World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea has shown incredible resilience as the Northern Ireland man’s dream of winning a record fifth crown in 2019 remains alive with half of the season completed.
The Kawasaki Racing Team rider’s prospects of surpassing Blackburn’s Carl Fogarty as the most successful rider ever in the series appeared bleak as former MotoGP rider Alvaro Bautista took the championship by storm.
The former 125cc Grand Prix world champion was brought in to fire Ducati back to the pinnacle of World Superbikes and armed with the Bologna factory’s exotic new Panigale V4-R, the Spaniard embarked on a dominant 11-race winning streak as he left his rivals trailing in his wake.
Rea had no answer to the blistering top-end speed of the new Ducati as the 32-year-old engaged in a damage limitation exercise, with the four-in-a-row champion filling the runner-up spot in the first 10 races as he battled to simply hang in there in the points standings.
He finally halted Bautista’s runaway success at Imola in Italy, where he bagged his first two wins of the season to finally pierce his 35-year-old rival’s armour.
Nonetheless, after the Superpole sprint race at the sixth round at Jerez in Spain, Bautista had opened up a seemingly insurmountable lead of 61 points over the Ulsterman.
Even to the most optimistic Rea fan, an unprecedented fifth successive world crown must have looked distinctly unachievable, but how the tables have unexpectedly turned.
A rare mistake by Bautista in the final race at Jerez – the first crash of his maiden season in World Superbikes – left the door ajar.
And although Rea had to settle for the runner-up spot behind Yamaha’s Michael van der Mark, he pulled back a healthy 20 points on the red-hot title favourite.
With Misano in Italy following on the calendar, a circuit where Rea had backed up his maiden WSBK success in his rookie year in 2009 with a further five wins, the reigning champion had cause to be confident of reducing the deficit further.
He underpinned the strength of the Kawasaki ZX-10RR at the Marco Simoncelli Circuit by racing to pole, although the weather had a surprise in store as the heavens opened prior to race one on Saturday.
After a delay and two re-starts due to torrential rain, Rea grasped the nettle, just as he had done in similar conditions at the Lausitzring in Germany in 2016.
On that occasion, his victory swung the title race back in his favour and he went on to secure his second World title from team-mate Tom Sykes.
His triumph in treacherous conditions on Saturday at Misano did not have quite the same significance, with Bautista still picking up 16 points in third.
However, should Rea come out on top this year, it will certainly be one of those races he will look back on as an important moment on the path to world title number five.
Yet, the Ballyclare man must have been kicking himself after all his good work was undone following a rare error in the Superpole race, when he slid out of second place. Bautista chalked up his 14thtriumph of the season, with Rea limping home in fifth after he was able to re-join the race on his Kawasaki.
A follow-up win seemed a formality for the Ducati sensation in Sunday’s second race, but an intriguing title race provided another twist as Bautista crashed out of the lead on the second lap.
Opportunity knocked once again and Rea showed the fighting spirit of a true champion as he refused to settle for anything other than the maximum 25 points up for grabs.
Young Turkish prospect Toprak Razgatlioglu, tipped as a future team-mate of Rea’s in the official Kawasaki team, wasn’t about to roll over as he chased his maiden World Superbike victory, but his more experienced opponent had enough in reserve to see him over the line.
Bautista recovered to finish in 14th place, adding two championship points to his tally, which could prove so valuable at the end of the season.
It was Rea’s 75th career win in the class, a decade on from his breakthrough success at Misano in 2009.
Perhaps it will turn out to be one of his most important victories ever.
From a commanding position of power, Bautista’s 61-point lead has been whittled down to just 16 with six rounds and 18 races still to go.
The championship now moves on to Donington Park, followed by Laguna Seca in the USA, and Rea will feel he has every chance of wrestling the lead from Bautista going into the long summer break.
His hunger to retain his title remains undiminished and should he manage to prevail against the odds this year, it will surely go down as the greatest achievement of his illustrious career.