Exclusive interview with six-time WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea

Here it is… Crash.net’s full interview with six-time WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea, who discusses everything from battling Toprak Razgatlioglu for the 2021 title, missing out on the chance to compete in MotoGP, the ‘legend’ that is Valentino Rossi and much more.
Jonathan Rea, WorldSBK Race2, 17 October 2021
Jonathan Rea, WorldSBK Race2, 17 October 2021
© Gold and Goose

Here it is… Crash.net’s full interview with six-time WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea.

After contesting one of the most thrilling and competitive WorldSBK championship battles ever, we spoke to the Kawasaki rider about his 2021 season, 2022 testing plans, battling with new WorldSBK champion Toprak Razgatlioglu, missing out on the chance to compete in MotoGP, nine-time grand prix world champion Valentino Rossi retiring and much more. 

Crash.net: How would you reflect on your 2021 season? Matched Toprak’s win total, podium total, had more pole positions and scored your fourth highest points total ever?

Rea: "When I sort of analyse the season I’ve got to be really content because we did our maximum. I rode with a lot of heart this year. I made a load of mistakes in doing so, a lot of times I should have maybe settled for that second or third, or even not pushed as much, like pushing for a race win in Donington. 

"We had the pace all weekend, Portimao was the same as impatience got the better of me and ultimately we made too many mistakes. Also as a team we made some mistakes with set-up directions and what not, but it was just a learning year. 

"I think we need to put all that we’ve learnt from these mistakes, both myself and the team, and we need to improve as well. As we’ve seen this year the level in Superbike is really high, not just from riders but from competition from manufacturers. So, I need to step-up, the team needs to step-up and hopefully we can take that into 2022." 

Crash.net: Do you think with the competition being even stronger this year; I know throughout the season you’ve used the term 'being in crisis mode’ with the bike at some points, did that play a part in you being more on the limit and therefore it being the reason for those mistakes? 

Rea: "Portimao not so much. Portimao was my mistake and had nothing really to do with the bike being in crisis because that weekend we actually made a really good step with the bike and it felt good. I was really frustrated. Other crashes came because I felt like I was in crisis. I was having to nurse the front of the bike from always being pushed with the set-up point of view. 

"I have to put my hands up as it’s a direction that I took the team regarding some electronic and chassis set-up ideas that we never really reverted or tested back-to-back with previously. So I think that made the beginning and mid-season a struggle because of that. 

"The end of the season I felt like we had a handle on things. Portimao was a place where we lost too many points, but that was totally my doing. The actual bike that weekend was incredible. If you asked me on Friday, I would have put my house on winning all three races. So, really frustrated with myself but hopefully we’re past that now and I had a pretty solid end to the year. Let’s hope we can take that momentum into next year."

Crash.Net: Is it then a positive that in San Juan and Indonesia; it looked like from Friday practice Razgatlioglu had incredible pace and was maybe a step ahead early on, but then as the weekend progressed you were able to match him and even better him during Sunday’s races? Is that something you see as a positive for next season?

Rea: "Yeah I think it’s always important during a weekend to keep improving. It’s been an area that honestly, in the past I’ve found that difficult. Normally my pace on a Friday is super fast and it’s the benchmark. Then everyone kind of catches up, but now we have to be the one reacting and even when we had a good pace I did better. I mean, when there’s nothing to lose and fighting for a championship you have to try things and not be scared of making a change when things aren’t perfect. 

"At the end of the season we were less likely to find time from me and change the bike, but my crew chief (Pere Riba) understood that and we managed the last races in a good way. We made some mistakes of course, but I feel like in Mandalika especially; in FP1 we had a technical problem and I only had one exit from the box. 

"Then I spent more than half the session in the box at a circuit we had never been to, had no data, so we were so on the back foot, but FP2 was better and we maximised track time and felt good with the bike. 

