Is WorldSBK champ Jonathan Rea mulling Kawasaki exit… and where would he go?

Six-time WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea has dropped a minor hint that he would be prepared to leave Kawasaki... but is he serious and where would he go?

Jonathan Rea - Kawasaki Racing Team, WorldSBK

As the most successful WorldSBK rider of all-time in terms of title successes and victories, there isn’t much Jonathan Rea hasn’t won on Superbike.

With six titles and 112 wins to his name, even accounting for the skewed statistics brought on by the switch to a triple race weekend format, Rea has developed a huge buffer to the next ‘winningest’ rider in Carl Fogarty on 59.

Each of these championships has been won on Kawasaki machinery during a dominant period between 2015 and 2020, but his defeat at the hands of Yamaha’s Toprak Razgatlioglu last season means there is every reason to believe Rea’s response in 2022 is even more potent.

Moreover, there is no guarantee his career is destined to end at Kawasaki, following some rather thought-provoking comments credited to the BBC saying: 

"I'm so motivated to keep riding and I don't think the story is over yet, whether that means staying where I am or going somewhere else.

"The fairytale would be to finish my career at Kawasaki because they have given me so much success but fairytales don't always work out."

Could Jonathan Rea leave WorldSBK for MotoGP?

To be clear, the above quotes are a continuation of a theme in rhetoric from Rea over the past 18 months or so.

While he has never missed an opportunity to express his pleasure at being one within the Kawasaki family, it’s interesting that Rea has spoken more openly about his regret at (probably) missing his chance to progress to MotoGP, a frustration no doubt compounded by the growing speculation and attention around Razgatlioglu’s apparent grooming for the premier class.

Indeed, in previous years Rea has dumbed down answers to questions regarding MotoGP, dismissing it in favour of promoting the benefits of being a talisman within a winning manufacturer that has chosen to direct resources entirely to WorldSBK.

However, while Rea’s increasingly vocal use of the word MotoGP in his interviews might be viewed as his way of garnering attention from a team willing to take a punt on him, the fact remains he is in the autumn stage of his career and his desire for a competitive factory ride makes him something of a alternative risk on a manufacturer’s target list brimming with safer next generation superstars with seasons ahead of them.

That’s not to say it won’t happen. Rea has had offers in the past with satellite teams, which he has rejected on account of it not befitting his multiple World Championship winning status. 

Then again, this was during a period in which satellite teams weren’t as organised or competitive as they are today with many now agreeing the right rider-bike combination within a team as Pramac Racing - which is more or less now an extension of the Ducati Corse factory set-up - could mount a title bid.

But, using Ducati as an example, it is unlikely to port any rider its not already associated with at the top when it’s brimming with pliable young talent within its own stable, such as Gresini and VR46 Racing.

Could Jonathan Rea leave Kawasaki for a rival?

As such, the above quotes could be seen as an effective message to invite rival teams in WorldSBK to consider making enquiries.

For now Rea is in the midst of a vaguely termed ‘multi-year contract’ signed in 2020. Generally, teams will communicate at least a two-year deal, with multi-year suggesting at least three years or two years with options. Using that scale, Rea ‘might’ be available for 2023 with a clause or two.

Rea has previously spoken about retirement around the same time but the emergence of Razgatlioglu has the potential for the Ulsterman to recalibrate his approach to WorldSBK.

Indeed, after six fairly uncontested title runs, the thrilling fight between ‘mentor and protege’ captivated us with some fierce on-track tussles in which Razgatlioglu’s confidence was mesmerising. However, it was Rea’s ability to dig deep and haul himself out of his comfort zone in response that perhaps deserves greater applause.

While riding so aggressively and pushing the limit is not something that looked to be coming so easily for him, Rea found a new level, a new set of weapons he’ll be sharpening in time for their 2022 WorldSBK re-match.

However, by breaking the run of success that might have dissuaded Rea to ever consider ducking out from under Kawasaki’s umbrella, there is an argument to be had that he could see any potential 2022 WorldSBK title win against his new foe as the perfect moment to call time on his Kawasaki tenure and seek a fresh challenge in 2023 or 2024.

Which WorldSBK team could Jonathan Rea join?

Now there’s a question worth approximately $500,000, reportedly anyway.

It’s believable Kawasaki’s four other factory rivals would be capable of splashing out on a tempting offer for Rea, but that doesn’t mean they are all willing.

Of the quartet, Yamaha is perhaps least likely to make a punt for Rea. The manufacturer is actively putting a lot of emphasis into developing its own rider development programme charting from the R3 Cup to WorldSSP 300, WorldSSP and WorldSBK, not to mention its domestic Superbiker stars with advantageous nationalities.

And besides, Yamaha has shown it can win without him.

Ducati, meanwhile, might have been a more attractive option to Rea a few years ago with a career plan that ultimately concluded with a move to MotoGP. 

Moreover, there are many who believe Ducati has the best Superbike on the grid, albeit one with a more limited operating window to hit the sweet spot. From Ducati’s perspective, Rea is perhaps best qualified to nestle into that space on a regular basis but Rea would unlikely exert the same level of direction and influence on development as he does at Kawasaki.

BMW’s consistent presence in WorldSBK since 2009 hasn’t always been matched by its factory-backed dedication, with the German firm developing a reputation across motorsport for quitting when it isn’t winning.

Well, it certainly isn’t winning right now but a true gauge of where its revived Motorrad-funded WorldSBK project will become clearer with the signing of Scott Redding. If it wobbles this year, it might question its involvement again but the prospect of getting Rea on board has the potential to alter perception.

From Rea’s perspective, turning BMW into winners would score highly for any motivation branded ‘my biggest challenge yet’ but there are question marks over whether the M 1000 RR is knocking on the door of breakthrough success or just hanging around it.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for Rea would be a move to Honda. It is of course where he started his Superbike career, spending six frustrating seasons in the Ten Kate Racing set-up during which it wasn’t entirely clear whether his up and down form was borne from him or the bike.

As it turns out, Rea’s move to Kawasaki and Honda’s subsequent decline revealed he was probably out-performing his machinery, making his wins on the Fireblade all the more impressive.

As such, there is potentially some unfinished business there from a personal perspective. Moreover, while success has perhaps been more modest on Honda’s now-HRC endorsed full factory return to action since 2020, there is little doubt it has all the credentials to rediscover the devastating form it achieved during the early-2000s.

Throw in Honda’s deep pockets when it comes to backing its motorcycle racing projects and an evident desire to command WorldSBK at any cost in a manner reflective of its success in MotoGP, and it could double up as Rea assuring his legacy and Honda buying into that last push towards championship glory once more.