Rea Q&A: "Punishing Kawasaki for dominating is not sport"
In the first two rounds of the World Superbike season, there have been three different race winners - but reigning champion Jonathan Rea is still unconvinced about the merits of the series' new regulations.
It's been quite a 12 months for Rea - as well as becoming WSBK champion for a third time, over the winter he received his MBE at Buckingham Palace and finished runner-up in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, losing out only to Olympic legend Sir Mo Farah.
The latest accolade he's received is the prestigious Torrens Trophy, which was handed to him at the RAC Clubhouse in London last week. Previous winners of the award include fellow WSBK champions James Toseland and Tom Sykes, British Superbike legend Shane Byrne and MotoGP race winner Cal Crutchlow.
During a special presentation, Motorsport.com took the chance to catch up with Rea and discuss the opening two rounds of the new WSBK season, why he's still ambivalent about the series' controversial 2018 rules and whether a move to MotoGP could yet be on the cards.
The first two rounds of the season have been very competitive, much more so than last year - how has it compared to your expectations?
"I expected the unpredictability. I expected a stronger challenge from our rivals, especially Ducati, who were a little bit quieter in winter testing than they showed.
"I think we need to reserve judgement on the whole trend of the championship until mid-season and we'll see how everyone stacks up. Right now three guys have won races which is quite exciting, but we're taking things race by race.
"It'll be more important to be constant through the year and try and limit our bad days. When we can win we'll try and win, aside from that we'll see what happens."
Has your motocross accident and surgery just before the start of the season impacted things?
"From a mental point of view, it didn't help, because last season I did so much PR after [winning] the championship, I felt the need to prepare even better. When I flew to Australia after Sports Personality Of The Year, it was great, probably the best off-season I've ever had – and then just two weeks before the first race, I'm lying in surgery thinking 'how am I going to race with this busted finger?'
"The guys around me have done an awesome job, the surgeon did a nice job to make [the finger] as nice as possible. Unfortunately it wasn't a nice, clean wound, it was an open wound, so even racing I was racing with stitches and it was still quite open. But before Thailand the last of the healing happened, everything scabbed over and it feels ok.
"But the problem in Australia wasn't my finger, I could almost put it to the back of my mind. I just got really sick with the flu and I had zero energy. Half an hour before the pitlane opened I was in a huge sleep just trying to recharge my batteries, I had a huge crash on the Monday in the test.
"It wasn't the best way to prepare for the first round, so just getting out of there third in the championship with a podium in race two was… not the best start I've had in my three years with Kawasaki, but not something we can be too pissed off with either.
"I was quite positive going to Thailand, and to win race one was great. Unfortunately in race two I just had some issues with my brakes that stopped us challenging again for the win.
"Excited to move on to Europe now where everyone finds their place. Everyone has tested at most of these tracks, they know a base setting, so we can go there with some confidence."
You were quite negative about the new rules in WSBK when they were announced. You said you felt it was wrong the philosophy to penalise Kawasaki for its success. Having seen the first two rounds play out, do you stand by those comments?
"I've been in backroom meetings where that [Kawasaki is being penalised for winning too much] was said. I knew the motivation [of the new rules]. I don't feel victimised by it.
"It's positive for the championship. Dorna aren't crazy people that pull regulations out of nowhere. They're very clever, they've got MotoGP now into a golden era, and maybe Superbike is in that transition. We need to see how it's going to be.
"From an entertainment point of view it's great – we've had three winners in four races. From a sporting point of view, it's not so great penalising people for doing a good job. It's not sport. I feel… not so much for myself, but for Kawasaki that invests in the championship, to be penalised so much and to be turning up with a bike that's below the level they can produce is not cool.
"They are still motivated to keep working, which is positive, and we're motivated to do the best job we can. If we can win under these regulations, then it would be an even bigger feat. So we just try to do the best we can.
"There will be races where the nature of the [track] hurts others – the biggest thing is the final gearing, gearbox ratios, because the bike makes power up until the rpm limit, 14,100. Just the acceleration is nowhere near as it was last season. Generally it's not bad, it's just finding that compromise with final gearing and the circuit.
"We have to go to 13 circuits this year, but have one fixed gearbox for the year. It's just about making sure when the guys send me out in Free Practice 1 the bike is as close as possible to how we think it's going to be and not making too many changes over the weekend."
What do you make of Ducati's performance so far, given their comments on the rules? Did you get the feeling they were holding back at all in testing?
"I don't think they were playing around. It seemed like Chaz [Davies] was also injured from the test in November; Marco [Melandri] was strong in Jerez, maybe not at the top of the timesheets, but his pace was as fast as everybody else's. When you read between the lines, they were always going to be up there.
"They have some riders who when things are going against them they like to speak up – I prefer… it's why right now I don't feel so negative about it.
