Mat Oxley: The fear of losing that winning feeling - Jonathan Rea

“The motivation for winning comes from the fear of losing”, Jonathan Rea tells Mat Oxley, as he signs for another two races in World Superbikes

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Northern Ireland is the UK’s home of real roadracing – that’s racing between the hedges. The country’s fascination with this ancient art goes all the way back to the British government’s Light Locomotives Act of 1896, which forbade motor vehicles from exceeding 12mph on the mainland, thus outlawing racing on the roads.

Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man weren’t included in this legislation, which explains the creation of the TT and Northern Irish motorcycle events like the Ulster Grand Prix, the North West 200 and those staged around the towns of Armoy, Tandragee, Enniskillen and Cookstown.

This also explains why so many TT greats hail from Northern Ireland – Joey Dunlop, his nephew Michael Dunlop, Phil McCallen, Tom Herron and others. The TT and Irish roadracing are spiritual and also geographical neighbours. The two islands are so close that in May 1985 Joey Dunlop used a fishing boat to get to the TT, but the boat sank, taking five race bikes to the bottom.

Northern Ireland’s devotion to real roadracing doesn’t help Northern Irish riders who want to excel in world championship racing, because they struggle to find the backing required.

Jonathan Rea is the exception to that rule. In October, the 33-year-old rider from Ballymena won his sixth consecutive World Superbike championship, motorcycling’s version of tin tops.

Rea grew to dominate World Superbikes after choosing short circuits over the TT and Irish roads, despite (or because of) his father’s success on the roads.

“My dad told me if I ever did the TT he’d kick me out of the house, so I was brought up with the understanding that it’s dangerous,” says Rea, whose father Johnny won the 1989 Junior TT. “But at the same time he told me I’d never get the same feeling riding around any other circuit than I’d get there.

“Where I grew up, real roadracing is king. Nine sponsors out of 10 will buy you a 600 to race in the North West and the TT, whereas maybe one guy will buy you a 600 to race in the British championship. In Ireland making it in a world championship is just a pipe dream, so I’ve been very lucky with opportunities.”

Rea did three years of British Superbikes before moving onto the world stage. He raced his first six seasons in World Superbike with Honda, which didn’t run an official team in the series. During that time he won 15 races. In 2015 he signed with Kawasaki’s full-factory effort and went on to win 14 races, clinching his first world title.

Since then no one has been able to dethrone him, not even Ducati, World Superbike’s most successful brand. In 2019 the Italian marque unleashed its Panigale V4R. Named after the small manufacturing town Borgo Panigale where Ducati is based, the V4R is essentially a road-going replica of its MotoGP bike. Just to make sure, Ducati hired Spanish MotoGP racer Álvaro Bautista to ride the machine. Bautista and the Panigale won the first 11 races of the 2019 championship, surely signalling the end of Rea’s reign.

“Álvaro came in like a steam train at the beginning – he was like this animal riding this missile and he showed no weakness,” Rea recalls. “So we just kept working the same way, like robots, then we saw the weaknesses they had in stopping and changing direction.”

Rea started chipping away at Bautista’s considerable points advantage and then the Spaniard started making mistakes. Rea took the championship lead at a rainy Donington and secured his fifth title at Magny-Cours.

This year his dominance was total, making many fans wonder why he’s never had  a proper crack at MotoGP, bike racing’s Formula 1. In 2012 Rea contested two grands prix, substituting for injured factory Honda rider Casey Stoner, but no one’s offered him the right equipment to make the move.

MotoGP pays more money and kudos, but Rea is happy where he is, especially since he’s a family man, with two young children.

“We have 13 rounds a year, while MotoGP has 20 [in normal seasons]. Usually my wife and kids come to 70 per cent of the races.  I don’t think we could do that if I was away 20 weeks racing, another few weeks testing and then PR commitments on top of that. I get home from races and take the kids to school on Monday, whereas if I’d had the same level of success in MotoGP that I’ve had here I’d  be a superstar and my life balance would be completely compromised.”

Rea knows that WSB is bike racing’s second division but he doesn’t care. At least, not that much.

“MotoGP is the pinnacle. It’s more popular, it’s a bigger show and it’s the big-money paddock. You only have to walk into the paddock and you’re almost at an F1 race. It would be nice if more people supported World Superbikes, but it’s how it is.”

Rea has already signed with Kawasaki for 2021 and 2022, so Ducati and the other factories will have to work even harder if they want his crown.

“It’s the winning feeling that keeps me going – it’s like a drug,” he says. “Once you get that feeling you don’t want to accept getting beaten, so the motivation comes from the fear of losing, rather than the feeling you get when you win.”

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley