Opinion: Has Britain lost its best chance for a MotoGP star?

World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea topping a day of MotoGP post-season testing sparked debate over how good he could be in grand prix racing. David Gruz reckons Britain is missing a chance for its first star since Sheene.

The United Kingdom’s rich heritage in motorsport spreads across nearly all areas of racing, but perhaps MotoGP is the one category where the country has enjoyed the least amount of success in the past few decades.

It’s especially odd considering the influence the UK had on grand prix racing for the bigger part of the world championship’s first three decades.

Leslie Graham won the first 500cc title in 1949 on a British-built AJS bike and Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Phil Read and Barry Sheene all became legends of the sport.

Then, almost overnight, British success dried up as the Americans and Australians took over - later to be followed by the Italians and the Spaniards.

Ron Haslam and Niall Mackenzie were regular podium finishers in the 80s and 90s, but as the new millennium arrived, there were no British riders in the top 10 of the standings for a full 11 years until Cal Crutchlow in 2012.

It was also Crutchlow who ended Britain’s 35-year-long winless streak in the premier class when he won at Brno last year.

He earned himself a factory Honda contract for 2018 but, at 32, Crutchlow is not exactly in his first flush of youth - and the other three Britons on the MotoGP grid this year don't look like being much more promising prospects either.

Sam Lowes’ rookie season with Aprilia was, however you look at it, a disappointment. And his 2018 replacement Scott Redding is probably on his last chance in MotoGP after a so-so year at Pramac.

Bradley Smith can also consider himself lucky to retain his ride for 2018, with the chances of him keeping hold of a KTM ride if the Austria manufacturer becomes a frontrunner team looking remote.

The lower classes don’t offer much hope either. Danny Kent's career has stalled since his 2015 Moto3 title, while John McPhee has gotten well and truly bogged down in the lightweight category despite showing some promise.

Nevertheless, one rider from the outside the grand prix racing paddock has been exceptional for several years now – three-time World Superbike champion Rea.

The best WSBK can offer2017 champion Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing takes the win

2017 champion Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing takes the win

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

Those who don't follow WSBK closely probably first heard of Rea in 2012 during his pair of MotoGP cameos with the Honda factory team, when he was drafted in to replace an injured Casey Stoner.

He was solid but unspectacular in those two races and then returned to Honda's WSBK team afterwards - before joining Kawasaki in 2015 and becoming the category's dominant force.

In just three seasons with Kawasaki, Rea has broken many records and turned a once-competitive championship virtually into a one-man show.

Since then, Rea’s potential (or rather, the lack thereof) to join MotoGP, has become a hot topic.

When he topped a Jerez test for both MotoGP and WSBK bikes at the end of 2016 on his Kawasaki, something he did again this November, arguments became more passionate than ever.

Regardless of the fact Rea's time last week was set using a sticky qualifying tyre, it appeared to confirm what many have suspected for some time - that the Ulsterman could succeed in MotoGP, given the chance.

Other WSBK converts, such as Loris Baz and Eugene Laverty, have hardly disgraced themselves in MotoGP in recent years with much less illustrious records. So, why haven’t we seen Rea giving MotoGP a go yet?

He is the top rider in a championship that historically has acted a strong feeder for MotoGP, having produced the likes of Colin Edwards, Troy Bayliss, Chris Vermeulen, Ben Spies and Crutchlow over the last 15 years.

What's more, he is from country that series promoter Dorna is keen to have more riders from, as evidenced by it funding the early careers of the likes of Smith and Redding, and its more recent Britsh Talent Cup venture.

Even Marc Marquez himself admitted he would like to pit himself against his counterpart from World Superbike, saying of Rea earlier this year: "He is the best rider there with a big margin.

"He won a lot of races and he is the champion again. I hope that maybe one day he comes here to MotoGP or I meet him in some other categories, I would like that."

Waiting for the right chanceJonathan Rea, Repsol Honda Team

Jonathan Rea, Repsol Honda Team

Photo by: Repsol Media

Rea admitted he had offers to move across to MotoGP in the past, including an Open class Honda chance after his two races for the works team in 2012.

But he did not accept, as he was only interested in making the switch on a fully competitive bike. And that, even in the ultra-competitive modern era, means an offer of a factory.

Rea’s refusal to join a smaller team might sound arrogant to some, especially as the majority of Superbike converts have had to start out with a satellite team before moving up the ladder.

However, in practice, MotoGP factory teams have rarely signed riders from satellite outfits, and have instead tended to recruit the top talent from 250cc/Moto2.

Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Vinales all landed factory seats straight out of the secondary class, and few would argue that these signings were not justified. 

The chances of Rea forcing his way into one of MotoGP's top seats, therefore - especially with no experience of the current Michelin tyres - would be small.

And would it really be worth giving up his status as top dog in World Superbike's undisputed leading team for such a chance?

In the past three years, out of 78 races aboard the Kawasaki, he has been on the podium 70 times, won on 39 occasions and, of course, is now a triple champion.

One more season like the three he's just had, and Rea will become the most successful rider in the series' history.

There's an argument to say that Rea's record of success is so strong that one of the top MotoGP teams should take a punt and sign him up directly on a works machine.

But there are two major factors that count against Rea in the grand prix paddock: his age and his Superbike experience.

The two most recent high-profile WSBK converts, Spies and Crutchlow, were 25 and 26 respectively when they joined MotoGP, with only a single full season in the production-based series.

Rea, on the other hand, turns 31 in February, so doesn't represent the long-term future for a brand.

Moreover, he has now spent full nine seasons in WSBK.

It is not just another stepping stone in his career like for younger MotoGP graduates - WSBK is where Rea will have spent the majority of his career in and which he has clearly perfected by now.

Over the years, MotoGP racing has become vastly different to that of WSBK, by the biggest part due to the Michelin tyres.

A switch to MotoGP would require Rea to forget and unlearn some parts of the winning formula that's making him a WSBK star and try to adjust to a lot of differences.

The last rider to move over to MotoGP after spending a similar amount of time in SBK, James Toseland, flopped partly because he couldn't adapt his style to the peculiar Bridgestone tyres of the time.

Talented though he clearly is, there's no guarantee Rea wouldn't similarly struggle to bring his A-game in MotoGP.

The Suzuki rumourAndrea Iannone, Team Suzuki MotoGP

Andrea Iannone, Team Suzuki MotoGP

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

While Rea might be too big a risk for MotoGP's biggest teams, one of the smaller factories, Suzuki, Aprilia or KTM, could be better suited to take the risk of signing an unknown quantity like Rea.

In fact, the Northern Irishman was linked to Suzuki this year, when Andrea Iannone’s torrid season reached its lowest ebb at Misano as the Italian retired with what he claimed to be arm pump - an excuse that raised more than a few eyebrows throughout the paddock.

But those rumours quickly subsided, and with good reason - such a swap would have meant Suzuki entering the 2018 season with a rider line-up with a grand total of 13 MotoGP starts between them, courtesy mainly of Alex Rins.

That's not exactly the recipe for the rapid technical development that Suzuki needs to get itself back among the leading squads.

Aprilia or KTM might have similar reservations when signing a rookie in the early phase their projects still are, and surely neither are competitive enough (yet, at least) to lure Rea away from Kawasaki.

And so it seems the final peak years of Rea's career will be spent at the top of his game in WSBK, and not in MotoGP.

But, such a fate is mainly the man's own choice. Only willing to give up his enviable position in WSBK for a similarly competitive MotoGP bike is something Rea has come to terms with, and so should his supporters.

The wait for the next Sheene, therefore, goes on. But with a booming domestic scene now supplemented by the British Talent Cup, that wait may end up shorter than some imagine.

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About this article
Series MotoGP , World Superbike
Drivers Jonathan Rea
Article type Commentary