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|08-26-2015, 03:40 PM||#1|
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The Promised Land | Jonathan Rea Profile
Ever since he was a toddler, Jonathan Rea has not been afraid of getting his hands dirty. His infatuation with motocross brought him up the ranks in the British league, and his unmitigated devotion to off-road—which has not faded—basically ruled out any interest in roadracing. Little did the Irishman know that he would become the top contender in the 2015 World Superbike Championship with Kawasaki.
At the World Superbike Championship season opener at Phillip Island, Australia, Rea (65) came out on top of a fierce battle for the lead in race one to take the victory. In race two, he ended up just one-hundredth of a second short of Aprilia’s Leon Haslam (91) for the win.
Salt of the Earth
“My heart’s always been in motocross,” Rea explained, as if his sturdy forearms and firm handshake were not sufficient evidence. “When I was 16, I was sitting with my mechanic during a break, and we saw an ad on a magazine, calling for a young rider for the 125 class with Red Bull. He pushed me to apply.” Rea’s reaction, however, was far from enthusiastic. “I was skeptical,” he admitted. “I wanted to have another shot at the British championship, and Supercross was happening too. He insisted I’d be really good at roadracing, so I said okay and sent my résumé with a few words about why they should pick me.”
The selection’s result backed up the encouragement. “They picked 20 of us out of hundreds of applications, and we spent a day on track in Rockingham,” Rea said. “After that, the selection was down to five. Then we went to Cartagena [Spain] for another tryout, and they picked me. At that time, it was called Red Bull Rookies, but it wasn’t a controlled championship. It was a private team with three riders, me included.”
Still, Rea was not entirely convinced. “Before the auditions I went to the Haslam’s race school [in Donington] and rode a CB500 just to understand a road bike,” he said. “I questioned whether roadracing would be my thing. There were no jumps. I thought it was boring. But, after a while, I started to achieve small things, like a good lap time.”
Rea has definitely stolen the limelight from his Kawasaki teammate, former WSBK champion Tom Sykes (background), who is only just beginning to work his way out of an early season funk.
A domino effect ensued. “You’re always in search of a perfect lap, trying to repeat something you did good all the time, in every corner,” the Kawasaki rider analyzed. “That’s where I get the buzz from. It took me some time to get that feeling, but now I love roadracing.”
Financial reasons also came into play. “I come from a normal background, and my father spent a lot of money to make me competitive, but I never had an opportunity to progress and ride for a team in motocross,” Rea said. “With roadracing I didn’t make any money at first, but at least it didn’t cost my family anything. Fuel, tires, everything was paid for.”
Most world-class roadracers start with pocket bikes, but Rea’s late approach to paved tracks as a teenager is not unrepeatable. “It was pretty late to make a change like that in a rider’s career but not entirely unusual,” he said. “Michael Laverty and Leon Haslam also came from motocross. Also, from a physical and mental point of view, it’s the best kind of training. That’s why I still practice so much with it.”
After having watched the Kawasaki close up during his many battles while riding the Honda, Rea admitted that the ZX-10R was much better than he expected after his first rides on the bike.
To this day, Rea still spends most of his spare time honing his skills off road. “I’m always trying to find ways to improve myself as a rider,” he said. “At the highest level of MotoGP or WSBK, everyone seems to have a different training or conditioning program. But, in 90 percent of the cases, it’s either training to be good in the gym or on a bicycle. That doesn’t teach you the skills to be fast on a roadracing bike. With motocross, trials, and dirt track, on the other hand, you’re learning stuff that you can use on the job. I think motocross is probably the best tool. I’d recommend it to all aspiring riders.”
Once he hit the big leagues, Rea finished runner-up in both British Superbike (2007) and World Supersport (2008). In the top class, he raced for six years with Honda, scoring 15 wins but also suffering a few cruel wounds, and, before switching to Kawasaki, he had been criticized for a supposed lack of consistency. In retrospect, however, he was simply trying to constantly outperform the limits of a progressively outdated machine, something that requires a dangerous walk on the wobbly line between glory and pain.
“In the early days, I didn’t always accept the limits,” Rea recalled. “Sometimes, podiums were not an option. But, instead of settling for something else, I would finish in the gravel. I was never a big crasher, but I was down more often than now. Sometimes the weekend would end in a hospital, other times the season would finish early, but I’ve learned to understand the bike, its limits, my limits, and work within them to achieve the best possible results.”
Rea readily acknowledges how important having the right team support is to his success, with his crew chief (and former racer) Pere Riba (with glasses, to the right of Rea’s 18-month-old son Jake) critical in that mix.
