Jonathan Rea may have been beaten in Australia but he's ready to come out swinging in Thailand
The opening round of the 2019 WorldSBK season saw Alvaro Bautista dominate proceedings, and for many it seemed as though there was a changing of the guard in the championship. After four years of unparalleled dominance, Jonathan Rea was spectacularly put in his place by the Spanish MotoGP refugee. It was stunning and cathartic for a championship that has seen Rea rewrite the history books.
It was easy to read the tea leaves leaving Australia that Rea is going to face his toughest yet in 2019. Unfortunately for his rivals, we also left Australia 12 months ago with Rea scratching his head after a difficult weekend, even further adrift of the championship leader. That season ended with the most dominant campaign in WorldSBK history.
Australia was a weekend full of challenges. From the two day test prior to the race weekend, it was clear that Rea was struggling. He couldn't find a balance with the bike and he kept his powder dry on the second day. Not willing to use a new tire and try and set a fast time, he also didn't undertake his usual race simulations. It was clear Rea was on the ropes for Round One.
Tough on tires
"Phillip Island has always been a tough track for tire conservation," said Rea. "Over the years I've won races, I've been on the podium and I've had some bad races. I've left leading the championship and I've left with a big points deficit too. I blistered a tire last year, and I was thinking of that all the way through this year. With four laps to go last year I was thrown out the back door so fast.
"After the test and Friday practice it was clear Alvaro and Ducati were just too strong. Finishing second was a realistic goal and that's what we did. We finished second at the slowest possible speed and that's never a fun race, but I'm happy to turn the page and go to Thailand. It's a happy hunting ground for us where we've won a lot of races, and aside from brake issues last year I've only ever won or finished second. It's a more traditional circuit, but the first two sectors are a little bit like Monza with very fast straights and heavy braking. That will suit the Ducati but the rest of the lap is flowing and at slower speeds.
"Buriram will give us a better indication of exactly where we are before going back to Europe. That's where the championship finds its place. You can't read too much into everything until Assen, and from that point you understand where the challenges are coming from. I'm looking forward to the next few rounds."
Bautista is the face of the challenge after Round One, but 2019 looks set to be much more competitive in WorldSBK. Along with a brand new Ducati, BMW and Honda are back as factory efforts, and Yamaha are looking strong. After years of being able to focus on Chaz Davies as his sole rival, this could be the season that Rea has to fight a war on multiple fronts. It will be fascinating to see how Rea deals with that challenge.
After Australia he's happy to talk up his respect for Bautista. The Spaniard came into the WorldSBK paddock and did something that no-one has done since Max Biaggi in 2007; win on his debut. It was hugely impressive and it could point to a run of form where the former 125GP champion hits the ground running and builds up an early season advantage. It could also be a case of a near perfect set of circumstances playing to his advantage.
"Alvaro is the hot topic right now," admitted Rea. "We did a lot of testing in the winter and we know we worked well. Australia isn't worrying for us but Alvaro's performance certainly made everyone sit up and take him seriously. What he did was incredible, coming to Superbike and winning two races on his debut is mad. This grid is full of world championship level riders, but I think this was a perfect scenario for him to do it.
"Phillip Island is a track where he's always gone very well. It's a track that Ducati has always been incredible at, with a lot of different bikes. The track and bike suits his style. It was a perfect place for him to start. He's certainly grabbed everyone's attention, grabbed the headlines, but it's one race. It's one round out of thirteen. What I've learned over the last two years - when we've had new regulations that were supposed to kill us off - is that after a few races you just find your way. I think when I was 20 I'd probably look at this completely different, but with maturity and experience I can just go to the next one."
Fear of losing
There's always a next one for riders. There's always a new challenge. It's clear that for Rea the challenge over the years has been finding a new form of motivation. Winning alone doesn't motivate him. A fear of losing is much more of a driving factor for any serial champion. Whether it's Valentino Rossi, Jonathan Rea, or Shakey Byrne in BSB, there have always been challengers that pop up and force you to adapt. Rossi and Byrne both found ways to stay at the top and now Rea is going to be forced to adapt. This winter was spent working with a new trainer and changing his off-season routine. Like many great riders he's been forced to reinvent himself to stay at the top. The one thing that hasn't changed is the team around him led by Pere Riba.
"I know I've got a bike to win and a crew to win. I'm motivated by the fear of losing. I've worked hard to get here and I know the ups and downs that come throughout a career. So I take a lot of power from coming through them and I know this won't last forever. There's always something that motivates you. I feel that we're going to Thailand with pressure to step up and take the fight to them. We got beaten badly by 15 seconds in Australia. The pressure is on everybody to step up but that's a challenge I'm excited about.
"It's easy to be motivated, to keep going. Sometimes you're motivated by comments made by other riders. Sometimes it's by problems with the bike. Sometimes it's been about beating my rivals because I liked beating them. I've reached the top in my sport, so the only way is to keep on doing what I'm doing or decline. I'm not ready for that yet, and I'm worried about that."
Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.