Jekyll and Hyde

GeeBee's thoughts on the new/old WorldSBK king

On most Sundays when I am at the racetrack I am up early and in the press office no later than 8am. Every time I have a weekend at home I think ‘this weekend is the one that I get to sleep till after eight.’ However, having a young family it is never meant to be. On Sunday it was business as usual and the ‘alarm clock’ went off at just after 6am, but it did mean that I could watch the F1 Grand Prix live from Japan.

I have to admit that whilst Barbie and the crew were getting their daily briefing, I did doze off. I often find that happens on a Sunday. Formula 1 is the ideal medicament for a Dad Nap. Lewis Hamilton won again and, with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari suffering a mechanical problem, forcing a DNF, the Mercedes driver extended his championship lead to 59 points with four races still remaining. It means he could secure his fourth championship next time out in the US.

Now I get it when some people express antipathy towards Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki in WorldSBK. F1 technical rules change every season, and yet, at the moment, Mercedes and Hamilton can do little wrong. I said in the last blog that I wouldn’t talk about it again but the same rules apply here. The best ‘package’ is winning most of the time, no matter what.

Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki made history in Magny Cours last time out. He became the first rider in the history of the Superbike Championship to win three titles on the bounce. This year he was utterly dominant. Dorna had tried to level the playing field by changing the grid pattern for Sunday’s race two. It meant that every weekend the podium finishers in race one, always JR, started from the third row. However, that only seemed to put another few coals on the fire in his belly, as by the second or third lap he was scorching in to the lead.

He did though, in my view, enjoy a degree of good fortune. Chaz Davies was tipped as the main challenger at the start of the year but a series of crashes throughout the season left him on the back foot and chasing more or less from the second round in Thailand. The pre-season rhetoric and promise of Yamaha, Honda and Aprilia came to nothing and it was left to Kawasaki team-mate Tom Sykes to mount the main challenge for the title. Tom, however, could not find the same killer instinct to deal with the rehashed Sunday grid and would too often find himself off the podium in race two. Then of course there was the huge crash in Portimao that saw him sit out the weekend and virtually hand Rea the title.

Rea himself had a huge crash at Donington when his rear tyre gave up the ghost heading down Craner Curves, not the ideal place to get off the bike. He got up and walked away, only to come back on Sunday and win race two.

Magny Cours was a similar situation. Not many people knew that he had hurt himself in the crash during Superpole. Again he bounced, claiming pole position and winning the afternoon’s wet race by over 16 seconds, sealing the deal and claiming that record third title. It was only on Sunday that he had to retire after getting caught up in Eugene Laverty’s crash in the opening laps.

These incidents for me tell the bigger story of the season. For sure Rea and the ZX-10RR have been the best ‘package’ in WorldSBK this year again but he has rolled a couple of sixes in coming off relatively unscathed from a couple of crashes whilst his main rivals have been less fortunate. If an incident like that had happened, early in the season; if he had been injured in the Donington crash; if Chaz hadn’t crashed in Thailand or whilst leading if Aragon; if; if, if……..

What of the man himself?

All I have heard in the last week or so is that he is a deserving champion and such a nice down to earth guy. Hold on a minute. Nice guys aren’t meant to win championships, are they?

Apparently so. I have been lucky enough to work closely with Jonathan for a number of years. I have seen the arrogant upstart of a teenager that raced in BSB become a more relaxed, mature person that is indeed now relatively down to earth. All of us who have young kids actually have to be. When the shit hits the fan, or quite literally the floor, we have to deal with it. There is no better grounding than having a 4 year old spill your coffee all down you in Costa. A hissy fit and a prima donna attitude isn’t going to clean it up.

However, I am sure others will tell you a different story. Jonathan has had a number of spats in the last couple of years with Chaz Davies, most notably and publicly in Assen this year when they clashed during Superpole after JR interfered with Davies’ flying lap. There has notably been some friction in the Kawasaki box at times between him and Sykes. I am also sure few friends have been made on a Sunday when he is coming from the third row and trying to get into the lead as soon as he can.

That for me is what has made Jonathan the champion he is. There is a true Jekyll and Hyde nature to his character. Off the bike he is the normal family man. He has time for public appearances, is supremely confident and charming in front of the camera but when the visor comes down he is a different person. There is an unwavering, single minded, desire to win. He will never settle for second or third. If he thinks he can win a race he will try everything he can to make it happen.

He has also been extremely clever in nurturing the relationship with his Kawasaki team and immediate pit crew. It does not go un-noticed the tight knit nature of Team 65. There was no history or previous personal relationships but since day one Rea has ensured that every single one of that group is fully on board with his set of goals. Jonathan understands the importance of that relationship and always ensures the team is counted as part of his success, further strengthening that bond.

So where now for Rea? The rumour mill continues to roll about a move to MotoGP. I am sure the WorldSBK bosses at Dorna would love to see the back of him but he is contracted to Kawasaki for 2018. There may yet be a move, stranger things have happened, but as JR points out, nearly every top rider in both championships will see their contracts expire at the end of 2018. Another Superbike crown in his back pocket would only further strengthen his credentials but he has always stated that he would only move to Grand Prix racing on a truly competitive bike. At the moment I see that as a factory Honda, Yamaha or Ducati. Would any of those manufacturers take a gamble and replace one of their ‘aliens’?

Another scenario is that Kawasaki decide they have achieved all they can in WorldSBK, and since Dorna currently seems determined to penalize their success, it may be time to return to the GP paddock with an established team and winning rider and see if they can improve on the previous efforts with the Ninja RR.

I appreciate that another year in Superbikes of the Ulsterman dominating is not great box office but like Hamilton in F1 we are witnessing a rider at the top of his game. Who knows what will happen in 2018 but if Rea and Kawasaki keep on winning don’t ‘blame’ them for being so good.

Photos by GeeBee Images

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