World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea on top of world as he joins elite of Ulster racing
There was no fairytale double victory and his consecutive run of 20 podiums came to an abrupt end yesterday in Spain, but Northern Ireland's Jonathan Rea did enough to clinch the 2015 World Superbike Championship at Jerez on his factory Kawasaki with a brace of fourth placed finishes.
The 28-year-old becomes just the fourth member of an elite club of riders who have won world titles from these shores. Belfast man Ralf Bryans set the ball rolling in 1965 when he won the 50cc Grand Prix world title, followed by the legendary Joey Dunlop who won five TT Formula 1 world titles between 1982 and 1986.
Until Rea crossed the line in race one yesterday, double TT Formula 2 world champion Brian Reid (1985/86) was the only surviving member of the unofficial club, but the son of TT winner Johnny Rea and grandson of leading road racing sponsor John Rea, has increased that number to four.
Speaking after his on track celebrations at Jerez, where he paid tribute to both Reid and Dunlop by sporting replicas of their famous Arai designs, Rea said: "Personally this feels like a little bit of a weight off my shoulders. I have always believed that we were capable of winning a world championship right since I stepped off a World Supersport bike."
That was back in 2008 when the Dutch Ten Kate Honda team, whom he remained loyal to for seven long seasons, gave him his first taste of World Superbike action. Rea finished second that year in World Supersport behind his then Ten Kate Honda team-mate Andrew Pitt, with current British Superbike leader Josh Brookes taking third place overall.
Rea then moved to Superbike proper in 2009 and remained on a Ten Kate Honda until the end of 2014, where he finished third - his best ever up until that point - in the championship standings. Many, including Pitt, felt that the Ulsterman had stayed loyal to Honda for too long and had maybe missed his opportunity, but this year's Kawasaki Racing Team deal has proved otherwise.
"It feels like this is my time to be honest," said Rea, whose wife Tatia and son Jake were joined in Jerez by the extended Rea family circle, and many of the Ulsterman's close friends who also joined in the celebrations.
Modest as always, Rea recounted his season by saying: "It feels a little bit like everything has gone my way, even when a couple of things could have gone wrong. Like when the rain came in Portimao and I had a front-end slide in the wet, and caught it on my knee.
"Then I had a big moment at Donington Park on lap one, and after nearly high-siding I landed straight back in the seat again. I was able to pick things up and finished in second place. I have been in Superbike quite a while and had two seasons that were dogged with injury, with my wrist and a femur issues in 2011 and 2013. But this season has panned out smoothly for me and I'm delighted to be champion."
Born in Northern Ireland in 1987, Jonathan made an immediate impact on the ZX-10R Kawasaki in winter testing and won the first race of the year for Kawasaki, at Phillip Island back in February. He won 12 of the first 20 races, and has not finished off the podium in any of them, before arriving in Spain to lift his crown.
Rea's rivalry with his KRT team-mate Tom Sykes has been well documented. Off the track there is mutual respect, with both riders having attending each other's wedding, but on it… there have been plenty of fireworks.
Joining 2013 world champion Sykes and Kawasaki this season undoubtedly introduced more than a healthy dose of pressure on Rea. But hasn't he coped admirably.
"The most special thing for me was joining a team that had been so successful over the past few seasons and sharing a garage with one of the strongest riders in World Superbike," said the Ulsterman, who now considers Castletown on the Isle of Man as his adopted home these days.
"To come out and win the first race of the season at Phillip Island - that is a feeling and memory that I will take with me for a long time," he smiled. "That really did feel amazing, but it's testament to all the hard work that not just Pere Riba my crew chief, or Paolo Marchetti my electronics guy put in, but all the mechanics in our team who provide me with a great race bike on a Sunday."
Speaking of the sacrifice involved to get to this stage of his career, he explained: "Everyone who wins a world title has faced adversity and hard times and comes a long way.
"I came into the world championships when I was just 20, which is quite young, but I feel like I have been racing bikes competitively for years and years, so it has taken me a little longer to achieve this goal.
"I was just a kid with a dream and I'm glad I never gave up on that dream. I just kept believing in myself."
Tom Sykes and Chaz Davies (Ducati) were yesterday's race winners at Jerez, with Welshman Davies now leading the charge for second place in the championship standings with a healthy 22 point lead over Sykes with just four races remaining this season.