Kawasaki Racing Team

10 Things I Learned From World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea

Kawasaki factory rider has always believed that if he gave his best, success would follow. And it has…

Following a six-week summer break, World Superbike returns to action this weekend at the Lausitzring in German for Round 9 of the championship. Two-time and defending series champ Jonathan Rea left Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in July with a 59-point lead over Kawasaki teammate Tom Sykes.

That’s 13 points more than Rea had in hand over Sykes the previous July but less than half of the advantage he built up during the same time period in 2015. With 10 races remaining in this year’s 13-round schedule, 250 points are still up for grabs. Asked at Laguna Seca if the gap was insurmountable, Sykes hooted. “We’ve got plenty of time, boys!”

Rea has only missed the podium this season once—a tire-induced DNF in Race 1 at Donington Park. Last year, Rea won wet Race 2 at the Lausitzring after crashing in Race 1. Rea and Sykes were among the riders who tested last month at the 2.644-mile circuit, so they will have a baseline from which to begin practice on Friday.

Cycle World Technical Editor Kevin Cameron and I sat down with Rea at Mazda Raceway for the latest in a series of enlightening conversations with the 30-year-old Northern Irishman. As with all of our other talks, Rea was remarkably open, revealing far more than expected on a number of subjects.

Realizing potential…

When I arrived at Honda, I was probably not ready to win a championship. I was fighting inside the top five and winning races in my rookie season. Then, as I was making steps, the bike wasn’t improving—or our competitors were stepping up—and it became even more difficult to improve.

I always felt if I gave the best my time would come. Whether that was with a new bike or changes to the bike, I always believed I could do better. Midway through 2014, I was having a great year at Honda. Mentally, I felt really good. I had improved a lot as a rider. Riding with the Kawasaki every weekend, I knew the ZX-10’s potential was higher.

The first time I rode the Kawasaki I knew we were going to have a great season. Honda was good schooling, and I worked with some great engineers, but the last years were difficult. The Kawasaki is a winner week in and week out. If you do A, B, and C, you’re going to end up on the podium. With the Honda, I felt like the stars had to align to put me in that position.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki, Superbike, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Jonathan Rea finished second in Race 1 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and won Race 2, his 32nd World Superbike victory on Kawasaki machinery.Scott Jones/PhotoGP

Evolution of riding style…

The first year I rode the Kawasaki, I didn’t change anything. The bike suited my style perfectly. Last year’s bike was quite a bit different, more geared toward a stop-and-go type riding style. We understood that quite quickly, and I had to change.

Subconsciously, I can change my riding style really easily. After five laps, I understand the limit of the bike and what I need to do to make it work. After a year of development, we understood which areas not to change and which areas we had to put together. We put all the pieces of the jigsaw together and started this year a lot stronger.

Kawasaki teammate Tom Sykes…

He has ridden this bike for years. I mean, he knows the bike better than anyone. But he was still never able to adapt himself, which I find strange. When I first arrived to the team, because of riding other bikes, riding in MotoGP a little bit, I understood how the bike could be improved.

"Kawasaki and Ducati are spending money. How is it fair that you penalize them for taking the championship seriously by making it more basic?"

- Jonathan Rea

He was strongly vocal about the problems of the bike, which I disagreed with, but all of these problems were preventing him from being stronger at the end of the race. He always abused his tire. More recently, when the rules have come back to more standard—we can’t change crankshaft weight, we have to run a generator—now he’s keeping the tire a little better.

He’s finally opened his eyes that he should change his style, where I’ve tried to remain quiet and do all my talking about development within the team—what I think needs to work for me. After a year of my being at Kawasaki, they really understood and appreciated my comments, and now we’re developing the bike in a really good way.

Superstock 1000 rules and a spec ECU…

I’m a motorbike rider; I’ll try to ride whatever I can. Of course, it’s nice to ride exotic bikes, to be able to come in and change electronics. With the experience I have, it wouldn’t be that attractive to ride a Superstock bike. But it’s true that the championship right now is dominated by two manufacturers, and the other guys are struggling to tread water.

Going to Superstock rules probably won’t help. If you look at Superstock results in any championship, they are pretty much dominated by one or two manufacturers. If we go to Superstock rules, the Italians that can make homologation specials will benefit a lot, whereas the Japanese that mass produce bikes probably won’t have that same advantage.

Something needs to be done to make the series more exciting. Right now, I feel like the best riders are on the best bikes, and that’s why you see the difference. When I was at Honda, I could throw a result in now and again. When BMW was here as a factory, they were at the front. And Aprilia, when they were here as a factory, they were right at the front.

Dorna should find a way to convince the manufacturers to spend some money. I’m 100 percent sure that if Yamaha or Honda came in here with a factory effort, they could be right at the front. The difference is, Kawasaki and Ducati are spending money. How is it fair that you penalize them for taking the championship seriously by making it more basic?

