Jonathan Rea Interview: On Bike Development, Rider Confidence, and the Importance of a Strong Team

At Laguna Seca, our World Superbikes writer Kent Brockman caught up with reigning WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea, to ask about his season. In a frank interview, Rea talks about how he has adapted to the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R, and the development path which produced that bike, and how it has come on since the start of the season. Rea also talks about the importance of his team, and surrounding yourself with people you can trust. He sheds light on the strains of traveling around the world to race at the world championship level, and how important is to have the support of friends and family. And of course, he talks about the confidence with which he enters the remainder of the 2016 WorldSBK season.

Kent Brockman: It was a sour note to retire in the final race before the summer break but a 46 point lead clearly leaves you in a very strong position for the final four rounds of WorldSBK.

Jonathan Rea: Yeah and honestly I couldn’t have asked for much more in the beginning of the year because we started the season with a new bike. It was a completely new bike too with a new engine and chassis. For us to be competitive from the start in Philip Island and do the double there was incredible. We've achieved much more than we expected. Step by step we’ve been strong this year and we’ve faced some difficulties. The most obvious is the shifting problems I’ve encountered at some races. But now we pretty much understand that and why that’s happening. We’ve been able to be strong.

I feel like in Sepang we started to make some breakthroughs and in Donington, Misano and here we’ve been really strong. I feel that the final rounds of the season I’m actually more excited about them than I was for the first half. We felt a little bit like we were on the back foot in those early races and in some races we landed on the podium when we were ahead of where we should have been. Now though I feel like I’m riding really well and we are probably the strongest right now.

KB: Last year you had so many wins, podiums and the title. This year it looks like more of the same but how difficult has this season been son far?

JR: It’s been hard because the relationship I had with the 2015 bike was so good. I felt like I could do anything with that bike because it was a very stable bike and very easy to ride. It gave me lots of feedback so I could pretty much do my thing. It was a match made in heaven from day one. I was super fast whereas the new bike has a completely different character. It’s been a bike that’s originated from many years of development and feedback. Not so much from me to be honest because I only arrived here one year ago.

When we first tested the bike in Jerez we were really fast but it was a bit of a false sense of reality. There was so much rubber on the track at that test and Jerez is always great in November and you can go really fast then. Since that test though we have had some difficulties. I’ve made no secret that the engine character is not for my conventional style, normal style of riding. It’s been a bike that’s been developed by Tom and for Tom. So I really feel that I’ve been strong enough to understand that and try to get the pendulum swung the other way to fall in love with the bike again.

Honestly in the last races I’ve been super happy because now we’re bringing the bike more close to how I felt in 2015 with the engine character namely, and then also the chassis as well. We have different parameters we can work now because of the new bike. That’s just working a different area. So now we understand where to go. It’s much easier. And we have a baseline now in the last three or 4 rounds.

KB: When a bike is developed it’s not a process that takes place in 12 months so obviously with Tom having been the focal point of the development feedback it had the potential to put the bike down a very specific development path. How happy are you to have been able to adapt this bike to your needs?

JR: It was too late for me to be involved in the development of this bike because development has been in place for a few years. It’s motivating for me to know that I didn't develop this bike and even so I've been stronger than Tom most of the time. I take a lot of personal satisfaction out of that and even now I’m not 100% comfortable. Of course he wasn’t comfortable with last year’s bike but we seen in all his comments in the winter test and the start of the year how much he was in love with the bike and then it changes. One round the limitations are back again, and then another round it’s his baby, and then again its limitations…

Honestly for me I just try to be flat with my feedback with the guys. Of course nothing is ever perfect and it’s always a work in progress. I’m trying to develop the bike for me and actually I think that our different styles and feedback can help. I think the benefit of that is we have to accept that it is both different. His riding is different to mine and his comments are different to mine, but they’re good things for Kawasaki. They have two sets of comments that they can use for future development. And that’s good for the manufacturer and good for customers as well because not everybody rides the same.

KB: We've seen you and Tom race wheel to wheel at times this year but when he's behind you do you feel that he'll attempt overtaking moves and be aggressive? We saw in Misano that Tom wasn't willing to attempt a move on you.

JR: Of course I expect him to overtake because on some days he’s stronger than me, so he can always make a pass if he’s stronger. But I really believe in myself and my bike. I think when all things are equal that I can do a better job. I have to have that belief as a rider. I don’t think that just because it’s Tom behind or Chaz behind, for me it doesn’t really matter. Who is behind I know the thing with me is to get ready for the race.

Every rider up and down pit lane is super confident in their pre-race interviews and I’m not sure if that’s all bravado or some guys need to talk themselves into it. But I just try to go into the race confident in what I can do. I don't necessarily talk about it, but when the lights go out I know that inside when I have a good feeling with this bike, with this Kawasaki, there’s not many guys that can beat us.

KB: On track we rarely see you wait to make an overtaking move. You usually pounce as quickly as possible where does that aggression comes from on track?

JR: I think it comes from when you're born. My background is not in minimoto or trials, it’s in motocross and that's the most aggressive sport there is. You’re always taught to move forward. If you catch somebody and they’re at a slower rhythm you have to go forward. You can't afford to get sucked into their rhythm. My style has always been to get past right from when I was born and started racing.

It wasn't from riding a Honda in WorldSBK or anything else but rather I think all my experiences have helped prepare me as a much more rounded rider and package than most. From when I was five years old I was winning championships on a 50cc motocross bike and being super competitive. It’s not something you can really learn and for that I’m super grateful for my parents as well. Winning doesn’t just happen people don't see the countless hours spent on boats from Northern Ireland and traveling up and down the M75 to go up and down the UK to find the best competition to compete against. It’s been a whole journey, but I feel now that I’m as well or better equipped than most.

KB: You have a very a tight-knit unit in the paddock with your family and team around you. How important is that support from everyone too?

JR: It’s huge and it's not just about one person. I’ve realized that to move forward in this sport you’ve got to invest in yourself. That means having Kev as an assistant and having my wife here. It helps support me mentally but also to keep my family together, because it’s a huge sacrifice traveling around the world.

You don’t just go to a race meet and turn up on the TV. It goes live on a Saturday afternoon but you’re at a track from Wednesday through to Monday. So to travel with my family and to have people around me like Kev and then more recently with Fabian Foret being my rider analyst.

Working with people like that closely, also the close-knit people I have around me. My team, my management are all part of it. I think I’m lucky because I can trust any one of these guys. I think with Kawasaki with a bunch of mechanics and sort of that kind of inner circle that you don’t find in racing. Any of these guys I trust with my life every weekend. So it’s important to me that they’re as all-in this dream as I am.

KB: You have that trust with the team and a 46 point lead with four rounds to go. How confident are you of winning the title again?

You can’t be too confident, but I’m confident right now in the way I’m riding to not lose too many points every weekend from here on in. From my side it’s comfortable because even our closest rival, we can follow our closest rival home in every single race and still clinch the title. So that’s a comfortable position to be in, but it shouldn’t come to that. I’m thinking about extending my championship lead again at the next possible opportunity because I really feel good with the bike right now. We need to try and take profit from that. Unfortunately this is the weekend where we could have done that and it didn’t work out in race two.

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Whenever I read these kinds of interviews I always want to know more. Particularly when they say things like, " the engine character is not for my conventional style, normal style of riding..." or "The most obvious is the shifting problems I’ve encountered at some races. But now we pretty much understand that and why that’s happening."


What I really want to know is to what style does he refer and why does the Kawasaki not naturally allow that. I also want to know what it is they have understood to make past problems lessen.


Perhaps it is trade secrets? Perhaps it's just nonsense? Perhaps it's obvious? Regardless, I feel like these are the questions I really want answered not what he feels like having a 46 point lead and whether he will rest on his laurels - I mean, who is going to say, "Yep, I won't try for the rest of the year?"


Am I being unfair?