Untapped: The Rea Way and the key to motorcycle racing glory
It’s not every day you have to ferry a World Champion motorcycle racer around on the back of your scooter. 2015 and 2016 World Superbike conqueror Jonathan Rea is drawing looks courtesy of his heavily branded Arai race helmet as we weave around Barcelona traffic between photoshoot locations. Talk about an esteemed passenger…especially on two wheels. I might be carrying one of the fastest motorsport athletes in the world today but – gleaned through my conversations with Johnny – the truth is that the small bike would need to accommodate a couple more people to understand the reasons for his vast well of success.
Behind the speed, stats, achievements, rewards and sheer dominance there are four letters and two numbers that form very much the make-up of Jonathan Rea. Just skim through the (recently-turned) thirty year old’s active social media channels and you’ll frequently see the tag ‘#team65’. This is not only in reference to the staff of the Kawasaki Racing Team with which he has forged an almost unbeatable bond but to the small group of friends and, more essentially, his family consisting of wife Tatia and two young boys Jake and Tyler.
By himself, Rea is slight and with a frame that doesn’t hint at the strength of a racer that can haul a Ninja ZX-10RR around tracks from Thailand to California as well as his beloved motocross bikes across terrain he often rides between bases in the Isle of Man and Tatia’s native Australia. Rea still carries that aura of world champion. He is a strange blend of a humble, approachable family man from Larne, Northern Ireland to a confident and assured individual that has conquered his niche. He gives an impression of a contended person who knows he is at the very top of a game that is often fickle and always perilous.
We talk at the last Superbike test of 2016 at a dark and wet Jerez circuit in southern Spain and then catch-up again for a chat and photos during February in Barcelona – home of the KRT team, based a rubber chunk from the road racing circuit just outside the Catalan city. Finally an afternoon coffee in the confines of the plush Hotel Silken Diagonal Barcelona, scene of the last batch of photos and the dwindling hours of a week in the country for Rea who has been training and motocrossing. He’ll shortly fly to the family in Australia as the clock ticks furiously towards the launch of 2017 WorldSBK and where he could become the first rider in the history of the sport to own three titles in a row.
Jonathan Rea is a name familiar in motorcycle racing circles: son of a TT winning racer, Supersport, Superbike and Honda stalwart until his Kawasaki transfer at the end of 2014, startling MotoGP wild-card appearances in 2012 but for some reason his face or passport didn’t fit to allow entry into Grand Prix on terms he was happy with. Upon the union with Kawasaki many in-the-know predicted an eruption of form and the experts were right. He only dropped away from the Superbike podium three times in twenty-six races last year and won fourteen from twenty-six in 2015. It has been a ‘greenwash’.
Awards, praise and recognition have flowed accordingly. His profile has accelerated and he is one of Great Britain’s most recognised ‘motorsportsmen’. Even through the brief moments in his company it is easy to see that the meld of father, husband, racer, Kawasaki representative and figurehead for a sport leaves very little room in his life for anything else. He embraces his status and is fan of Instagram and Twitter. Rea might come across as very modest but has no trouble in existing in that public sphere of an achiever.
Rea has been watched and observed for over a decade as he scaled the racing ladder but his career and life has bubbled furiously in the last couple of years. His World Championships and peak performance coming at a time when he married and became a father. A co-incidence? Rea has no trouble ruminating on the suggestion himself. It was thus important to gain insight from the personal and professional sides through Crew Chief Pere Riba (a former Supersport peer) and Tatia to see how the fabric of #Team65 is really stretching and why he will be a formidable force once again over the next ten months as lap records tumble and point hauls swell.