Rea put it to fruition in 2014, when he finished third in the championship after many even fights against arguably faster bikes such as the Aprilia RSV4 and Kawasaki ZX-10R. “Last year was probably the best of my career so far,” he conceded. “I think that, considering the material we had and the results we achieved, we really over performed. To beat one factory Aprilia and one factory Kawasaki and sort of be in the sandwich between them was a great sense of achievement for me. All the years at Honda taught me to be more mature and how to get the best out the bike and myself. I have no regrets.”
The Ulsterman, however, needed a change. Paddock rumors hinted a move to MotoGP—he substituted for Casey Stoner in the Repsol Honda factory team with respectable eighth- and seventh-place finishes in 2012—but despite his seemingly endless loyalty to the Honda cause, the Japanese manufacturer allegedly denied him a factory ride.
“Every single year of my life, I’ve won a race, either at a national or world level,” Rea observed. “With Honda, it was never enough to just win a few races. I wanted to win a championship. It’s not interesting for me to ride around on subpar machinery. I wanted to show my potential and, with the machines I’ve been offered in the past, it wouldn’t have been possible. Kawasaki gave me that opportunity.
“I just know, after going to MotoGP for two races and being involved with the best team, that you need the best equipment to compete at the top and take advantage of your potential as well,” he explained. “This opportunity wasn’t available to me in Grand Prix, and, being 28 years old, I honestly don’t think I’ll ever get it. Going to Kawasaki gave me new motivation. On the racing side, it feels like a much smaller company compared with Honda but with a much warmer, personal feeling. I couldn’t be happier right now. I wouldn’t swap the winning feeling with any money, any kind of opportunity, in any paddock.”
Even when the battles up front were heated and crowded, Rea has continually come out on top. Here he leads Sykes (66), Ducati’s Chaz Davies (7), Aprilia’s Leon Haslam (91), and Pata Honda’s Michael Van der Mark at Assen.
The Key Matchup
For years, Rea had been watching the ZX-10R closely, silently fighting an often ill-matched battle against its riders on track. When the Ulsterman finally stepped on one of the most sought-after bikes in the WSBK paddock, however, the first impressions exceeded his already high expectations.
“Of course, from the outside I could see that the bike was strong and always at the front,” Rea said. “But only after riding I understood that it was actually better than I expected. From the very first few laps, I realized how high the level is. It’s a factory team, you know.”
The implications of Rea’s last sentence touch upon all aspects of racing, from technical to psychological. “When I arrive at a track for a racing weekend, I don’t have to convince myself that I can be on the podium,” he said. “I know that I can do it, if we work methodically through the weekend, because there’s one of the best tools in the paddock in my garage. Together with the team, it’s just a matter of finding a good way to get the best out of that and make me relaxed on the bike.”
Rea’s debut on the ZX-10R during the winter tests, albeit encouraging, gave little (if any) warning of the domination to come. “In the beginning, my crew understood the bike a lot but not me,” he explained. “For example, I always prefer the harder tire on the front, and they said it didn’t work with the Kawasaki. We worked hard to change that, and we succeeded. I can walk out of the box and I know that, between Pere [Riba, the crew chief] and Paolo [Marchetti, the electronics engineer], I’ll find a better bike when I come back. They trust my comments, and I think I give clear feedback, so everything makes sense.”
Despite holding a massive 87-point lead with just five rounds in the books, Rea knows that anything can happen before the final checkered flag. “In the end, if I go out there and do my job every weekend, the rest will take care of itself.”
It didn’t take long for the informal rider to jell with his new crew. “While it’s impossible to compare with the past, the atmosphere is so good,” Rea observed. “My crew chief immediately started a WhatsApp group, and before the first test I already knew everyone and we were having a lot of fun. Not one day has gone by without us talking bulls—t about something. The relationship is so strong.”
The most important part of Rea’s camp, however, is his family. The Kawasaki ace travels to most of the races with his wife Tatia and his one-and-a-half-year-old son Jake, who are both often seen in the green pits, cheering. “Becoming a father brought so much out of me,” the 28-year-old said. “It’s completed me. I think I have a more balanced personality now, really. Before, I used to have big ups and downs. When I was winning, it was like the highest high. When I crashed, it’d be the lowest of the low. It gives you a different perspective. I really enjoy the fact that I’m able to travel with my family to the races. It’s still a job for me, but having them next to me makes me more relaxed.”
The benefits are for everyone to see. “I feel great, but I don’t want to think about the championship too much,” he said. “I just want to win races. In the end, I think that, if I go out there and do my job every weekend, the rest will take care of itself. I have a fantastic family, team, and bike, and I can just focus on riding while I’m out there.”
Some say life is a circle—a metaphor that evokes multiple meanings for whoever pursues fastest laps as a profession—and Rea’s has already turned many revolutions. From dirt to asphalt, around the world and back, this blue-eyed, soft-spoken rider from Northern Ireland has toiled his way to the top of the roadracing world. The wheels, however, must keep spinning.
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