Friends, rivals and once again WorldSBK team-mates, reigning world champion Jonathan Rea and reigning British superbike champion Leon Haslam will put their heads together in 2019 to attempt to continue the outstanding success enjoyed by the factory Kawasaki Racing Team in recent years.
As well as both being ambassadors for motorcycle insurance specialists Carole Nash, the duo have known each other for half their lives. Leading superbike journalist Gordon Richie took the chance to put their heads together in the build up to the opening round of the 2019 WorldSBK Championship, at Phillip Island in Australia, to get their thoughts on the season ahead.
Q: You have been WorldSBK team-mates before, with Ten Kate Honda, but could you imagine back then that you would end up in a factory team together again in 2019?
Jonathan Rea (JR): It is strange, especially because Leon’s career path went back to BSB. But he married up with Kawasaki and created a great relationship there. From the work he was doing in Japan with Kawasaki I could hear that they really valued him, so I could feel like he was a genuine candidate to be in the Kawasaki family in the world championship – one day – whether I was there or not. We cannot pick and choose our careers, we just have to go where the opportunities are and our paths have crossed again which is cool. We had a good working relationship at Honda. We are not worried to work together to try and achieve that. We did our debriefs together, for example.
Leon Haslam (LH): We were together at the Suzuka 8-Hour in 2018 with Kawasaki, and obviously in the Ten Kate years it was good as well. I have ridden for six different manufacturers and it is always good to have someone that means you can leave your job at the circuit and work together to get the best out of the whole package. To be honest, throughout my whole career there are not that many people I have been able to do that with. From that point of view it is nice to have that one the other inside of the garage. Even more so in that he has just won four world titles in a row. What better scenario can there be from my perspective?
Q: Does being friends, and you are quite good friends, change the nature of the rivalry you have?
JR: For me, on track, definitely not. We banged bars in BSB and we actually grew up as rivals in BSB. The current breed of British riders were there but it was kind of myself, Leon and Kiyonari who were the guys at the front of BSB. Then when we went to the world championship we went at a similar time, and I went to world supersport one year while Leon stayed back. Then we were on Hondas in the rookie year, then he went to Suzuki and I stayed in the official Honda team, so we were rivals. The year he finished runner-up in the championship I was third until I broke my wrist. I was just behind him in the championship and a few races to go. We are working together now and there can only be one winner, but I think we have a good level of respect. Out of the racetrack, we can leave what has happened at the racetrack. As long as we do not trash talk each other and work for the team, we should be right.
LH: We have been racing against each other for about 15 years, so we can leave what happens on the track on the track but the biggest thing is we are not teenagers that are trying to prove a point. I have always been able to have a right bust up with someone and then go for a beer with them afterwards. Other people have struggled with that but Johnny never has with me, so that has probably made us closer off the track than any relationship I have had with other riders. And the fact that we are now in our 30s, I think it is easier for us to have more fun and enjoy what we have got. These are our good years, or should be!
Q: What would be a successful season for each of you, in your own measure?
LH: From my side, it is just getting the most out of what I have got. The bike and team is capable, so it is down to me. Trying to absorb and bridge that gap, whatever that gap is, to be winning races. The aim is always to win but I know I have not done that, and not been in the championship for the past few years, so I have to try and reach there. When that will be, and if that will be, we will have to wait and see.
JR: A successful year for me? I have to win. It has been the benchmark for the past four years. Anything other than that would be… it would not be unsuccessful because this is a world championship and there are a lot of fast riders. But I have been riding the crest of a wave now and in the last four years there is always going to be somebody that comes, whether it be a rider or manufacturer, that steps up and it is not my time. My goal is to try to find the bond I had with my bike in the middle of last year. Once you have that you really enjoy riding on the limit. Even last year when I was riding by myself at the front I was riding on the absolute limit. I was not rolling off because I felt so at one with my bike.
Q: More rivals this year?
JR: It is like this every season. I think it will boil down to the same guys.
LH: Like old racing saying goes, when the flag drops, the bull stops…
JR: Ducati and the official Yamaha team have stepped up. The guys that people are getting excited about, the Honda thing, I cannot really see (although) I hope for Leon Camier that it is a great machine. The kind of unknown is Tom Sykes and BMW. There is a lot of excitement around that. I think over the season, the championship will sort itself out pretty quickly, and people will find their place. But it is so great to see that BMW and Honda are back.
Q: Describe each other in five words?
JR: Leon is tenacious, hardworking, driven, ambitious and funny.
LH: Jonathan is determined, caring, ambitious, tenacious and intelligent. Not many racers are intelligent, but he is intelligent.
Words: Gordon Ritchie
Photos: Vaclav Duska Jr./Kawasaki Racing Team