Life must have become more hectic over the past two years and then living on the Isle of Man…it seems like a very motorcycle orientated existence…
Sometimes yes, to be honest. Especially now with a family. Family is really important to me and in a way I’m lucky that I don’t have to ride every day and we do [just] thirteen rounds a season. Our team manager is very clever to shield us from too many PR activities during the year because performance is key. Generally through the season I get to spend a lot of time at home on the Isle of Man and I love being there because I get left alone, people understand and respect what I do and are big fans of the sport. It is a very humble place and nobody bothers you. It [life] is still exciting for me and even more so now with kids because we get to travel to the races together and I get to share the best moments of my career together, which is so cool. It means a lot. Leon Haslam did it a year before me with his daughter and I remember looking at him and thinking ‘that must be tough’ and seeing kids in the hospitality and thinking ‘this isn’t the place to bring your family…’ but when I had kids it gave me a completely different balance in life. I don’t think twice when I put my helmet on…but when I take it off they are key people and I need them to be there. It is a massive sacrifice to be at the front of this sport and they are all-in with me and I’m lucky to have an amazing wife that understands and ‘gets’ it and is supportive. Doing this job is so much better with them.
I’ve heard some motocrossers say that you wouldn’t take your girlfriend, family or friends with you to an office, and the same work principal applies to race weekends but if you look at photos of you then Jake and Tyler are in the pit box, they are around. It clearly seems to work for you…
Yeah…I think it might be something that would be frowned upon in the Grand Prix paddock. When you have your first kid there is a part of you thinking ‘how is this going to affect my job?’ and you can imagine it must be every team manager’s worst nightmare to have that ‘my girlfriend or wife is pregnant’ conversation! But I really do think the proof is in the pudding. Look at the GP guys like Casey [Stoner] or here with Tom or myself or Haslam being Dads…the old Enzo Ferrari [saying] that having a kid means losing half a second is bullshit. It is just how you manage it. My family are very much part of me and I’m lucky that I am part of a team that understands that and welcomes them. If you go upstairs in the hospitality then you’ll see my table is covered in hand prints because young Tyler eats with his fingers and there’ll be Bolognese everywhere! But Tony and the team really welcome them and have made high chairs for the kids so I’m very lucky. The worse thing for me mentally is to be away from them. I’ll be here [at the track] and there’ll be at home and I’ll hear that Jake is not sleeping or has a bad cough or Tatia, my wife, has been up all night. I cannot help them because I’m 6000 miles away or whatever. If they are here then I can chip-in a bit. Every morning at the test I’ve been taking both boys to breakfast which lets Tatia have a shower and get up. Of course it does take a lot of effort and mental energy away from you and sometimes it does get on top of you because I used to have a lot of guilt about my training; not that I’m neglecting it but maybe my recovery. I’ll be in the gym and doing my programme or on the bicycle and doing 80Ks, and instead of coming home and having a massage or a sauna I come in and play Dad. I probably don’t get the recovery I should but I feel that I have a good balance at the moment. What I am doing seems to be working so I don’t want to change it too much!
It sounds like a win-win; the family are there to enjoy the good times but then you also have the best support system in place if things don’t go quite so well…
Yeah and Pere [Riba, Crew Chief] would be a good guy to ask about that because I’m sure he dreads when I come to the track by myself! He knows I’ll be spending more time in the garage, more time asking questions and creating problems that are maybe not there compared to leaving the garage after giving my feedback and forgetting about the session. Of course being able to do that anyway is only possible when you have incredible guys around you that you can trust 100%. That lackadaisical approach only works when you have an amazing crew that you can lean on.
Pere Riba smiles when we recount Jonathan’s words at the Kawasaki Racing Team presentation in the unusual confines of the Cinema Comedic in Barcelona. ‘I don’t like it when Tatia and the kids aren’t there!’ he concurs. ‘Riders must be 100% concentrated on riding the bike. They don’t need to be thinking about the inertia, the brakes, the throttle, engine or horsepower. They need to be focused on the braking points, opening the throttle and their feelings on the bike: this is the best way to be faster. If they are in the box too much they are thinking about the bike, the next rider or the teammate. If the family are there and the relationship is good then he is able to be ‘on-off’ and this is very positive.’
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Photos by GeeBee Images/Jonathan-rea.com/Magazine portrait by Andi Gordon