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James Whitham: So, is Jonathan Rea the Greatest of all Time?

For years and years, we’ve been asking who is the ‘GOAT’ (Greatest Of All Time), the best grand prix rider ever. And now it is Jonathan Rea who, when he wins the World Superbike title at Estoril in a few days’ time, will be acclaimed as the greatest Superbike rider in history, an accolade he richly deserves. And the stats prove it.

But how can you compare the likes of Mike Hailwood to Mick Doohan or Valentino Rossi to Eddie Lawson or Marc Marquez to Kenny Roberts? It’s impossible and actually a little bit pointless, but people get kind of wrapped up in it. The benchmark changes because the benchmark is wherever the machinery and tyres and technology places it in a particular time. You can only race the people and the bikes, and the teams, that you have up against you. That’s all you can do.

So, it’s a little bit different to something like let’s say, athletics where it’s an actual time or a height or a distance that’s the goal. If you run marathons, and you break the world record by a minute or whatever it is, that can stand for a few years. That’s an actual benchmark that people can aspire to, an actual thing, whereas the amount of wins you’ve had is at least in part dependent on who you raced against, what machinery you had compared to everybody else, how many races there was in a season, and all the rest of it..


So, who is the best Superbike racer ever? In motorcycle racing it’s always been a subjective calculation. Everybody’s got a different way of looking at it. However, you can’t really argue with the fact that whichever way you stack up the numbers, Jonathan Rea would look pretty flippin’ special in any era, and against any set of peers, in my opinion.

But can you actually compare Jonathan to Foggy or to Troy Corser or to Ben Spies, whose win ‘hit rate’ was slightly better (28 starts in WorldSBK and 14 wins) but who only competed in the championship for one season. Or Fred Merkel who won a couple of championships before Superbikes really got established. Would Jonathan have been able to ride the older bikes with no electronics and less grip as well? No question in my mind he would, but you don’t actually know that. So, it’s a really subjective thing, but I think his stats do speak for themselves.

What I would say is one of his attributes, and one of the things that’s given him the stats he’s got, is his consistency and his intelligence towards what he’s doing. The way he works with his team, and especially his crew chief, and the way he gets the bike as good as it can be each weekend. Sometimes his bike isn’t the best (only once has his team-mate finished second in the championship to him), it certainly hasn’t been the quickest, but his methodical approach combined with his riding ability, over time has been nigh-on impossible to beat.

But in my opinion of the whole idea of trying to decide who is the best ever is completely pointless. Is he the best ever? Would he have been the best ever? Could he have gone as fast as Foggy on a Ducati? Or was the depth of field deeper back then? I think you’ve got to look at Jonathan in the company he’s in now where he’s head and shoulders above everybody else as an all-around package. I think it would have been really good if we could have seen him having a proper crack, maybe a couple or three years, in MotoGP. I think he would have acquitted himself fairly well.

But in terms of the number of wins relative to the number of starts - 99 out of 300 - that tells you whether a rider is one of the best or not. These stats are the best ever and nobody’s going to match them.

In the heyday of WorldSBK was the competition for Foggy or those two great Aussie champions Troy Bayliss and Troy Corser faced better than today? I think it probably was, but then I think there have also been times when if you had factory Michelin tyres and a factory Ducati, you probably had a slight advantage. So, it goes both ways, and it always has. The only theoretical way to figure it out properly would be to have every top rider from across the eras, in their prime, on the same bikes, on the same tyres, and let them fight it out – clearly impossible – but it’d be great wouldn’t it?

My perfect theoretical race would be all the greats, Surtees, Hailwood, Nieto, Saarinen, Agostini, Read, Sheene, Roberts, Foggy, Bayliss, Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz, Doohan, Spencer, Stoner, Rossi, Marquez etc all on late 1990s NSR500 Hondas at Monza. Oh, and I’d give Anthony Gobert an entry but only coz he’d be good value at the after party, and he’d probably smash up the hire car.

Obviously, I’d need to organise a test day or two before the event to give the 50s 60s and 70s lads chance to get used to a 130kg bike with 200bhp, and we’d need a mounting stool so Angel Nieto could get on one. Sorry, went off script a bit there.

The only way you really get any sort of litmus test as to the current strength of a championship at any particular time is to drop somebody in from another championship. When Andrea Locatelli, Jules Cluzel, Randy Krummenacher and others have arrived in the World Supersports championship from Moto2 they run right at the front. So, you can judge that WorldSSP at the minute is nowhere near as competitive as Moto2. But then again, in terms of pace and depth of field I don’t think any championship in the world, even MotoGP, is as competitive as the Moto2 championship. It is unbelievably tough.

Scott Redding came the other way into WorldSBK, up from impressively winning the BSB title at the first attempt and has been the biggest challenger for Jonathan this season. That’s a pretty good bill of health for BSB.

And I don’t see not winning the championship as any kind of failure on Redding’s part or Ducati’s. He’s come to a championship where he doesn’t know most of the circuits. He’s stacked up favourably against a rider who has dominated that championship for six years and we know how good he is. It’s been a valiant effort on Scott’s part, as far as I can see. Given another year, going back to circuits that they’ve got data on plus another year under his belt on that bike, you’d have to think he’ll be faster.


What about WorldSBK going forward? BMW are bringing out a new bike for next year and they have signed Michael van der Mark so they’re serious. There’s also rumours of a satellite team. Rea has resigned for an undisclosed number of years with Kawasaki and there’s talk of a new bike. The new Honda Fireblade is starting to show some promise. And Yamaha will run one factory and probably two satellite teams next year, so to me the championship looks fairly healthy.

What has helped to revive manufacturer interest is a set of regulations that allow all teams access to good kit and that have stayed fairly stable for a few years. I think Scott Smart should take credit because he knows how the job works technically and there are rules in place that make it very possible for satellite teams to develop a bike that is as competitive as possible, just like there is in MotoGP. So, you get people like Garrett Gerloff being able to run up front certain weeks and, of course, Loris Baz.

But the money situation may not be. I think there may be hard times ahead and not just for the paddock. I think what happens in the paddock will reflect what is happening in society. Let’s just hope for the best in terms of financial support from inside and outside.

But right now, ironically, we’re witnessing one of the most exciting British Superbike championships ever – five riders can still lift the title. In reverse order in fifth is Tarran Mackenzie who had a brilliant Donington. You’ve got Jason O’Halloran, Glenn Irwin, Christian Iddon, and Josh Brookes who has a slender lead, 19 points cover the leading four riders.

I’m sure that Josh will fancy his chances because he’s gone well at Brands before. But being the UK, I don’t think we’re going to get three dry races at Brands. It’s really exciting. The nerves are jangling already.


In the medium term, I worry a little bit about BSB, especially the support classes. Unlike the big company and manufacturer support of world championship racing, the domestic paddock survives on, for the most part smaller companies, local companies, bike shops and mum ‘n’ dad. When the Covid thing really starts to bite and the economy starts to struggle so will those people, there’s bound to be a knock-on effect.

But for now, I’m thinking of the most exciting finish in years. My head will go for Josh Brookes. My heart is going for Christian Iddon or Glen Irwin. Mathematically Mackenzie can still win it but practically it’s going to be a mountain to climb. I’ve nothing against Josh but he’s won it before, Christian and Glen haven’t, and neither has O’Halloran.

I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be an action-packed weekend at Brands. Probably not quite as good as my theoretical all time GOAT shoot-out weekend at Monza but a belter for sure but such a pity it’s going be in front of empty grandstands.

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