Jonathan Rea made history at the weekend by claiming a record setting fourth consecutive WorldSBK title. The Northern Irishman is at the peak of his powers but where does he rank in the all-time list?
“Who's the greatest” has been a question asked in every sport over the years. Whether it's Muhammad Ali proclaiming himself the greatest, or Tiger Woods being anointed by the masses, a general consensus quickly forms about a pecking order.
In football it quickly comes down to Pele or Maradonna, Ronaldo or Messi or another combination from a certain era. In tennis it comes down to dominance over a sustained period with one era blending into the next of Rod Laver to Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras to Roger Federer. Motorcycle racing is similar in a lot of ways, with riders typically earning their titles in spurts of sustained excellence.
Superbike racing is however a curious subset. With domestic series feeding into World championships and some of the brightest WorldSBK stars being offered MotoGP seats after only a couple of years, at the same as riders step across to Superbike racing from Grand Prix for only a handful of seasons at the end of their careers, it's a strange combination of fluidity and constant change. When you ask a Superbike fan who the greatest is, you certainly get more than your fair share of choice.
Jonathan Rea (Four time WorldSBK champion, 68 wins and 131 podiums)
Recency bias will place Rea at the top of the list of many fans, but a constant thorn in his side are the references to racing in an era of lesser competition and Rea having the best bike. In terms of the machinery the best riders almost always end up on the best bikes in any championship.
Rea's form from his WorldSBK debut, and indeed his race-winning pedigree in British Superbike, show his natural ability and speed, and his six seasons with Honda, which culminated in finishing third in the standings in 2014, show that he extracted every ounce of potential from the Fireblade. When Rea moved to Kawasaki in 2015 many riders at the time commented that the writing was on the wall, and that with Rea already a top class rider, he would be unbeatable with the best machine underneath him.
The team that has surrounded him, led by Pere Riba, has enjoyed unprecedented success, but still there are questions from some quarters about Rea. His riding style and professionalism would thrive in any era of WorldSBK and he's had to beat some world-class rivals over the years in SBK with Marco Melandri, Chaz Davies, and Tom Sykes all former world champions.
For many fans, Foggy is WorldSBK. The determination etched into his eyes as he focused on the grid is a defining memory of the golden era of WorldSBK for a huge number of fans. The Briton was an unbelievably determined rider who was able to wring every last drop of ability out of himself. There were times when Foggy was a tour de force out on track, and his wins, with two different manufacturers, came against the likes of world champions Troy Corser, Scott Russell, John Kocinski, and Colin Edwards, with Nori Haga and Frankie Chili also playing key roles. The competition on the grid was tighter during this era because in part there was only a handful of bikes that could win, not that dissimilar to the current era. For much of Foggy's career, if you wanted to win you needed a Ducati, and the grid was filled with lots of the Italian machinery.
Of course to come out on top of this you needed to be the best Ducati rider, and Fogarty certainly was that throughout his career. His ability to dominate teammates and use mind games was legendary, and last year Aaron Slight said, “Foggy's a nice guy now but at the time he was awful. He came up me and apologized about it and he's good now, but that doesn't make up for being a **** back then!”
In ten seconds, Slight perfectly captured Foggy's approach to racing; never give an inch and push the boundaries as far as you can.
Troy Bayliss (Three time WorldSBK champion, 52 wins and 94 podiums. British Superbike champion)
Replacing a legend is never easy, and it fell on these Australian shoulders to handle the weight of expectation that came following Foggy's retirement in 2000. Bayliss immediately stepped up to the mark and no one has a better record than the former MotoGP race winner.
His 52 wins and 94 podiums give him a better success rate on both counts than Rea. The fact that he did it in different eras is unique. His first title came in 2001 with the Ducati 996 in a time prior to electronic aids on the machine, his last crown in 2008 came with those aids turned up to the max. Two completely different bikes with completely different riding styles but still Bayliss prevailed.
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