With three WorldSBK titles in the bag, and a fourth arguably on the way, Jonathan Rea has redefined success in recent years. He's also changed what Kawasaki think is possible and it's because of that he lined up on the grid for the 2018 Suzuka 8 Hours.
The Northern Irishman, a winner for Honda in 2012, had refused to return to the Japanese race in recent years. Insisting that he brought with him some of his WorldSBK crew, the project quickly morphed into a KRT-lite squad. It showed Kawasaki's desire to win the 8 Hours and proved, unlike Honda and Yamaha, that they would move away from the traditional Japanese model of team building. Typically at Suzuka riders are a smaller part of the equation in contrast to engineers. For Kawasaki they looked to have the best of both.
Eyeing up the best Kawasaki team in the world they hand picked Pere Riba, Rea's regular crew chief, as well as his mechanics to join Rea. With British Superbike championship leader Leon Haslam beside him it was a potent rider line-up.
“This was the perfect time for me to come back to Suzuka,” said Rea. “I've had opportunities to come back with Kawasaki before but it just didn't seem right. It didn't seem like a full effort and I've been here before so I understand what it takes to win at Suzuka. I wasn't interested in coming back if I couldn't win again. It seems that the mentality has changed within Kawasaki and there's more investment in the Suzuka project. WorldSBK is still the main priority for Kawasaki but the 8 Hours project gathered some momentum and having two top European riders with a factory Japanese rider shows this.
“This isn't my team but there were conditions that I wanted Kawasaki to meet if I was to come to Suzuka. I wanted to have some familiarity with Pere and Uri in the garage. It can be daunting to come here from the world championship and go to a team you've never worked with before. That's why having those guys was important to me and one of the conditions of my contract. I've raced in the past here with other teams and communication can be a disaster because the team didn't speak any English and I was getting on the bike without understanding the strategy or the changes that had been made to the bike.”
For Kawasaki they've certainly made changes to the ZX10RR to get it ready for an endurance race. The Suzuka specification bike is completely different to a WorldSBK bike with the use of Bridgestone tyres driving the lions share of that difference. While the electronics, suspension and chassis are similar to his regular mount how the interact and use Bridgestone rubber is very different to a Pirelli tyre. With a completely different engine specification, detuned to ensure reliability for 8 Hours, and having to compromise on body position and settings it's a real challenge to be fast at Suzuka.
For Rea to set a new unofficial lap record, almost one second faster than any Suzuka lap before, was beyond impressive. It showed the speed that has never been in doubt and the adaptability that has been his strong suit in recent years.
“The Suzuka bike is totally different from WorldSBK and it's tough to learn how to get the most from it in one test before the race. I was really surprised with the fastest time of the week because I didn't get a lot of time on the bike. The bike is setup very different to normal for me but the race week is so different here. At a WorldSBK race we're focusing on finding a tenth of a second in the middle of a race or having speed at the start. Here you're looking to be happy with the bike.
“For the bike settings I told Pere that I'm probably more adaptable than the other guys so positioning or settings aren't as important for me. There's always a compromise to be made at Suzuka and I told Pere not to focus on my feedback and to make sure the other riders were happy. In testing we worked on making sure all three of us gave the same feedback. If we all agreed on something we'd make a change.
“For me on the bike it's great to have Pere in the team because he understands me and my riding so well. If I'm not sure about something he can look at the data and understand that I'm riding differently and he'll change the setting to force me to ride in the correct way. Once I'm on the bike and I feel that change I instantly understand what he needs me to do. Maybe that comes from riding uncompetitive machinery and extracted the most from yourself.”
While Rea showed an ability to compromise at Suzuka, where Kawasaki had an eventful race that ended with a podium following a crash and running out of fuel, in WorldSBK he has made few compromises in recent years. Winning races and winning titles can allow complacency to step in but Rea is well aware that the clock is ticking on his era of dominance and that it has to end sometime.
“The biggest difference for me since joining Kawasaki is my family and having kids. If I looked in the mirror and saw the 2014 version of me I'd say that I'm the same rider as back then but I was working so hard to find my dream back then. I was a bit angry at not having the success that I wanted but once we started to win I got more laid back because the boxes had been ticked.
“I don't put as much pressure on myself any more because I've achieved everything that I wanted to. I used to feel pressure to keep winning but now, because of my attitude, it's easier to have fun. My days are numbered at the top because a rider will step up, a manufacturer will get stronger so I just want to enjoy it with these guys. Knowing what I now know about this team I'd hate to compete against us because I know that everyone in my corner would fight for me. A fast rider on a fast bike with a good team is hard to beat but if there's one of those pieces missing it's very hard to be successful.
“I never had that before and it's such a great feeling to have that support. I'd hate to lose that because confidence is such an important part of racing. I do fear losing that confidence, that aura that comes with success because we've seen guys lose that and never regain it. There's loads left to achieve but it's hard to win a race because you're on the limit every weekend and it doesn't get any easier.”
Winning doesn't get easier because the depth in WorldSBK is now better than ever during Rea's career. Comparing WorldSBK to MotoGP, where he's been linked with a host of rides in recent years, Rea is content to stay on a Superbike rather than play the ‘what if’ game. Having the stability around him at Kawasaki is crucial and the us against the world mentality that prevails within his crew.
They're a family, a unit and all in it together as shown by two decisions this summer. The first was when Rea was approached by MotoGP factories to hire him-he would only do so if Riba went with him. The second was when Riba was approached by two Grand Prix-based manufacturers to be crew chiefs for their factory riders. He refused because he “could be offered the job of being any rider's crew chief and I'd turn it down. That's how good Johnny is.”
“The comparison between MotoGP and WorldSBK is always made and I think that MotoGP could send its best riders to Suzuka, where we'd all be fighting on common ground, and the clever guys would understand it very quickly. It's a motorbike with two wheels. There's always a debate about MotoGP riders vs Superbike riders but a good rider is a good rider and they'll make it work.
“Pere turned down offers to be the crew chief for two top MotoGP riders in 2019 to stay with me. He joked in Misano with me about who'd just been on the phone to him. It makes me feel good that he wants to keep working with me and I'm sure he felt the same way when I told those teams that the first stipulation I had for moving with that Pere came with me. What we have together works very well.”
With the success they've enjoyed together it's hard to argue with Rea's decision making.