2019 saw Jonathan Rea face and overcome a new rival, but how did the dramatic season unfold?
The 2019 WorldSBK season is in the books and with testing around the corner, a new campaign is drawing near. After one of the most talked about WorldSBK title campaigns in memory, WorldSBK.com sat down with the protagonists Jonathan Rea and Alvaro Bautista, to get their thoughts on the season.
Having seen Bautista reel off eleven wins in a row, his coronation seemed a foregone conclusion. But a sudden series of crashes left Bautista reeling. With Rea in relentless form, the world champion overturned a 61-point lead to be crowned champion with two rounds remaining.
Facing the impossible
"I’ve never really seen a turnaround like this one," admitted Rea. "My target was always to win the championship but after four rounds it was…a big dream. We couldn’t see any weakness in the package of Alvaro Bautista and Ducati. It’s the strongest package I’ve ever faced. Winning at Imola was so important, because up until then we were drowning. That was a gasp of air that was enough to compose ourselves.
"Coming into the season I didn’t know much about Alvaro. I knew that I needed to keep the pressure on him because the season is long. To keep the lead all year is hard. At the beginning of the year I couldn’t see much hope, but the mistakes in Misano and Jerez were completely uncalled for. I was just trying to keep doing my own thing. It’s really hard to manage the championship from the front, I’ve been in that position, and when you’re chasing you have nothing to lose at times."
A grand entrance
Bautista came to WorldSBK with nothing to lose after finding himself exiled from MotoGP. With a factory Ducati he dominated the opening four rounds, before Rea started to apply some pressure.
"It was ten years since my last win when I won in Phillip Island," the Spaniard said. "It was very special to win again. Assen was another good moment because it was very difficult conditions and we managed to win the races. We have had many good times in the season and bad times. To start by winning the first eleven races was really impressive. I said before the start of the season that I didn't want to expect anything, but even in my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to win the first eleven races.
"At the same time, in my nightmares, I didn’t expect to lose the championship in just a few rounds. So you have positive and negative things from this season. In this sport you have to be prepared for everything. During the season I never thought about the championship. We had a big gap, but still we continued working to improve. In this sport it’s always when you try improving that you find something.
"During the season we started to try to develop the bike, to improve the setting but maybe we made some wrong steps. When you have a rival like Jonathan, who gives everything in all situations, you cannot lose these things. In the end, it was strange. We had a bit of bad luck with crashes that were not my fault, but that’s racing. I think it’s the good side of racing, that you never know what happens until the checkered flag, it’s why I love this sport."
The unknown always makes racing special, but the reason fans love the sport is because of the rivalries that develop. Whilst Rea didn’t know what to expect from Bautista on track, he quickly learned that his level of talent was high but also that there was a vulnerability for him to press.
"Throughout the year we saw different sides to Alvaro," Rea reflected. "At the beginning of the year he was a really smiley guy on TV. Every time the cameras went in the garage he was full of smiles and double hand waves. He was like an angelic kid. After the first crash it was still the same; he was still his happy-go-lucky self. After making a few more mistakes though, he was a shadow of the beginning of the season. You could see the stress on his shoulders. That’s when we just had to keep relentlessly delivering results every weekend. I didn’t need him to see me on the top step of the podium. I just needed him to look at me standing next to him. I wanted him to know that I was right there and that he couldn’t have a bad weekend."
Rea was trying to keep the pressure on Bautista; and the Spaniard learned that the biggest challenge facing anyone with Rea is his ability to consistently get the most from himself, even if on any given weekend he didn’t have the bike to beat them.
"I think that the strong point for Jonathan is that maybe he isn’t always the fastest rider, but he can control the championship," Bautista believes. "I beat him, Van de Mark beat him, Chaz beat him, Toprak beat him, but he always found a way to keep on top of his championship charge. He’s not strong in every race, but he always manages to stay near the top. If not first, then second or third, but always on the podium. At the end of the championship, it’s important to get points and not to make mistakes. I think a big part of this is that he has a lot of experience with the bike. He has a lot of experience with the team, with the championship, the tyres. He knows how everything works very well. I think we missed that experience this season."
Consistency is king
For Rea the praise has been effusive. His consistency was the hallmark of his fifth crown, but not one that he feels needs to be praised. For Rea it was just the smart way of approaching the season.
"Finishing second so often was the logical thing to do," Rea explained. "If I was a team, I’d struggle to work with a rider that would throw a strong result away, when he could just finish second when it was clear the other guy was so far ahead. You can’t just get on the bike and magically find three tenths a lap. You have to think that today you’re racing for second, and then go and try to do it. It’s about building a championship.
"I tried to keep working hard all year and I didn’t expect the Laguna Seca weekend to turn around the way it did. For Alvaro not to score in all three races, that really helped my cause. To go eleven races unbeaten and then to face the challenges he has, I just can’t understand it. I really can’t. I can’t understand how you can go to Phillip Island in your first race, on a new bike and new championship and mentally be that strong to win races by fifteen seconds. To then go to Thailand and do pretty much the same. Then we went to Aragon and he was still winning by a distance. It looked like there was no chance for the season to turn around like it has."
For Bautista the weekend in the United States quickly turned into a Californian nightmare. That was the pivotal weekend and one that he admits left his hopes in tatters.
"Laguna was the worst moment of the year for me," admitted the Spaniard. "To get three zeros in Laguna was really important for the championship. I was injured after the Superpole crash, and in my career I’ve raced many times with injuries but it left me injured after the summer break. When you’re injured you cannot give 100%. Laguna was the worst moment of my season."
While Laguna was the end of Bautista’s title challenge, it was only the start of Rea’s quest for records. With a fifth title secured at Magny-Cours he went on to break the single season wins record with 17 victories. The Northern Irishman ended the campaign with one more than Bautista, but the crucial difference was 34 podiums to 24 in Rea’s favour. That was what swung the campaign his way. With a fifth world title and Bautista joining Honda, the dynamics of their rivalry will change again for 2020.
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