Tooting-born rider relishing challenge
BY GILES SPENCER
Barry Sheene, Carl Fogarty and Shane “Shakey” Byrne might be answers you get when you ask the general public to name a British motorcycle racer – but South London’s Gino Rea has been successfully racing on the European and world stage since 2007.
This year the 28-year-old’s back on home soil, competing in the British Superbike Championship for the first time with the OMG Racing UK team on a Suzuki GSXR1000.
This weekend Rea will be racing around Brands Hatch GP circuit in front of crowds of more than 50,000 people at 180mph.
“My dad’s Italian blood but was born and raised around the Tooting-Earlsfield area,” said Rea.
“My mum’s English and from around that area. My nan moved there from Italy just after the war and lived off Tooting Bec High Street.
“I was born in Tooting. Even after we moved I still spent a lot of time around my nan’s, exploring the area.
“I started riding bikes at the age of three and raced motocross from the age of seven to 16. I won the club championship the first year and we got more serious, branching out to national and British championships, some European races.
“We actually started doing trips to America because in motocross, the American Championship was the place to be. I really excelled in the technical side of supercross [indoor motocross] – a lot of jumps, timing, rhythm. That’s what I really enjoyed.”
Despite being successful off road, it was 1990 British Superbike champion and fellow South Londoner Terry Rymer who would be instrumental in bringing Rea to circuit racing.
“My dad has known Terry since they were kids, they were friends growing up and used to ride a lot of motocross together.
“When I got to 15 or 16, Terry said to my dad ‘Get Gino on a road bike’. We bought a 125cc Aprilia and entered the first Superteen race at Brands Hatch. I was the only one in an orange (novice) bib and qualified fourth or fifth and enjoyed it. It was just a great feeling.
“I was quite fast – but probably doing it all wrong. We didn’t do the full championship because I was still racing motocross as well.
“Motocross gives you a great background to come from, because you learn so much about bike control and how the body position can change to help what you’re doing. It definitely gives you a competitive edge and helps with aggression, too, when you have 40 guys in a motocross race heading into the first corner.
“As I got to know the road racing world I was spotted by a guy called Mick Corrigan who spotted James Toseland [two-time WSB champion and MotoGP commentator]. Immediately I felt a connection to Toseland. When I watched him and saw his determination, grit and how hard he tried, the way he rode and how hard he prepared for everything, he became my idol, even to this day.”
Gino’s career really took off in 2007 when he entered the European Superstock 600 Championship which is run alongside the World Superbikes. A podium at Valencia helped him to 12th place in the final standings in his maiden year.
The following year saw a third place championship placing before things really fell into place.
“I won it in 2009, so I was European champion. That was nice to win a title.
“I then moved up to World Supersport and won my first race at Brno in the Czech Republic [in 2011], battling with some really high-profile riders.”
A move to the prestigious Moto2 class in 2012 saw one of his best results yet on a soaked Sepang circuit in Malaysia – finishing third.
“It was full wets (tyres) and my bike was set for the wetter the track, the better it was. I went from 22nd or 23rd on the grid to top 6 by the end of the first lap. I remember going past (Marc)Marquez and thinking ‘Oh my God, this is crazy!’
I felt in control and I got myself to the front of the race. As the track started to dry mid distance I struggled a little bit and the last few laps, the rain came down heavier and I went straight back to the front, got in the lead and it got red flagged! ”
“They took the result from two laps before because some of the slower riders had not finished the lap we got red flagged on. We call it a win but officially I got 3rd. When it actually happens and you’re on the podium, you think, ‘Is this even real?'”
The next two seasons were tough for Rea. Major sponsors pulled out at the 11th hour. He funded a lot of the racing himself, with the help of loyal fans, but he still pulled off creditable results.
A return in 2015 to World Supersport Championship saw the South Londoner back at the front finishing sixth in the championship and seventh at the end of the 2016 campaign.
This year Rea is having a crack at the British Superbike Championship for the very first time.
