WorldSBK: End of an era?
Eventually all empires come to an end. Rivals come to the fore and take on the King. The unbeatable suddenly are vulnerable. Injuries, motivation and circumstances have all rooted out riders in the past and are we about to witness the end of the Rea-era of WorldSBK?
Make no mistake, Jonathan Rea will still line up on the grid as the favourite for almost every race, but Round 1 of the 2020 WorldSBK season showed us that he’ll face renewed competition on multiple fronts. In Australia five riders consisting of Rea, Alex Lowes, Scott Redding, Toprak Razgatlıoglu and Michael van der Mark, on three different bikes: Kawasaki, Ducati and Yamaha, were all competitive. There’s no reason to expect that to be any different when racing resumes. And when you add into the mix Loris Baz, Chaz Davies, the BMW’s as well as a few wild-card front runners through the season, it’s clear that Rea is now facing an unprecedented challenge.
Having won 89 times in WorldSBK and claiming five titles, it’s clear that Rea is the greatest Superbike rider of all-time. He has set records that will be very difficult to match, even with the advent of a third race each weekend, but he’s typically had to fight against one rider. Contending against Tom Sykes, Chaz Davies or Alvaro Bautista for a title meant that he had to focus his attention on one rider. Now he’ll face a challenge from different riders each weekend.
Is the end nigh for Rea? It’s unlikely but not inconceivable. His consistency has been his championship winning calling card and this year he’ll need it more than ever. Podiums and wins have come with alarming regularity, but with so many riders now capable to competing at the front it will necessitate a change in tact from Rea. Understanding the changing landscape and “settling” for a top five finish rather than a podium will be crucial. It’s easier said than done however for a competitive animal built to win.
For a rider so accustomed to winning races to suddenly “settle” for second last year was tough to bear. Last year, facing the surge of wins for Alvaro Bautista in the opening half of the season, Rea looked rattled at times. He was off his balance and while he came back magnificently to win the title. It was clear however that it was a heavy cross for Rea. The toll showed at various times but heading to Imola and Round 5 it was clear that Rea was starting to feel the pressure. He came through to win at the Italian venue and suddenly momentum started to shift his way and, on a round by round basis, he wasn’t outscored by Bautista again. When racing resumes Rea might have to settle for a top five rather than a podium and that could be a very different challenge. For a rider and team that are so accustomed to success, at a historic rate, it may be difficult to accept.
This year circumstances are going to work against the five time World Champion. Imola is suddenly off the menu. The historic circuit plays to Rea’s strengths and the development path of the bike. It’s a mix of chicances and flowing sections but when you witness Rea at the top chicane braking late and crashing down the gearbox yet somehow getting the bike stopped it showcased a strength of his that gave him an advantage. Losing that round could be crucial down the line.
The landscape of the calendar is also changing now for Rea. Jerez in March would have been warm but a cool track temperature. Jerez in August will be scorching. The Kawasaki was the clear favourite for victory in March, but the ZX10-RR isn’t as strong once the track temperature jumps. The cooler temperatures of winter testing has always illustrated how strong the bike is with grip at Jerez but in the warmer temperatures of summer, like last year’s meeting, the bike struggled compared to the Ducati. Bautista won Race 1 and the Superpole Race and crashed out of the lead in Race 2. Could that be the case again this year?
Potentially, and that could mean that two rounds into the season Rea could be on the backfoot. Suddenly a weekend where Rea would expect to win multiple races might be a lot harder. Podiums rather than wins become the target. A strong weekend is suddenly under threat. If it happens, combined with Phillip Island, suddenly after two rounds Rea could potentially be on the backfoot. He’d still be the title favourite but circumstances could change the flow of the season.
Would Rea dig deep and overcome this potential lack of “momentum” in the early rounds? Could he do it again like in 2019 or would it be different when, with greater competition, it becomes harder to win on a regular basis? Rea is a beast that feasts on wins. We’ve seen many riders in the past refuse to believe that change is in the air. Rea is still the best Superbike rider on the planet but suddenly the world is a lot smaller. There’s a lot more riders able to fight at the front. There’s, potentially, a lot more rivals now for Rea.
Is Rea motivated by titles or wins? Did the drive for five take more out of him than first thought? The lockdown could also have an interesting effect on some riders. Has the break from racing reignited their fire or showed them a life that they could be leading away from the track? At one point Rea talked about “one more contract.” That was 2016. He’s motivated by success but we’ve seen so many exmaples in the past of riders who’s time at the top came to an end suddenly. Five years is an eternity in racing and while title number six would be no surprise, it looks likely to be a very different landscape for Rea.
Has the lockdown changed anything for the top riders? We won’t know until racing comes back.