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  • Peter MacKay

Jonathan Rea: The greatest of all time

By Peter MacKay

In motorsport, the inevitable, “who is the greatest of all time?” discussion arises on a regular basis, usually via the unrestricted melee that is social media. Such conversations can often be emotionally charged and irrational arguments are commonplace. However, even supplemented by factual statistics, building an argument for a clear winner is impossible to define in nearly every category of motorsport. The World Superbike Championship (WSBK), is one category where, I believe a firm winner can be crowned as “The G.O.A.T”.

On Sunday the 29th of September, at Magny Cours in France, Northern Irish ace, Jonathan Rea, made history by sealing his 5th world superbike championship, in a row. In doing so, the Ballymena ace became, statistically, the greatest world superbike rider of all time. With more race victories than any other world superbike rider in history, the numbers weigh heavily in the favour of the Northern Irishman. Rea’s 5th crown goes well beyond the numbers though, his patience and scarcely believable turnaround in fortunes over the season, will undoubtedly confirm 2019 as the zenith of his career.

World superbike debutant, Alvaro Bautista, winner of fifteen races from thirty starts in his opening WSBK season, somehow found himself 104 points behind Rea heading into race 3 at Magny Cours. Bautista’s catastrophic demise, will go down in WSBK history, as one of the most bizarre collapses in form ever seen in a motorcycle racing season. The 34 year old, ex grand prix rider, arrived onto the World Superbike scene like a prize Spanish bull fighter, aboard his devil red, Ducati V4R. Eleven victories from the first twelve world superbike starts, will be a record which will remain in memory for all the wrong reasons for the diminutive Bautista. Such dominance, in any other championship season, would have allowed the Spaniard to have nine fingers on the championship trophy before the season’s lengthy summer break. With Bautista’s team mate, Chaz Davies, a world superbike regular, nowhere in sight, mutterings quickly emerged, intimating that Moto GP riders were clearly superior to their WSBK cousins.

With Bautista pulverising the field, race after race, deploying the embarrassingly superior straight line speed of his V4 Ducati, all but one man on the grid had an answer for the former 250cc world champion, Jonathan Rea. For a four time, defending world champion, watching the beautifully crafted rear end of the brand new factory Ducati, clearing off into the distance, was a bitter pill to swallow for Jonathan Rea. But, as has been proven time and again, Rea’s tenacity has always granted him the ability to maximise results in any given situation. In the opening portion of the 2019 season, the Ballymena born, former moto crosser, clung onto the final thread of Bautista’s ‘Traje de luces’ with a remarkable ten 2nd place finishes in the first ten races, keeping the charging Spaniard within catching distance.

The events that unfolded during the following race meetings, were simply astounding. Rea countered Bautista’s opening runaway performances with double victories at Imola, Misano, Laguna Seca and Portimao and a home race treble victory at Donnington Park. Meanwhile, Bautista capitulated in spectacular fashion. Five races yielding no points for Bautista after a string of calamities whilst, Rea swept the board and turned the championship upside down.

Bautista’s on track woes, combined with challenging and widely reported contract negotiations, clearly affected the World Superbike rookie’s mind set and therefore, his results. Rumours of a switch to a mysterious and secretive new Honda project, soured Bautista’s reputation with Ducati. So frayed was the relationship with his Italian paymasters, company CEO, Claudio Domenicali, took to twitter to openly criticise Bautista’s decision to decline their multi million euro offer and switch to Honda. Such a public scalding will leave a scar on a relationship that will unlikely be rekindled during the remainder of Bautista’s career.

Compare this seemingly toxic environment to Rea’s, watertight Kawasaki camp, and the miraculous turn around in championship points from the Ulsterman becomes easier to fathom. With every improvement to the ZX10R machine, made by Rea and his team, the pressure ratcheted up a notch on Alvaro Bautista, forcing him into a succession of crucial mistakes.

Heading into the 3rd race of the weekend at Magny Cours, Rea held onto a slim chance of engraving his name on the world championship trophy for the 5th time. To clinch the title early, Rea would need to win the race and Bautista would need to fail to score points. An unlikely scenario, with Turkish sensation Toprak Razgatlioglu, on course to seal a hat trick of victories at Magny Cours, following two storming race wins so far. With six more races left in the season, Rea was under no pressure to get the job done at Magny Cours and could relax in the knowledge that the championship was now a formality.

The aforementioned Razgatlioglu, would ironically gift Rea the first element required for an early championship coronation, an Alvaro Bautista non score. Exiting a slow right hand corner, World Superbike’s most promising young rider, Razgatlioglu, eagerly wound on the power of his Pucetti Kawasaki, lighting up his rear Pirelli tyre and crashing. In a harsh twist of fate, Bautista, following immediately behind, had nowhere to go and found himself an innocent party in Razgatlioglu’s accident, leaving his slim championship hopes in tatters.

