Jonathan Rea is ready to step up to the plate once more in 2019 as he takes on new challenges in his quest to win the World Superbike Championship for an unparalleled fifth time.
The Northern Ireland rider has been on a record-smashing roll since he switched to the Kawasaki Racing Team in 2015, dominating the series on the Ninja ZX-10RR as he powered to four consecutive world crowns.
Rea is the only rider ever to win the World Superbike title in four successive seasons and he now stands poised to stake his claim for a fifth championship success in 2019, which would ensure the 31-year-old goes into the history books as the most successful World Superbike rider ever.
He is currently level with Carl Fogarty on four titles, although Rea has the added lustre of achieving his championship triumphs in successive years.
There is no shortage of fired up rivals desperate to knock the Ballyclare man off his perch, not least old foe Chaz Davies and former MotoGP rider Alvaro Bautista, who will ride Ducati’s much-vaunted V4 machine this year.
Fierce adversary and Rea’s ex-Kawasaki team-mate Tom Sykes will lead the charge for Shaun Muir’s factory-backed BMW team, while British Superbike champion Leon Haslam will be aiming to make his mark as he returns to the class alongside Rea at Kawasaki.
Dutchman Michael van der Mark, third in the championship in 2018, is also a potential title challenger on the Pata Yamaha, while Northern Ireland’s Eugene Laverty has joined the Team Go Eleven outfit to ride Ducati’s new V4 racer.
Rea, though, says he is focused only on himself and admits anything other than a fifth world title on the trot would be a ‘disappointment’.
“It’s so difficult to pinpoint where the challenge is going to come from but I really want to focus on myself and not focus on anyone else,” Rea told the News Letter.
“Everyone gets excited at this time of the year, talking about what’s going to happen or what should happen, but I think in reality it’s going to be the same guys.
“Chaz Davies is one of the toughest opponents I’ve had over these past few years and he’s going to be one of my main rivals for sure.
“Guys like Michael van der Mark stepped up last year and finished third in the championship, and Alvaro Bautista is a world champion as well, so he should slot right in there. He’s been a top-five guy in MotoGP and there are high expectations for him coming in,” added Rea.
“But the target is clear and that’s to win – anything other than that would be a disappointment.”
Rea, who received the Freedom of the Borough of Antrim and Newtownabbey during a public ceremony at the Theatre at the Mill on Tuesday evening, is set to be crowned the Irish Motorcyclist of the Year in Belfast on Friday night at the Cornmarket Motorbike Awards.
He will then jet off to Spain to commence his final testing programme at Jerez next week as the countdown to the opening round of the 2019 world championship at Phillip Island in Australia begins in earnest.
“I’m testing in Jerez next week – we have two days on and two days off – and then we go to Portugal to Portimao afterwards,” he said.
“We had a few days testing in Jerez in November and it was good. We ended the season in such a strong way and Kawasaki came with a new model to the test.
“We refined some areas of the bike and it was about understanding about what it working and what is not in those tests.
“The engineers in Japan have been working really hard and I’ll only get to see the progress they have made next week, but I have high expectations for the bike but we are going to need to move forward,” Rea added.
“Both Ducati and BMW are coming with completely new bikes from the ground up and Honda and HRC are coming back to the championship with a full factory effort, so we need to step up but I feel we are in a good place at the minute.”