ANALYSIS: Right place, right time for Rea’s fighting spirit  

Is this the start of Jonathan Rea's big WorldSBK fightback against Alvaro Bautista... or has he left it too late? 

Jonathan Rea - Kawasaki Racing

HAVING been subjected to watching his hopes of fifth consecutive World Superbike Championship title fade with every passing Alvaro Bautista-dominated race, Jonathan Rea leaves Imola no doubt feeling more optimistic that a quintuple title is not out of the question after all. 

While short-term (or even long-term depending on how the championship shakes out) Rea will perhaps remonstrate over the way he was denied a triple victory at a track where Bautista seemed comparatively on the ropes, a look at the wider picture will otherwise see the Ulsterman feeling rather satisfied with his return to glory this weekend.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Team Green dominate – a respite for some wishing to see a new rider wear the WorldSBK crown – but Rea’s comprehensive response in Italy is exactly what the series needs at time when many will have briefly considered whether Bautista could in fact win every single race this season.

Having shooed that ridiculous notion away in the first and second races of the weekend, Rea’s formidable trouncing of Bautista – and everyone with exception to Chaz Davies – was certainly a signal of his intent now he has adjusted to the unfamiliar if invigorating role of underdog. 

To both his and Bautista’s credit though, there have been alternative factors at play. Imola is a long, technical and narrow circuit, one where experience counts for a lot especially in race conditions. 

Bautista – who has never raced here - called it ‘old-style’ and for a rider who has spent more than a decade competing in the GP paddock Imola is a track he would have never come across, let alone on a powerful machine at the highest-level.

You could see the difference, particularly under braking, as Bautista was visibly not as comfortable on the Ducati Panigale V4 R, a bike that has appeared like an extension of his body in the first four rounds. Though a poor tyre choice flattered to deceive the large gap in the sprint race, it was still the first race this season where he wasn’t top Ducati. 

Indeed, he had no answer to Davies all weekend either which arguably confirms the role simply learning a new circuit plays in a rookie’s armoury. Then again, second and third are hardly bad results either so it is rather biased to judge Bautista against his own high standards in the circumstances.

If Imola could be identified as Bautista’s weak link in 2019, you can argue it was always Rea’s best opportunity too. The Kawasaki has regularly proven quick at the venue in the hands of Rea, while the man himself has multiple wins there from his days riding the inconsistent Honda. Even so, the way in which he was dismantling the field in the final two sectors - where smoothness and confidence under brakes are paramount - demonstrated the key difference of a rider on top form regardless of bike.

It’s for this reason that Rea will understandably feel aggrieved race three didn’t go ahead due to poor weather conditions, just as much as it’s reasonable to relate to why Bautista did not want it to go ahead.

However, it’s wouldn’t be prudent to cry ‘unfair’ that officials fell on the side of the Spaniard given that hours later it was indeed still raining hard and the scattering of opinions across the teams would have resulted in arguably more controversy, or potentially worse had a worst case scenario transpired.

Of course, we’ll now never know but if Rea comes to finish the season runner-up to Bautista and within a race win-haul of points to the Spaniard’s total there is no doubting which race will be highlighted as to where the title was lost.

We will have to wait until the next round in Jerez to see if Rea has indeed taken the title fight up a gear or whether Bautista’s lack of experience was the critical difference on a track renowned for tiny errors multiplying into larger-than-usual margins.

While the ex-MotoGP man started the weekend described as champion-elect, it feels a touch premature suddenly to utter that right now.