For Rea, the job was only half done. Two of the Kawasaki rider’s fellow, factory Suzuka 8 hour competitors, Michael Van der Mark and Alex Lowes, had little concern for assisting in an early crowning for Rea. Both factory Yamaha men, were desperate for victory. Particularly Alex Lowes, who has been dropped, by Yamaha, for the 2020 season. But this would be a Sunday afternoon that we have become so familiar with during the past five seasons with Jonathan Rea. Despite intense pressure from the two factory Yamaha’s, Rea controlled the race, kept a final reserve of performance in his Pirelli tyres and powered away in the closing laps to a triumphant victory and a fifth world title.

So, why does the World Superbike Championship gain a rare exemption on the usual ban on confirming any particular rider being crowned as the greatest of all time? Well, longevity of the championship itself could be proposed as one important factor to consider. Back in 1988, the brand new World Superbike Championship kicked off with Davide Tardozzi, now Ducati Moto GP top brass, winning the first ever race. Since then, the changes between the bikes competing and the circuits on which the races have been held, are not as significant as you may think. The bikes are still production based and emulate the halo, high performance product in a product range of any manufacturer. The tracks, albeit with significant safety improvement, are largely the same too.

Usually, during the never ending debate on who is the greatest of all time, the barriers which always prevent a conclusive result are the vast differences between machinery used, danger posed by circuits and the competition skill level of any particular era. For grand prix motorcycle racing, debating the merits of a daring Geoff Duke in the 1950’s tearing down Bray Hill on his Norton, compared to Valentino Rossi on a prototype Yamaha M1, carrying unfathomable corner speed around the swooping curves of the Circuit of the America’s, is not worth your breath. Comparison between these two vastly different periods, would be like comparing Bovril with Grappa. Sinking a full serving of either beverage, should be applauded, although both are equally challenging to consume!

Spanning only 30 years of production bike racing, all on purpose built circuits, I truly believe a conclusive winner can be chosen for the greatest World Superbike rider of all time. Unquestionably, I believe that rider is Jonathan Rea. With 83 wins, 162 podiums and 5 world championships, the hard statistics play in the Northern Irishman’s favour, edging world superbike legend, Carl Fogarty.

Although, amongst European racing fans, winning the prestigious Suzuka 8 hour race twice, may not seem so significant but for Japanese factory board members who write the cheques for racing programmes, they might as well be world championship wins. Rea won his first Suzuka 8 hour with Honda back in 2012 and led Kawasaki back to the top step of the podium in 2019, for the first time since 1993. Running a two-man relay with team mate, Leon Haslam, in the suffocating humidity of a Japanese summer, exhibited Rea’s unrivalled mental toughness and supreme fitness. Simply receiving an invite, directly from your factory employer in Japan, to race at the Suzuka 8 hour, should provide any rider with comfort, in the knowledge that they are held in very high regard indeed. Winning a race of such paramount importance, twice, will grant life membership in the good books of any Japanese motorcycle factory.

Grinding out fifteen race wins, over six seasons, on an ever more outdated Honda Fireblade, was a school of hard knocks for Rea. Bravely riding the underpowered Honda beyond its limit, resulted in some horror injuries, which, no matter how constraining, never broke Rea’s resolve. During a race at the Nurburgring GP circuit in 2013, Rea crashed on another rider’s spilt oil and fractured his femur, forcing him to call a premature end to his season. During Rea’s time with Honda, no other rider delivered the same consistency of results and in particular when the situation became even more arduous, as the ageing Fireblade became increasing out performed by rivals. Rea remained loyal to the factory who brought him into professional road racing for longer than most but remaining with Honda would unquestionably have robbed him of the opportunity to prove his true ability.

For those left unconvinced that Jonathan Rea is the greatest superbike rider of all time, consider this, last weekend at Magny Cours, particularly during race three, Rea was at his imperious best. On Sunday, we saw a rider so comfortable with his Kawasaki ZX10R and with the loyal team who prepare the #1 machine. For riders up and down the grid, it must be ominous looking into the harmonious atmosphere in Rea’s garage. Clearly, Rea is far from finished on his undisputed run of five World Championships in a row. At the opening race of the 2020 season, at Phillip Island, Rea will walk back into the solace of the factory Kawasaki garage and the unconditional support of the technical mastermind of his number 1 machine, Pere Riba. Throwing his leg over the ZX10R will be as familiar as pulling on a favourite pair of jeans. Meanwhile, many of Rea’s notable threats like Razgatioglu, Bautista and Lowes will be switching to different machines for 2020. The inevitable familiarisation to their new steeds, will most likely hamper some of these key rivals, allowing Rea a golden opportunity to build an early championship lead. For those eyeing up the prospect of toppling the undisputed champion of world superbike racing, nothing less than an inch perfect season will do to prevent Jonathan Rea from a 6th world title.

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