Jonathan Rea Interview
Johnny Rea has been the man to beat in the World Superbike Championship. The Northern Irishmen won the 2015 WSBK title by a large margin, and is currently the points leader with a 368 total – 46 ahead of teammate and 2013 SBK Champion Tom Sykes.
The 29-year old has competed in the British 125cc Championship, World Supersport Championship and even MotoGP, where he filled in for an injured Casey Stoner.
We caught up with Rea at Laguna Seca Mazday Raceway, and he shared some unique insights into the current state of motorcycle racing, his Kawasaki ZX-10R, and several other topics. Rea went onto win race one at Laguna Seca, but suffered his first DNF due to a mechanical issue in race two.
Ultimate Motorcycling: You and Kawasaki have been having a great season, I was wondering if you’d be able to talk about some of the strengths and or weaknesses in the new ZX-10R, when on the track?
Jonathan Rea: I think our biggest strength with the new bike is braking. In the braking area and acceleration, we can brake much later and we can accelerate much faster. A little bit of the problem with me is that because you can accelerate much faster, you run into some problems. It’s a little bit more aggressive, and it depends on your style. If you’re a little bit more of a “Stop and go” racer, it’s really good.
For me, I carry a lot of corner speed and wide lines so I struggle a little bit to stop the bike. All around, I think the package is much, much better. So as a package, I do think that we’re one of the strongest in superbike. You only have to look at the championship and the victories in the last 18 months but we’re very lucky because we have full factory support from Japan. We have engineers following us every race and Superbike is a priority for Kawasaki so we’re really lucky. It’s nice that we can finish the job.
UM: Now that you’re at Laguna Seca and you’ve been able to get a glimpse into the current state of American racing, how do you feel about the American leagues in general? Are there any riders that you’d like to see cross over into the European leagues?
JR: I’ve been keeping an eye on MotoAmerica, first and foremost because my manager Chuck Aksland and Wayne and a lot of others. They’ve got good people there that realize the problems from the championship before and they’re trying to fix it.
It’s important to find kids, I think the KTM Cup they’re doing the right but the problem, not just in the US is young kids with talent, in order for them to go to Europe, you need a truckload of cash. So you see it with kids like Jack Miller, Wayne Gardner’s sons and the CEV; all these teams in Spain, these Moto3 teams, they don’t just hear of some fast kid in the US and sign him up, it’s all about money. Which really sucks in our sport because the true talent doesn’t rise to the top, at times it’s about having backers or you catch that one lucky break that some guys manage to get.
I think in this era, it’s super hard for young kids to move across the pond. Unfortunately the reality is, like we see in motocross, Supercross and MXGP, a world championship is a world championship. You can be an American champion or a MotoAmerica champion; you’re a champion but not a world champion.
The problem is that these guys have enough talent and experience but there aren’t a lot of opportunities. Its super hard like in your off-road scene (Supercross, Motocross etc.) and in MotoAmerica, your top guys here can earn a decent living, so why should they sacrifice that to go and start from ground zero again? No…it’s just one of those situations.
I’m sure with the KTM Cup happening now, there are going to be some young, ambitious kids that want to do it and come across. It would be cool because the world championship since Nicky, really there hasn’t been a top American GP rider. There is PJ Jacobson and he’s riding a Honda in Supersport but it’s such a big country that there should be so many riders and it’s sad.
UM: You’ve been doing great work in WSBK, and now that you’re more acclimated to the US racing market, have you seen a positive uptick in your fan reaction? How are things looking from where you sit?
JR: Yes and no, the American fans have always been really passionate. I think it helps having Nicky here, I think there’s a lot more faces through the gate but for me, I’m not sure if it’s a big change. Superbike has always been popular in the US since Chandler, Kaczynski, Edwards, Spies.
The core Superbike fans are still here, in this country but to be honest, I think the heart of Superbike beats in Italy. Nothing beats going to the Italian races like Imola or Misano, it’s just packed full of crazy fans and they really get into it – even France is quite good, unfortunately we go there in the fall and the weather isn’t amazing. The last race in Misano and Imola, the fans are absolutely crazy. Also all the young Italian kids in the feeder classes come from there.
The US is a close second, when it comes to passion. Especially when it comes to seeing bikes out on the road. I drove by one of the car parks on the way in and it had loads of bikes in it, so that’s really nice to see. You certainly don’t see that in the UK which is a shame because we have some top riders there.
UM: That’s good – On that note, where do you see BSB going at the moment? As you’ve said there is a good crop of riders coming out of that league but I also understand that there have been some changes recently.
JR: I think what the guys here in MotoAmerica are trying to do is that they’re encouraging the teams to have the same rules as FIM Superbike, which is a good thing. BSB has adopted their own strategy and formula which they believe works for their own national series but I think the best to do is have the same bikes because it encourages wild card rides.
Instead of having a double header with MotoAmerica and WSBK, why not encourage Hayes, Beaubier, Roger Lee and Elias to come on over with the same spec Superbikes and lineup on the grid, you know that they have loads of data from.
In the old days, a wild card were the biggest part of the sport. In the UK it was huge, the national scene during wild cars. I think it would be cool if the rules could fall in line with WSBK. BSB is quite stand alone to be honest, they believe in their formula and they’re quite keen to improve the scene. But they also have a great commercial package and their TV package is really, really good. It’s quite successful on its own.
UM: Apparently, the Kawasaki had a gearbox issue – what was the issue, if you can talk about that and is it worked out?
JR: Yes and no, it’s difficult because I’ve come from other bikes because in the simplest terms, I’ve been quite lazy when shifting. So any gearbox I’ve used in the past has been quite easy. But when I jumped on the Kawasaki, from the very first test, I had issues. The shifting mechanism is much smoother but you have to apply greater pressure to engage the gear. It wasn’t something I was doing, so a lot of the time when the gear shift required a lot of X amount of kilos…I was doing half, so it wasn’t engaging.
The problem with our miss-shifts was that when we were trying to improve the feeling for me with the new bike, was that we were trying many new parts, new strategies in the electronics and it seems like some of them were not working and causing problems like in Donnington and Imola.
Now, I need to realize and accept that I’m not going to make it into a perfect gearbox for me. On the other side, Tom doesn’t seem to have any problems, so it’s not a bike problem. I need to understand that we can’t really change it because it’s a mass market machine, I just need to load the lever more and that’s what I’m doing. I got caught out today because sometimes when I move my foot and go down three gears, it doesn’t feel like it’s gone down three gears and I need to move my foot again. It takes some of my attention away but I need to improve my riding style to compliment the bike.
UM: As a team, do you and Tom Sykes tend to work together?
JR: I mean, there is no wall in the box, he has access to my setup and data. That goes both ways but to be completely honest with you, there is no advantage to doing that because our styles and bikes are so different. If I started to look at Tom and do what he’s doing, I’d just get lost because I can’t ride the bike like he does.
For example, if I had to jump on his bike to complete a lap, I couldn’t ride it – I couldn’t ride it fast and I’d guess it’s the same for him. It’s good and it’s bad. It’s bad because it makes it more difficult to take my riding to the next level but from Kawasaki’s point of view, it’s quite good because they have two sets of data to analyze so they have that much more information to develop future models.
UM: Sounds good, we appreciate it. Good luck this weekend!
Photos by Ara Ashjian