Commentary: Why Rea's landslide WSBK title was long overdue
Though Jonathan Rea may have dominated the 2015 season en route to a maiden World Superbike crown, the Ulster rider's success should be celebrated by all bike racing fans, argues Valentin Khorounzhiy.
It's fair to say that the 2015 season of the World Superbike Championship will not go down in history as one of the all-time classics.
Domination, let's face it, just isn't particularly exciting - and why cherish a season where the champion was crowned with five races to spare when, in the last three years, the fight always remained alive until the final round?
But not every campaign can go down to the wire, and there's something to be said for when a rider steamrollers such esteemed opposition over a full year. Say what you will about the entertainment value of Marc Marquez's 2014 streak, but everyone watching it knew they were seeing history made before their eyes.
Jonathan Rea's 2015 landslide is also history-making. But while it was richly deserved on his pure, unceasing form, it was all the more significant because of just how long the Nothern Irishman had to wait for his opportunity.
At the end of 2014, it was confirmed Rea would be parting ways with Honda in favour of a Kawasaki ride. For the Ulsterman, that was uncharted territory - not only has he not raced for anyone but Honda in WSBK, he's been with the Japanese manufacturer since the very beginning of his circuit racing career.
Indeed, Rea and Honda were a very strong combination even before WSBK. With the backing of Red Bull, he established himself as a rising star of the British scene in 2005 and 2006 and, the year after, he was handed a factory ride in British Superbikes alongside reigning champion Ryuichi Kiyonari.
Kiyonari won the title again that year, but Rea was just 26 points adrift. The Japanese rider switched to the World Championship in 2008, while Rea was offered a ride in the supporting World Supersport category, with a deal that would see him move to WSBK in 2009.
That deal was enough to tempt Rea to leave the British scene, and it was also enough to keep him at Honda, given that he apparently had the alternative option of graduating straight to World Superbikes with Ducati's factory team.
Despite injuring himself in his first Supersport race, he went on to claim runner-up in the championship and also made his WSBK debut in the 2008 finale, which yielded a fourth-place finish.
Aside from his Superbike duties between 2009 and 2014, Rea also helped Honda to a Suzuka 8 Hours victory in 2012 and, in the same year substituted for an injured Casey Stoner in MotoGP for two rounds. The two Grands Prix - his only appearances in MotoGP to date - yielded two top 10 results.
Synonymous with Honda
Since 2009, Honda has had 15 wins in World Superbikes. All 15 came from Rea.
In his first full year, he headed teammates Carlos Checa and Kiyonari in the standings by more than 100 points and won two races, while they won none. The duo left, but Rea stayed and would go on to win at least a race in each season since then, making a succession of highly-rated teammates look very average indeed.
But the title shot never came, and a third-place finish in 2014 standings would end up the best Honda and Rea could manage together in WSBK.
Consensus suggested that the Northern Irishman flattered the ageing Honda Fireblade he was given in the previous six seasons. At the same time, there were mistakes, crashes and a fair number of injuries, albeit some of them were, quite possibly, the inevitable result of Rea's attempts to compensate for difficult machinery.
The 2014 season, including four wins and what looked like his best shot at the title, was Rea's last with Honda - and the end of an era.
"I had to stop doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result," Rea said to the Belfast Telegraph after finalising the move. "To be world champion I had to make a change."
In that interview, he also admitted that the long-standing dream of moving to MotoGP on factory bike was probably over and done with. An Open class offer from Honda was on the cards, but it's an offer he did not want to take, not wanting to merely make up the numbers.
"I felt a bit like I had been waiting for the GP train with a good bike for quite a while - waiting at the station for the train that never comes."
A new era
When Rea decided to leave, Honda lined up reigning champion Sylvain Guintoli to replace him, although with the Frenchman strongly linked to a move to the returning Yamaha squad next year, its main hopes for the future appear to lie with World Supersport champion Michael van der Mark.
The 22-year-old Dutchman currently trails Guintoli in the points, but while the Frenchman has not been on the podium, van der Mark has done so on three occasions and his clear promise should mitigate whatever heartache there may have been after losing a class act like Rea.
For the Ulsterman himself, however, there will be no regrets about leaving his long-time employer - not after a season of 20 consecutive podiums, 12 wins and a World Championship title.
But most sportspeople don't take it easy even after achieving their dream, and it's unlikely Rea will be an exception. At 28 and with a new bike prepared for Kawasaki for 2016, Rea could very well be at the start of a superb run - and, after years of unfulfilled promise, one title is unlikely to satiate his hunger.
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