been winning since I was six year old on a 50cc motocross bike. To consider something else - like MotoGP for example - I’d need to have something concrete, like a factory ride, and that’s never materialised. Plus at 33 years old now, even if I win more world titles I don't think that opportunity is going to come now - I’m not getting any younger now. I think I have to face that Superbike is my world and I’m really happy with that. In terms of after racing - I’ve got two young kids, so I could just end up being a motocross Dad, or a football side-lines Dad or whatever. But at this phase in my life I think Superbike is where it is at for me!”
Racing aside - what are three things on your bucket list?
Jonathan Rea: “I really want to go and enjoy Anaheim Supercross. I’ve been to the Monster Energy Cup in Vegas, but I’ve never been to the first round - there’s always a lot of hype around that. I still have the desire to do a national motocross championship race after I retire - probably something just in Northern Ireland, like an Ulster or Northern Ireland Championship race. I ride my motocross bike quite regularly, so I’d love to do that. And then beyond that - not too many goals. Maybe to travel the world and actually be able to soak it up and enjoy it as opposed to going to airports, to hotels, to circuits and back again. Everyone says ‘oh you travel the world and see all of this stuff’ to which I always reply ‘no - I’m pretty much in a bubble!’. But for now it’s just fantastic to be doing what I’m passionate about!”