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki, Superbike, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
“We work with a lot with spring balance," Rea says. "You want to get the balance of the bike right first and then focus on electronics. Normally, when we get that sorted, Free Practice 2 tends to be a race simulation.”Kawasaki Racing Team

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca…

I enjoy everything about this race. Laguna is not one of the safer tracks, but it’s part of Superbike history, and it would be a shame to say, “Oh, the bikes have outgrown the track.” There are some areas where you think, “That wall is close,” but I’m sure we can make some changes to help sustain the future.

Last year, I overcooked it a little bit going into that bump/hole up to the Corkscrew and ran onto the curb. I was 100 percent sure that if grew a set I could have kept some angle and stayed on the track, but I got nervous and picked up the bike straight into gravel. This year, they gave us a meter of tarmac on that to prevent a mistake.

I really feel like the heart of Superbike beats in Italy but the US is probably second. The fans are quite knowledgeable, and you’ve had such a lot of top American guys in the past—Doug Polen, Colin Edwards, Ben Spies. Not so many in recent years but, yeah, it’s a good place to come for Superbike.

Pirelli tires…

The feeling of our tires remains quite consistent throughout the race. The character, however, changes a lot. You always get the best potential in the first laps, and then the tire drops. In recent years, consistency has come really good. On certain tracks, we can make lap-record pace on the end, which is quite impressive.

"The winning feeling definitely keeps you hungry. There’s going to be a year when I can’t win, and that’s going to maybe take the enjoyment out of it."

- Jonathan Rea

The biggest difference when the grip goes off is normally on entry traction because the rear has less stability so it’s fighting with the electronic package and becomes quite unpredictable. That’s why I run a very hard front tire. At the end of the race, I might not have the best grip, but it’s stable and I can do all my turning and forget about the rear.

Nicky Hayden…

I really wish that I knew the real guy behind the helmet because he seemed like an amazing person. At the racetrack, he was the ultimate professional. He was one of those guys who you could tell how much racing meant to him. He’s certainly had an amazing life. He achieved a lot in MotoGP, World Superbike, and AMA Superbike. He had all the credentials.

A lot of comments on social media were from not just the motorcycle world but football players, professional cyclists, sportsmen from all around the world and different disciplines sending their thoughts to Nicky’s family and friends. It was amazing how much Nicky actually touched everyone.

I dealt with Nicky quite a bit, especially at the safety commission. There were four riders, and he was part of that. He was always a funny guy. He was very humble, as well, which is nice. The motorcycle world in general has lost a great person, a great athlete, and a great ambassador, but his family and friends have lost an amazing person.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki, Superbike, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Rea doesn't hide the fact that he enjoys the company of his co-workers, especially crew chief and former racer Pere Riba. "I work with incredible people," he says.Scott Jones/PhotoGP

Corner speed vs. point and shoot…

In Superpole, you have to use the whole potential of the tire, so you have to stop and make sure you exit good. Generally in the race, I use a more flowing style at the start and the end. By stopping the bike at the apex and firing it out, you achieve the same lap time but use a different style because you don’t have, not so much grip, but stability from the tire.

It’s like what Marc Marquez says when the temperature goes up the structure and molecules in the tire are a little softer and moving so you can’t carry that same corner speed and lean angle. It’s more about maximizing off the edge of the tire where there’s going to be a bit less heat.

World traveler…

I have my skills that I’ve learned over many years, so learning new things doesn’t excite me. Is it necessary? Yes, sometimes you have to change. It sounds silly but I get excited about going to new places and meeting new people. A big part of the world championship is eating different food around the world and seeing places.

I’m lucky. My brothers work 9 to 5, and my sister, too. I get a chance to travel the world with my job. Okay, I sacrifice a lot to do that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work with incredible people and I get rewarded well for it. I get to stand on the top step of the podium every now and then, and that’s super cool. I hope I can continue as long as possible.

Five years from now…

I have a contract for next season. After that, I want to do another two-year project. But right now, I’m just thinking about next year. I’ve been super competitive since I was six years old as a 50cc motocrosser winning Irish championships, so I’m not tired but I feel like there’s a lot more to life than just riding around in circles.

I’m excited for whatever comes next but right now I’m really happy, more because of the people I’m working with. The results are coming, I’m with a great manufacturer, so I’m not thinking about retirement right now but I can’t see myself riding into my late 30s. I’d say mid-30s is the time to give my body a rest.

Sometimes training is a pain in the ass. When I’d like to have a sofa day but you have to go out and do something. Or when you want to go on holiday with your family you can’t because you’ve got a race next week or whatever. That side of it is taxing and hard, but the actual riding the bike part is really good because I enjoy the competitiveness of it.

The winning feeling definitely keeps you hungry. It’s not easy being at the top. The only way for me now is down. I’ve won two years in a row. There’s going to be a year when I can’t win, and that’s going to maybe take the enjoyment out of it. Right now, I’m living the dream. My family is great, I’m healthy, and life at the track is good.