"Sometimes when you have tough days like that it’s so easy to throw your head up and the younger version of me would have been in a proper crisis. Would have been frustrated and angry, but with time and experience I’ve learned to accept that bad days happen and sometimes the best way to get over it is to forget about it which we were able to do really quickly." 

Crash.Net: What was the battle with Toprak like? I think a lot of people believe it’s one of the best battles, not just in WorldSBK history, but all forms of racing. It seemed to be a really respectful rivalry even though it got close at times, there was never any dirty riding or fall out from it like we’ve seen in F1 and MotoGP perhaps? 

Rea: "It’s good because he’s a hard rider and like myself; sometimes you can’t complain too much about others because when you're on the receiving end of tough racing and you ride equally as tough then this happens. 

"That’s the good thing about me and him and in a race. If we’re in a fighting situation he’s going to expect that I’m there and it’s the same when he’s behind me. I sort of know that there’s a pass on anywhere. There’s a lot of races this year where I understood his mentality, his tactics a lot better, how he managed that race and that will help me when battling with him in the future."

Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu, Catalunya WorldSBK, Superpole Race19 September 2021
Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu, Catalunya WorldSBK, Superpole Race19…
© Gold and Goose

Crash.net: Before Toprak went to Yamaha I think many expected this battle to happen at some stage. Did you expect this year to be the season where Toprak became your biggest challenger, even though Redding was of course there? How did the battle with Toprak compare to fighting against Redding or even Alvaro Bautista? 

Rea: "Good question, of course I expected him (Toprak Razgatligolu) to be there right from the start because last year they made a few mistakes, he got injured also in Barcelona which had a knock on effect for a few races. 

"I think there was no question he would be the guy and what I liked about Toprak is that he’s a quiet achiever. He doesn’t talk about what he’s going to do, he’s just there, he’s always there. So you can’t not respect someone like that. It’s hard to compare with someone like Redding or Bautista because they’re all different, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. 

"But I would say Toprak has less weaknesses than the others and that’s why he won the championship this year. He was stronger than everyone and he made less mistakes than everyone. So fair play and kudos to him and his team."

Crash.net: Looking at next season yourself and Toprak will be the firm favourites especially with the rider moves that have happened. Do you see it that way? 

Rea: "Honestly, I’m not focused on anyone because we need to focus on ourselves at the minute. I need to really improve, my team needs to improve and that’s the sole focus of this off-season. Of course, when it comes to talking about who’s going to be the guy next year, 

"Toprak is the one that springs to mind straight away. He has form and has shown that he can be a championship contender. I mean the rest, Scott’s the same, but just the question mark with Scott is how he’s going to manage with BMW. 

"The question mark with Alvaro is how he’s going to go switching back to Ducati. Because in 2019 I didn’t feel like he had a very good season. He was really, really fast, blindingly fast at times, but he made a lot of mistakes. 

"Even with his time at Honda still making mistakes and struggling to be at the front. So you just don’t know what Alvaro is going to turn up and it’s the same with Scott. But with Toprak there is no question. He’s in the same team, same bike and of course he’s only going to get stronger. We need to react and forget about all the others." 

Crash.net: You mentioned being able to analyse Toprak and see what his strengths and weaknesses were, but also finding out more about the Yamaha as a package, so where do you feel Kawasaki needs to improve the most during testing and how much testing have you got lined up?

Rea: "Well we’re back on the bike in ten days time in Jerez. But I can’t keep talking about the speed or acceleration issues because that comes from engine development and with such strict rules and regulations we can’t expect to be much faster. We have to work all over the bike, aerodynamics, chassis set-up and myself to find out how I can be better. 

"There’s no magic book to make us more competitive, we just have to make it work by finding the feeling and the confidence. That started to come at the end of the year as I felt like I could ride more free. 

"In the middle of the season it was tougher and when you have problems when things are tough and you’re not feeling at one with the bike then it has more of a knock on effect on how you ride, compared to when you still have some problems but you’re still getting the best from the bike and enjoying it. 

"So yeah, we just have to be perfect. We have a few test items to try, but nothing that’s going to completely revolutionise the bike. But it’s small steps. When we’ve been beaten this year it’s not been by ten seconds or anything, so there’s no reason to panic or start thinking we need to find half a second a lap. It’s small margins that we need to gain. I’m pretty convinced that we can." 

Crash.net: The 2022 calendar has now been released and it looks like a more traditional calendar at that. So what are your thoughts on that and with Philip Island - a track very good for you in the past being back? 

Rea: "Yeah next year’s calendar looks great so far. There’s a couple of my weaker circuits that are not featuring, but equally there’s some strong circuits like Imola which I would have loved to go back to. 

"But it’s a good season and it looks like it could potentially finish in Phillip Island which would be great for me because that’s like a home track. I enjoyed it there the last time that we were there. I’ve loved Jerez but my results have never been great there, also Navarra was one of the weaker circuits for us this year, so to not see them on the calendar, I can’t say that I lost too much sleep. In fact I probably slept a bit better. 

"The start of the year looks quite strong for us. It’s not really about the tracks, it’s more about just us improving everything and I think the calendar is laid out in a better way. There’s more down time and there’s no triple headers. In fact, I don’t think there’s any back-to-back races, potentially the last round could be back-to-back with Indonesia but you never know. To start late is also nice because with Superbike we also start early in February, but we are one of the last championships to finish as well, so to have this extended break is really nice." 

Crash.net: Do you think with another season passing by that the door to MotoGP has firmly been shut? I think many of us believe it’s an opportunity you should have had, so is it something you’re disappointed about?

Rea: "Well, that’s nice to hear because I think everyone’s opinions are similar to that. Of course, it would have been nice to measure myself there and see potentially my level compared to MotoGP riders. I was fortunate to get the chance to go there a couple of times as a replacement rider, but the only gauge we have is when MotoGP riders come to Superbike. But that’s comparing apples to oranges. So you have to forget about that, and of course, I really feel that the door is shut and I’m content with that. 

"I’ve had a great career so far in Superbike and I still think the best is yet to come. I really think 2022 is teed up to be a great season for me and my team. So, no regrets but in an ideal world when I was in my early 20s or mid 20s it would have been nice to have that opportunity to go and see what I could have done in that paddock. 

"In the last few seasons we’ve at least tested with the MotoGP guys at Jerez but that’s not happening anymore because we were quite fast and then it gets all the comparisons, so I’m really fortunate that people talk about me in that way and that I could do a good job. I’m lucky to have that and have people talk positively about me." 

Crash.net: Finally, with Valentino Rossi retiring from MotoGP I wanted to get your views on him as someone who has dominated his own championship and seen Rossi do the same in MotoGP and just overall what he’s been able to achieve?

Rea: "Nowadays I think everyone throws the word legend around loosely, but he is a motorcycle legend. It’s funny because when I was a kid [Mick] Doohan was dominating and you didn't really respect it, you didn’t really understand his domination because you were so young and dumb. 

"I was riding motocross back then whereas with Rossi he was racing when I was a fan of the sport and I watched him dominate for so long. 

"Nine world championships is crazy. You know, to be the reference is hard. To win one world championship is so difficult, it’s so much work that goes into it from when you're a kid, your family and to getting sponsors. 

"But to do it year-on-year and dominate a series like MotoGP is incredible. I can only talk from a Superbike point of view, but it’s such a difficult and hard sport as injuries or confidence, like a lack of confidence is all too easy. 

"So, to see what he’s done at the highest level is impressive. He seems like an amazing guy and he’ll send me messages after a race if I’ve done well and it was great to do a helmet swap with him a few months ago. 

"Just a massive congratulations on his career, and it will be exciting to see what he does. He’s not done with motorsport and has put a lot into it with his academy program which I can only admire."

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