Jonathan Rea is seeking history in 2017 but it's a clean sheet of paper as the champion strives for a third title
For the last two years Jonathan Rea has been as consistent as the tides and wrapped up the WorldSBK crown with almost a complete season of podium finishes. Since joining Kawasaki in 2015 the 30 year old has notched up 23 wins and 46 podium finishes from 52 races. To put his number of victories into perspective Rea's two year reign would place him in the top ten for career wins.
Last year Rea became only the fourth rider to successfully defend a WorldSBK crown and this year the Northern Irishman could write his name in the history book as the only rider to ever win three titles in a row.
“Winning a third straight title is a question I’ve had a lot over the winter,” admitted Rea at the team launch in Barcelona. “I’m not thinking about three in a row. I don’t think you can. I’m looking at it that 2017 is completely new and what I’ve done in the past has been reset to zero. Last year, when I won the title, I really enjoyed the aftermath of winning it and I made the most of my time at home by enjoying putting my feet up, eating what I wanted and drinking what I want.
“When the time came to start focusing on training and performance I started quite early. Winter tests went super smooth and the bike’s improved. Step-by-step I’ve also got stronger and the relationship that I have with the bike is even stronger. I’m just looking at this year as completely new and I have forgotten what’s happened in the past and everyone starts from zero in Phillip Island.”
Speaking to his rivals in the WorldSBK paddock the respect that they have for Rea is clear but also the determination they have to unseat him is never far from the surface. It's also a position Rea can relate to.
Before joining Kawasaki the double world champion was in a similar position to the one his chief title rival, Chaz Davies, will face this year. When riding for Honda Rea had shown more than enough speed and skill to win races and have the belief that he could be a champion, and while he will be keenly aware of the threat posed by Davies he is keen to focus on the things he can control.
“I'm excited by this season. I understand how to win a championship and I know our strengths and weaknesses. We’ve just got to worry about ourselves and work with the same step-by-step philosophy that we’ve applied from the start. Together with all my crew and Kawasaki, we’ll work with that in mind to try to win the championship. At the end of the year we’ll hopefully be there fighting for it at least.
“The winter has been productive for us and I feel that we’ve gone through the list of things we needed to test, analyzed them clearly and double-checked some things. We’re in an area with the bike now where I feel quite comfortable. It’s been smooth and things have been happening quite naturally. Pere [Riba] builds the strategy over the winter, in terms of what we’re testing and when, and it seems to have worked and I feel quite confident now on the bike. We’re still learning as well. Not making huge steps forward or backward. We’ve just been chipping away, and polishing the package.”
The relationship that has grown between Rea and his crew chief, Pere Riba, has been one of the keys of the success they have enjoyed. Riba, who previously turned Loris Baz from a raw prospect into a WorldSBK race winner, has been instrumental in allowing the reigning champion to grow and improve. As a former 500GP, WorldSSP racer the Spaniard brings a riders perspective to his job as a crew chief and his energy and enthusiasm has been crucial for the success of “Team 65.”
“We’ve been working together for three years and I know Johnny's preferences now. I know what he needs from the bike and the feeling he wants to receive from the bike. In my opinion over the winter we made a step forward with the bike. We have different things in the engine; with more revs, a little more power and different strategies with the electronics. Johnny is improving his understanding of the bike's limits but also he is still improving. He won his first championship but the second one was much more difficult because of the added pressure of expectation.
“I believe we are in the best shape as a package we started working together. On paper I feel Johnny is the strongest rider but racing is racing. We will go to Phillip Island and we have to manage the races. Chaz is very strong and in my personal opinion, on paper, Chaz Davies and Jonathan Rea will be the guys fighting for the championship.”
With Tom Sykes and Marco Melandri waiting in the wings, as their respective teammates, it seems almost certain that Rea and Davies will face obstacles during the 2017 season. When you factor in the Aprilia, Yamaha and Honda riders the depth of the championship should be improved compared to last year.
For Rea the fight to stay at the top of the mountain gets tougher with each season. None of the great champions of WorldSBK have managed to hold the summit for three years; can Rea become the first?
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