Jonathan Rea: Should he stay, or should he go?

Jonathan Rea comes to the end of his Kawasaki Racing Team contract in 2020 - will he renew or use it as an opportunity to do something else...?

Jonathan Rea - Kawasaki Racing Team

It’s been more than a decade since Jonathan Rea lined up on a WorldSBK grid for the first time at the 2008 season finale in Portimao and while it may have taken him six years to secure his maiden world title, he has more than made up for it since.

Five consecutive world titles – all as a Kawasaki rider - 89 race wins and 170 podiums have earmarked him as the most successful rider in history but as he heads into 2020 seeking an unprecedented sixth straight title, murmurs about what his future holds have begun to surface.

As things stand, Rea’s contract with Kawasaki runs until the end of the 2020 season, so in effect the winningest rider in WorldSBK history is potentially up for grabs for an ambitious rival to target… or the man himself may see this as the prime moment to end his career on a high.

With WorldSBK currently on ‘pause’ due to the coronavirus, we consider his options for the future…

Renew with Kawasaki

Five titles from five seasons together suggests there is little reason for Rea to consider looking elsewhere. However, changes are afoot at Kawasaki.

The current generation Kawasaki ZX-10RR is still the machine to beat on the WorldSBK grid but it is nearing the end of its lifecycle amid speculation the Japanese firm is readying a brand-new model for 2021.

The update comes at a critical juncture for Kawasaki and Rea’s relationship as rivals adopt more extreme methods in an effort to unseat the record-breaking combination.

First Ducati brought its all-new winged V4-engined Panigale to the track and enjoyed so much instant success there was talk Kawasaki bosses were considering rushing out an updated ZX-10RR in an effort to keep up with its rival.

Of course, that early form disappeared, allowing Kawasaki to rest on their laurels for a bit but its unlikely they will be able to for much longer.

Indeed, while Ducati was always expected to come to the party with something different, the fact Honda has tweaked the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ for Japanese superbikes by lifting the power output and carving its own winged aero puts pressure on Kawasaki to follow suit.

Rea will no doubt want to see Kawasaki push the envelope with the next generation ZX-10RR and will be heavily involved in its development process, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to fundamentally influence a machine that – it shouldn’t be forgotten – will be sold to the regular punter too.

Change teams

It’s difficult to remember time when Rea wasn’t clad in green but before the ‘Dream Green Team’ became a reality in 2015, Rea had spent several years committed to Honda with frustrating results.  Looking back, it’s now fair to say Rea – who took the ‘blade to 15 wins – was out-performing his machinery based on the disparate fortunes of rider and manufacturer ever since then.

With this in mind, Rea may think twice about pledging allegiance to a new team in the autumn years of his career. Indeed, while there are those that argue Marc Marquez will never be the greatest unless he attempts to win titles with another manufacturer, Rea wouldn’t be begrudged for sticking to what he knows.

That said, as the opening round of the 2020 WorldSBK season showed, it seems we have five manufacturers capable of challenging for victories this season and if they all did it’d be the first time since 2012 for it to happen.

As such, there is no risk with regards to joining a competitive team. In fact, if anything there may be more risk associated with waiting to see what Kawasaki brings to the party in 2021.

However, Rea is an ambassador for Kawasaki – its talisman – a status he is unlikely to enjoy with any other firm in such a substantial way. Indeed, while Honda and Ducati could probably afford to gazump Kawasaki in wage offers, their MotoGP riders would still ultimately top the priority list.

Move up to MotoGP

There are countless people who’d love to see Rea step up to MotoGP but the likelihood of it happening now seems slim.

While he is clearly at the peak of his powers at 33-years old, while Rea might have dreamed of MotoGP when he was a Honda rider, he seemed prepared to wave goodbye to the prospect of progressing to the premier class when he joined Kawasaki.

With no clear route into the upper echelons, it means if Rea ever headed to MotoGP, it’d be with another manufacturer and thus unlikely to be in the more competitive, well-funded, high salary paying factory team he has in WorldSBK.

While the ‘big fish, small pond’ critique may sting at times, it just doesn’t make sense on many levels now for Rea to chase the MotoGP dream.

Announce his retirement

Few sports stars get to call time on their careers from the very top, but Rea has hinted in the last few months that retirement has played on his mind.

A man that clearly craves a quiet family life with his wife (a former Kawasaki press officer) and two children, Rea admits Kawasaki’s direction with its new machine will ultimately decide his future, according to this quote in January.

“I am financially secure, I also have a good life outside of racing. I enjoy my time on the bike, I like the competition. It will also depend on what Kawasaki has in 2021 for ideas. After that I can think about the resignation.”

Of course, retiring wouldn’t necessarily see him exit the sport. Rea would no doubt remain very much in Kawasaki, whether it was launching new models, developing its race bikes or launching his own rider academy.

“I will talk to Kawasaki about whether there is a job in the company for me after racing. As a test driver, as an ambassador, in team management, whatever.”

Either way, while some may be enticed by the prospect of a WorldSBK Championship without Rea’s dominance, no rider on the grid would prefer to win without him on the grid. This could well become their final opportunity…