“The team consists of three owners and their surnames form the OMG,” he said. “They’re bike enthusiasts. They’ve sponsored riders in the past and wanted to do more of a team and see where it can go. Once we saw they were really serious about it and in it for the long run we jumped on board.
“BSB is a completely different style of racing to what we’ve done in the past, but it’s very similar to Moto2 in terms of the depth of talent and how close the lap times and racing is. The regulations allow privateers to be a lot closer to the factory guys compared to World Superbike.
“You can be 0.6 of a second off pole and be down in 17th, which is the same as Moto2 but in terms of the actual championship and the especially the tracks, it’s completely different. You go to such different styles of tracks – smaller, tighter, narrower, more undulation, more bumps, blind crests and shorter circuits.
“Then you chuck in a 230bhp superbike with no traction control, no anti-wheelie, no electronic assist and you’ve got a whole different ball game.
“The first round this year at BSB was Donington, which was fine because I raced there last year in World Supersport. But the second round at Brands Hatch Indy was a big slap to the face – a shock to the system. A short track with no real straights. Then you go from there to Oulton Park; another slap in the face.”
“When you come into a championship like BSB, you know the level the championship is at. It’s the toughest domestic championship in the world and arguably as tough as getting to the top of World Superbike.
“The only thing I underestimated was how many professionally-run teams there are. Mix in with that a massive depth of talent and it creates really close racing. You’ve got good teams and good riders who know the tracks and they’re all experienced. It’s been tougher than I expected, for sure.
“The first part of it is track knowledge. It’s a brand new team and bike and we haven’t really been able to do much testing, so we’re five rounds in and we’re still trying stuff at the race meetings that ideally we’d want to do pre-season in a test. There are a whole load of factors that people don’t see from the outside that essentially decide where you finish.
“I feel I should be closer to the front but you have to keep your feet on the ground and realise what you’re up against. When we went fast at the Snetterton test, it was good but the lap times there compared to race weekend were a bit slower for one reason or another.
“We changed the bike a bit from the test and in the second race I got 11th, which is my best result this year, so far.
“We got a personal best, but we wanted to be higher still. At the start of the season I said I wanted get in the top-10 as quick as I can and start knocking on the door of the top-five and the podiums. What I want to achieve still hasn’t changed.
“We’ll definitely start knocking on the door of the top-10’s. The first goal will be to break inside the top ten then see where we go from there.”
With Gino starting to find his feet in BSB, I wondered what the future might hold for him,
“For the time being I want to be successful in BSB,” said Rea. “This year was a totally new challenge and lifestyle for me as well.
I left school and went into European Superstock. I’ve been racing 600’s my entire career. This new challenge is something I’ve thought about for a while and if the right opportunity came up where I could grow with the team and if we make the progress we want to make, I’m happy to stay with the team and continue to grow with them and get them to the front of the championship.”
“As a Superstock bike or as a road bike the Suzuki is just incredible. Turning it into Superbike spec is a bit harder to get right because there’s so many variables on the bike. For us, it’s a new bike, new parts on it which are different from (Bradley Ray’s) Suzuki UK team. They are supported by Yoshimura, the factory in Japan so most of the development and parts come from them and they’ve got a year with the machine.
“We need to close the gap to them but they’re showing it’s got great, great potential and certainly it’s a top 5 machine so we need to get ours closer to theirs and go from there.
“We’ve started from the bottom and if we make it to the top and the front of these races, the reward will be double as much as these normal teams who have already done it.
“For the time being I’m happy in BSB. If the opportunity ever comes up to go back to a world championship with a top team or if OMG ever decide to go to a world championship, then obviously that’s something I’d consider as well.
“I’d like to thank my personal sponsors who stuck with me and my new ones, OMG Racing team for giving me this opportunity and all the supportors and followers of the BSB championship because the attendance they get and the following the championship gets is quite incredible.”
Find out more about Gino at www.ginorea.com
Rea is in action at the British Superbike Championship this weekend – July 20-22.
Pictures: Ian Hopgood
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