Never let it be said that Jonathan Rea or his KRT team rest on their laurels, even after the rider from Northern Ireland and his team from Catalunya have already made the best bike that Japan has to offer championship winners in each of those divisions in 2017. Riders’, Teams’ and Manufacturers’ trophies had all been stowed away, long before the final floodlit WorldSBK round of the year had got underway.
But such is the desire to succeed that Rea scored a double win – his sixth of the entire year – and at a circuit he had never won at before. Just like he did at Jerez two weeks before.
He also, even with two DNFs that were not his or his bike’s fault in his tally, managed to squeeze past Colin Edwards’s previous all-time points total for a single season in WorldSBK, with 556 points.
He has scored a podium in every single race he finished, even ones he crashed in because another rider fell in front of him, or his tyre and wheel rim parted company.
Even if far too many podiums in 2017 went to only Kawasaki or Ducati riders, for the hardcore fan they truly watched history unfold in an astounding way.
Rea set a new personal season best for race wins at 16. Only Doug Polen, in 1991, has scored one more in a year.
New technical regulations in 2018 should certainly help compress the field more than it did in 2017, and bring more podium variety in many races, but with Rea’s smooth, high corner speed style, and his ability to conserve tyres and yet still sit at a pace others cannot usually follow, means that the fans in 2017 saw maybe the best Superbike rider ever grow and learn and be as perfect as anyone can be with the tools at hand.
“The most satisfying thing was winning more races than I did in 2015, because of the feeling I had then, when the bike was incredible,” said Rea after race two. “What I have learned with Kawasaki is the bike is giving me such confidence, already from my first chrono of FP1 I can be very close to lap record pace and that makes it very easy for the engineers to understand data to find a way forward as well. Right now it feels like a match made in heaven, the whole marriage of me, the bike and he team, the way we work, our values and what we want to achieve out of this.”
In the first race at Qatar on a Friday for the first time (with race two on Saturday as a Dorna experiment) and with a Superpole record under his belt from earlier in the day, Rea jumped away and stayed away, winning by almost five seconds.
In race two it was a much closer deal as Chaz Davies (Aruba.it Racing Ducati) attempted to put his stamp on the second, and almost crashed trying.
Rea pulled ahead as Davies had a massive moment, leading from lap four and this time managing the gap back to a rider who was already guaranteed to finish second after Tom Sykes (KRT) had fallen by catching a white line and sliding off at high speed.
Davies and Sykes had started the weekend equal on points, but Davies also took second in race one, while Sykes, on a tyre he said just never worked, toiled hard and for little in sixth. His final day crash just summed up his season, as the ever more streetbike/stock/anti-tuning rules have moved further away form his career-long riding style.
Although both Davies and Sykes’ season records including wins (seven for Davies and two for Sykes) they still cannot find consistency or pace enough to stay with Rea, who also has the inconvenient characteristic of starting seasons almost perfectly. This year he won the first five races, was second in race six, and then did another double.
The new grid rules in 2017 (where the podium riders from race one have to start from the third row in race two) have hindered Davies a bit and Sykes a lot, so unwittingly the championship was made less difficult for super-overtaker Rea. Davies is also a good passer, but it is not Sykes’ forte.
Also, the removal of split throttle bodies from the teams who did not have them on their stock bikes this season played into Rea’s hands – literally. It was supposed to have the opposite effect, of levelling out the super-special factory electronics.
The more they put things the rider’s hands the better Rea liked it. He has an awesome race package of course, but so does 2013 champion Sykes.
Rea ended up winning in 2017 by 153 points over Davies, and 183 over his team-mate.
We watched an all-time great in action all year and he saved some of his very best for last. He surely deserves his latest new status as the highest points scorer in a single season.
Davies and Sykes, the final item to be really decided at Losail under the floodlights, proved almost no contest after race one, but Sykes’ second race crash was cruel. Sykes was glad to wave goodbye to 2017.
Davies was lucky to finish race two, even though he did not need the points to be second overall, after a near highside. He nutted his screen hard enough to leave a long and angry looking red line on his neck, for the broken screen to cut his leathers and cause him great pain and then leave his head and shoulders out in the breeze of the desert night with not much screen left.
“That was big, a big head-butt, and it knocked the wind out my sails for a couple of seconds. Painful, and I was so lucky to stay on it. It kind of kept going and I was fighting the thing to try and stay upright. I thought it was game over and I was going over the bars. Pretty much at that point I saw that Tom was out so it was up to me then how I wanted to run the race. Objective compete and I am happy because it has been a tough season.”
No chance to stay with Rea on track after that, but job done, second overall. Pride and his bank balance were improved, and he joked that the bonus would maybe pay for his upcoming wedding.
Sykes stated of his final weekend, “I clipped the white line on the inside and it is one of those because as soon as I touched it I was off. Sliding down the road I could not believe it, as my lap times were right there for the race and the bike was better. I almost feel slightly embarrassed to finish third overall, but it is world championship.”
Marco Melandri on the other works Ducati scored third in race two.
An equal best of the season fourth for the Milwaukee Aprilia rider Eugene Laverty and fifth for his teammate Lorenzo Savadori transpired behind Melandri.
Sixth was Sykes and Xavi Fores continued his strong privateer form to seventh, and seventh overall in the series behind the two Pata Yamaha factory bikes.
A rough race one for both eventual fifth placed championship rider Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha) and his sixth ranked team-mate Michael van der Mark saw VDM crash after touching Sykes’ tail unit in race one with his handlebar, and then Lowes crash twice. Once on his own, losing the front in a podium position, and then a faster front ender when his damaged lever, throttle and glove conspired to lock the front on a fast corner entry.
Race two was much brighter under millions of Watts of artificial light, with Lowes third and VDM fourth. Fores was fifth, one place ahead of Melandri, with Laverty sixth and Sylvain Guintoli eighth in his second Kawasaki Puccetti ride of 2017. Leon Camier signed off from his MV Agusta career with ninth.
In the final championship rankings, Rea has 556, Davies 403, Sykes 373 and Melandri 327.
The unofficial 2018 seasons starts soon – in three weeks – as most try out the new technical rules for real at Jerez in Spain.
By Gordon Ritchie