Another chapter in the seemingly never-ending success story that is Jonathan Rea’s motorcycle world title-winning exploits has been written.
The Northern Irishman wrapped up a sixth straight World Superbike crown in Portugal to continue his long-standing dominance of the championship, building up an assailable 72-point lead thanks to a fourth-place finish in race one at Estoril.
For good measure, Rea stands tantalisingly close to further rewriting the record books by achieving an incredible ground-breaking 100th race win in the series to further cement his legacy as the most successful rider in the history of the series.
He remains one short of that landmark figure before Sunday’s Superpole race and feature race two.
The 33-year-old has had experience of pulling away from the pack and winning titles with something to spare – then in 2019 overturned a huge points deficit to secure a record fifth triumph.
But this year has presented the Kawasaki rider with an altogether different challenge.
The imposition of travel restrictions to help prevent the spread of coronavirus led to a truncated season with seven of the eight rounds being staged in Europe – mostly centred around the Iberian Peninsula.
Familiar venues have been erased from a regularly changing calendar and new circuits included in their place.
Add in an unaccustomed five-month gap between the first and second rounds and a new chief rival in the form of England’s Scott Redding and it is clear this was no run-of-the-mill title triumph for Rea.
Spanish success lays the foundations
Rea had almost half a year to regroup after what was by his own high standards an average start to the season – a crash at the opening round at Phillip Island contributing to him leaving Australia with a 19-point deficit – that uncharacteristic error partially mitigated by the first of five consecutive Superpole sprint race wins.
Despite reported overtures from the MotoGP paddock, Rea’s belief that the overall package offered by Kawasaki remains the strongest on offer in World Superbikes was emphasised when he extended his long-time association with the Japanese manufacturer by signing a new multi-year contract in June.
Solid points on the resumption of the series at Jerez, where Redding bagged a double, was followed by a hat-trick of wins at one of Rea’s most happy hunting grounds – Portimao – as the defending champion eased four points ahead in the standings.
The challenges posed by running an international race series in the face of the global battle against Covid-19 led to four World Superbike rounds being staged in Spain – two of those in consecutive weekends at the Aragon circuit.
Two more victories in the first instalment of the Aragon double-header saw Rea increase his points advantage to 10 at a track where Ducati had traditionally been strong in recent years – the championship now becoming a two-horse race between himself and Redding.
The title battle was hotting up at a time when the championship usually paused for its lengthy mid-summer break but despite the effect of the high temperatures on riders and tyres, Rea refused to wilt under the Spanish sun and further hammered home his advantage in Aragon part two a week later.
The County Antrim man went away with his confidence boosted thanks to a win and two second-place finishes – Redding leaving frustrated and with his title hopes dented after a crash marred his weekend’s efforts.
Riding styles and race management
Rea notably made a small adjustment to his already smooth riding style in 2020 and the contrast between his more upright conventional mode of racing and Redding’s more flamboyant style is marked.
Experience, consistency and continuity were again the hallmarks of this latest title success, but the five-time champion also showed his aggressive side when required – notably when becoming involved in a scrap with Michael Ruben Rinaldi in a thrilling race two at the second Aragon round in September.
Rea survived two big ‘moments’ in coming out on top in that race, an indication of just how hard he was trying and proof, were it needed, that the hunger and fear of losing are still there.
Two weeks later, Rea was at his imperious best in race one at his Kawasaki team’s home race at the Catalunya circuit in Barcelona – a vintage performance by the champion seeing him break from the chasing pack early on and control proceedings from the front to become the first WSB winner at that track.
Race management has consistently been a strength of the multiple world champion – setting a pace which allows him to maintain a comfortable gap while crucially preserving tyre life.
His versatility again came to the fore when the championship moved on to France – wins in race one and the Superpole sprint in wet track conditions moving him to the brink of another title.
Rivals unable to sustain challenge
The 2020 season will be remembered for a return to competitive, exciting racing at the front of the World Superbike field – seven different race winners bear testament to that – but none of Rea’s rivals could find the consistency necessary to remain on a par with the champion.
Rea’s team-mate Alex Lowes and Toprak Razgatlioglu were winners at the opening round but failed to mount a sustained challenge, while Rinaldi, Michael van der Mark and Chaz Davies also enjoyed their ‘days in the sun’ without ever looking like credible title contenders.
That left reigning British Superbike champion and ex-MotoGP rider Redding as the man to take the fight to Rea on a regular basis, commendably winning five races in his debut campaign.
As with Spaniard Alvaro Bautista in 2019, Redding was a series rookie and had a Ducati V4 at his disposal but the colourful Englishman fell just short of making it back-to-back championship successes, having coming out on top in the most competitive domestic series in the world in 2019.
Redding showed an ability to quickly learn circuits he was racing at for the first time but despite his experience on the Ducati, albeit with some different electronics, he was unable to emulate the kind of results Bautista achieved in the first half of the 2019 season.
The Gloucester rider’s physical build proved to be something of a drawback as certain tyre compounds favoured lighter riders such as Rinaldi at key stages of the championship.
While the Italian Ducati marque again proved to be the main rival to Rea’s Kawasaki hegemony, the Yamahas were consistently there or thereabouts, the new Honda Fireblade’s results improved as the year wore on on its full factory return to the series and the BMW showed glimpses of its potential in the latter stages of the campaign.
But with Ducati and Honda seemingly having a power advantage which translates into greater straight-line speed, Rea will be hoping Kawasaki can come up with a new version of his Ninja ZX-10RR to help him stay ahead of his rivals in 2021.
A seventh title next term would see him equal the sequence of consecutive series wins achieved by Italian legend Giacomo Agostini in the grand prix world championship from 1966 to 1972.