Opinion: Why WSBK shouldn't blame Rea for its troubles

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Opinion: Why WSBK shouldn't blame Rea for its troubles
By: Lewis Duncan , Journalist
Sep 20, 2018, 8:13 AM

Jonathan Rea's perceived lack of charisma has recently been blamed for World Superbike's decline in popularity. But Lewis Duncan argues the Kawasaki rider isn't to blame, and says some out-of-the-box thinking is required to excite the fans again.

Last weekend at Portimao, WSBK's sporting director Gregorio Lavilla was asked how the series plans to make the racing more exciting in 2019.

In response, the Spaniard made the stunning pronouncement that triple world champion Rea is “not a very charismatic guy”, and that the Ulsterman's alleged lack of personality is a key reason for fading interest in the championship.

Rea and his Kawasaki team have borne the brunt of WSBK criticism lately, and Lavilla has only added fuel to that fire. But to blame Rea for a loss of interest in WSBK is foolish.

Dominance of the kind Rea has enjoyed since he joined Kawasaki in 2015 is nothing new. MotoGP (or 500cc, as it was known then) is widely considered to have gone through a dull phase in the 1990s when the similarly unassuming Mick Doohan and Honda won five titles on the bounce between '94 and '98.

There was a reason why Doohan was so dominant, and it is the exact same one that explains Rea's stranglehold – they were both the best of their era on the best bike of the time.

World Championship competition is supposed to be about the best rider winning on the best machinery, but these days this concept is often something met with a confusing disdain.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

Undoubtedly, the Rea era will be looked back upon as one where Kawasaki was the only manufacturer to fully focus its resources on its WSBK effort, with chief rivals Ducati, Yamaha and Aprilia also operating works MotoGP programmes.

However, you only need to look at Tom Sykes' scorecard during his tenure as Rea's teammate at Kawasaki to appreciate Rea's sheer brilliance: four wins in '15, five in '16, two last year and only one so far in '18.

And Sykes is no scrub, winning the title in '13, and missing a further two in '12 and '14 by a combined 6.5 points.

By contrast, Rea's debut Kawasaki season yielded 14 wins, while he managed nine in '16, 16 last year and 12 so far in the current campaign, busting Carl Fogarty's long-standard record win tally in the process. Last year he also surpassed Colin Edwards' record for most points scored in a single year.

Rea has said the ZX-10RR of the previous two years was tailored more for Sykes' riding style, while he has had to contend with constant regulation changes aimed at curbing his dominance. And yet, he is well on his way to securing a fourth successive crown.

Rea is undeniably a reserved character. Humble and largely devoid of ego, he is a far cry from the superstars Dorna has selling MotoGP. Given his nearest rivals are, like him, in their 30s or close to them, expecting full-blown Rossi-Marquez style contempt to break out between them is wishful thinking.

Bringing up more young talent from World Supersport or from the lower grand prix categories, preferably without British passports, is something vital to reigniting interest in WSBK across Europe - particularly as Marco Melandri, the championship's biggest star in one of its core markets, Italy, is facing an uncertain future.

Lavilla's comments were met with confusion, and were brushed off by most in the know. But they should also sound alarm bells. A senior figure of a series' owner blaming falling interest on its most talented and successful rider is unprecedented, and perhaps suggests Dorna is running out of ideas to boost WSBK's popularity.

Myriad regulation and format changes in recent years have done very little to improve the series' image. Splitting the races between Saturday and Sunday has kept grandstands relatively empty, while the riders universally dislike the partially-reversed grid race two, which has made precious little difference to results anyway.

To top it off, Dorna's attempts to close up the field with new rev limits and upgrade concessions have only altered WSBK's competitive order slightly. Yamaha has closed in a little, but Kawasaki remains the dominant force.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

WSBK has become something a Gordian Knot for Dorna, and Lavilla's comments have made it abundantly clear radical action is needed. But what?

Superstock-type regulations and control electronics have been mooted, but rejected. But the British Superbike series has proven removing electronic rider aids is a relatively straightforward way of producing closer and less predictable racing.

WSBK already has the talent on the grid, so a more 'spec' ruleset would make for some scintillating contests – and perhaps help to breed the rivalries Dorna is so desperate for.

But why not go further, for example by introduce an age cap on bikes a manufacturer can enter? Kawasaki - because of its domination - is limited to running its 2017-spec ZX-10RR bike for a minimum of two seasons, while a struggling manufacturer is allowed to run its latest model each season.

One solution would be to manage this with a concession points system, so more teams fall under KRT's umbrellas as they become more competitive.

An even more radical idea would be to ban works teams. After all, most of the current manufacturer teams are run by another outfit: Provec runs Kawasaki's team, Crescent runs Yamaha's, Shaun Muir Racing runs Aprilia's, etc.

A manufacturer can designate an official entrant, but its factory involvement is limited, and theoretically would have to offer the same material to all of its teams, helping the independent teams fight the established front-runners.

Whatever WSBK's next step is, it has to be to something much more ambitious than the limited tweaks that we have seen up until now, as the current model is unsustainable if rejuvenating the series' popularity is Dorna's true desire.

But it must also be accepted, no matter what changes are made, that trying to stop a truly special talent from succeeding is futile.

Podium: race winner Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Podium: race winner Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

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About this article

Series World Superbike
Drivers Jonathan Rea
Teams Kawasaki Racing
Author Lewis Duncan
Article type Commentary