"Over there it sounded like it was penalising them, but their independent team [Barni] with Xavi Fores is in front of Davies in the championship, which shows the level they're at. I'm sure if [Puccetti Kawasaki rider] Toprak Razgatlioglu was third in the points, they'd be saying how strong the Kawasaki is.
"I can't affect what others are doing, I can only worry about what I can do. I'm starting to feel good on the bike again. It's important to get that good feeling back. Over winter it was lost a little bit, the new engine needs different inputs to ride. I understand how it needs to be ridden, but we need to change the balance of the bike to do that.
"Now since race two in Phillip Island and Thailand, I've felt better with the bike – not how I was last year, but better. And I'm sure step by step we can make improvements."
It seemed your third title got a lot more recognition than the first two – why do you think that is? Do you feel like the mainstream sporting audience is finally noticing you?
"I think last year was special because nobody ever did three in a row. It was easy from an outsider point of view… of course in my world it's the biggest thing ever to win a world championship. It was my childhood dream. But for people outside, doing something three times starts to hammer home what we're actually doing, people start to take notice.
"All these recognitions and awards have been amazing, and if anything it's putting Superbike to the forefront of people's minds. The SPOTY reception was incredible. I never believed I'd get that kind of support, and to finish runner-up in front of Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Joshua, legends of their sports, is incredible.
"Back home [in Northern Ireland] my profile is sky high, and that's nice, but right now in the UK we compete with a very successful national championship. We do go to places where Superbike is on free-to-air TV like Italy, I feel like the heart of Superbike is there, but there's still work to do in the UK to educate people that aren't Superbike fans or motorsport fans."
While you've mostly downplayed chances of moving to MotoGP, there was one interview you did over the winter that suggested it could be realistic. What are your latest thoughts on the topic?
"Right now my management are understanding all the possibilities, really. It's something I try not to focus on; I have enough work to do in Superbike. Of course we are in contact and I understand how things are going, but I think it would be very difficult to move there, to be honest. I don't feel like there are any possibility jumping out that feels exciting.
"If I went to MotoGP, I would want to be on the best equipment available. I'm three-time champion in Superbike, I've nothing left to prove. To go there and measure myself against the best riders in the world, I'd want to do it on the best machinery. But I honestly don't feel I'll get that opportunity.
"I don't think anything will come my way that ticks all the boxes. In Superbike, I have that with Kawasaki. We have a great bike that I can win races on, challenge for championships in, I'm involved with the factory in development, and from a marketing point of view it's great. 13 race [weekends] a year really suits me as well [as opposed to 19 in MotoGP].
"I don't know what I'm looking for, what I'm trying to say is… when options come my way they have to tick all the boxes, or I'm not interested. It's not a last-chance saloon just to be there. It's never been my ambition as a kid, I grew up in motocross. I'm not motivated by profile or prestige. I just want to ride my bike and try and win.
"I feel at 31 in MotoGP I won't get that opportunity. But we'll wait and see. The official bikes are starting to fill out. The most sought after teams have got their rider line-ups almost in place, so these next weeks, months are critical."
Is this last chance to make the move to MotoGP? After all, Troy Bayliss was 33 when he did it, and you're only 31 - a year younger than the current points leader in MotoGP...
"I've no idea. I didn't see myself racing past 33, 34. In my brain that was time to get out. But I'm having so much fun riding that I can't see retirement right now. Who knows… unfortunately as a rider you can't just pick what you want to do. You have to go where the opportunities are.
"You can't have a dream situation, right now I'm as close to that as I'll ever be. Maybe something will come up, but right now I'm really happy Kawasaki gave me the opportunity to fulfil my dreams. I'm grateful to them. The idea would be to continue what we're doing."
Last year you were linked to a Suzuki ride to replace Andrea Iannone. Any truth to that at all?
"No. That was chatter, although I can't control who my manager speaks to. His job is to work for the best opportunities for me. But from my point of view, I never sat around the table with anybody to discuss that."
Besides yourself, is there anyone else in WSBK that could make the move to MotoGP?
"In the current field, I don't see anybody right now that could make the transition and be successful.
"Maybe Toprak has got the potential; he fulfils a good criterion with Turkey pushing for an event in MotoGP, he's incredibly talented, first year in Superbikes… the next year is critical for him to step up and show his potential.
"But from the current grid… I don't know. I classify being successful in MotoGP as being a top-five rider, like Cal Crutchlow. He's won races and done a good job. It took him a long time but he got there and he's been very successful. He's someone we can be proud of that made the jump.
"There are probably six guys in SBK that could go to MotoGP and score points. The level is really high. There's no guy in Superbike [who could be successful in MotoGP].
"If there's no factory team manager coming to me with a contract, who are they going to go to? There are no super-young kids. Alex Lowes and [Michael] van der Mark aren't young any more. They're in their mid-to-late 20s now."
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