CW 5Q: James Toseland

Britain’s MotoGP hope for the future

CW 5Q: James Toseland

Interviewing James Toseland is like peeling the skin from an onion. Behind one layer is another, equally revealing layer. Fans of motorcycle roadracing know Toseland for his two World Superbike titles, won in 2004 with Ducati and in '07 with Honda. He's also survived a broken home, is an impassioned philanthropist, an accomplished pianist, and renowned for his strong personal drive and superb physical fitness.

Currently Britain's sole MotoGP entry, the 28-year-old Isle of Man resident methodically worked his way through the ranks of amateur, national and international production-based roadracing to reach his current position as teammate to American Colin Edwards at Herve Poncheral-managed Tech 3 Yamaha. Toseland finished 11th overall in his MotoGP rookie year, high points being a sixth-place finish at the 2008 season-opener in Qatar (and also in five later rounds) and a torrid mid-race battle with series champ Valentino Rossi at Phillip Island in Australia.

I spoke with Toseland shortly after the final MotoGP off-season test in Jerez, Spain. He'd just spent two days performing with his band, Crash, at the NEC International Motorcycle and Scooter Show, England's biggest bike show, where his Yamaha YZR-M1 was displayed. With the winter testing ban now in effect, he had time to reflect on this past season, his racing future and other aspects of his busy life.

Your Tech 3 Yamaha teammate, Colin Edwards, attributed his success in the first half of this past season to having had the off-season opportunity to "test all the new parts and pretty much pick what I liked." He said, "Everything's been so hard and stiff. It's all been built for Valentino Rossi over the years; he grew up on mini-motos with no suspension, 125s—he likes that. I was a Superbike guy. I like things to move around, get a bit of feel." As a two-time World Superbike champion yourself, like Edwards, do you share his sentiments?

"This was my first year on a MotoGP bike, so I can't compare it to anything. With what Valentino has achieved, obviously Yamaha's prime objective is to build the 800 around what he wants. But it must have been difficult being Valentino's teammate for three years, for sure. This year, because Colin and I were on Michelins and Valentino was on Bridgestones, Colin was able to get the bike how he wanted it without that reference.

"I came into MotoGP with an open mind and tried to learn the capabilities of the bike and how to ride it to get the best out of it. I wanted to know what Valentino and Colin were doing on the bike and how it liked to be ridden. It was completely foreign compared to a Superbike, but because of my experience, I was able to jump on and go fast quite comfortably.

"MotoGP bikes are much more advanced than Superbikes; I had to change the way I ride to be able to push the bike to its limit. I had to really think about technique. At 200 mph, for instance, I'm braking nearly 20 meters later than I did on a Superbike. That's incredible."

You came from a successful spec-tire series. What effect do you think the new mono-tire rule will have in MotoGP?

"It is a shame to see a big company go out of it, as Michelin has. With the mono-tire rule, everybody should have the same tires and grip. The Pirelli rule in World Superbike didn't create any harm, and the racing was great. I'm sure the racing is going to have no knock-on effect at all, but it's a shame we've lost such a good manufacturer.

"The Bridgestone front is really impressive. At the test in Jerez, I was pleased with the positive feel. When I had followed Bridgestone riders on the brakes and turning into corners, I could tell they had a lot of confidence, so that wasn't so much of a surprise. The rear tire is just like a good Michelin. Over the last two years, Bridgestone has really come good. Not only do they have grip, they have durability, as well.

"In Jerez, we only had two compounds: soft and medium. That made it simple. If we'd had problems, everybody would have had problems. That's one of the advantages of the same-tire rule: There are no excuses. It should make for close racing."

Your latest book, A Year in MotoGP, was just published. You also support the U.K.'s National Year of Reading, which aims to increase awareness of the value of reading. What is your role in that campaign?

"A Year in MotoGP is a diary of the season. The publisher is Virgin; they published my autobiography. They had this great idea of an 'overlook' of my first year in MotoGP. It goes from my first test in Sepang, Malaysia, through the end of the season. It's an insight into what I was thinking and what we were doing, the problems, the good and bad times.

"I've always been a big fan of reading, autobiographies, especially. I'm interested in sports people—problems they've had and how they've overcome them. But any type of reading is always good, and anything like this I'll put my name to it.

"I came to MotoGP from a 'normal' background, and one of the things this program has done is give youngsters inspiration: If I could do it, they can do it. That's a really important message that I've always tried to push. Sometimes kids think 'stars' are special, but it's all about hard work and dedication."

At Phillip Island, you once again equaled your best finish of the year, sixth, but more importantly, you battled at one point with none other than Rossi—on your birthday, no less. Given that performance, coming as it did near the end of the year, how would you assess your rookie season? Are you looking forward to working with Gary Reynders, Edwards' former crew chief, in 2009?

"It wasn't the ideal season. There were some really big highs and some really big lows. For example, I qualified second at my first race in Qatar, and I crashed out at my home round in Donington Park. At the end of it all, I sat down and thought, 'If I keep putting in 100 percent, it's definitely possible to be successful in MotoGP.' I had to go through a year to truly believe that because I'd never ridden in the class or raced against these guys. I'd mastered Superbikes, and I was really comfortable in that world. I made the choice myself; I wanted the ultimate challenge.

"Really, the inconsistencies of this past season are on me. I had to learn eight new tracks. I forgot how difficult it is to learn a new track. I mean, I can learn a track, no problem, but to qualify within one second of Valentino Rossi on a brand-new circuit when it has rained one day and was dry the other, which happened at quite a few rounds, it's a tall call.

"With a new chief mechanic and the same tires, the package that I've got around me for next year and no excuses with learning new circuits, I'm really looking forward to being more consistent and at the front more. I was ninth-quickest on paper at the test in Jerez, but I'm quite confident with my race pace. My motivation is always high because I actually believe that it's possible to be competitive. When you've got your ultimate dream dangling in front of you, well, that's enough motivation for me."

It seems that everywhere you go, someone wheels out a piano and a microphone and asks you to perform. That must require a lot of energy. Do you sometimes kick yourself for letting others know that you possess talent beyond racing a motorcycle?

"No, not at all. Playing the piano and singing are easy for me. I really have to work at riding a motorcycle; it's hard to find that last one or two tenths of a second necessary to be competitive at this level. The more serious racing gets, the more I enjoy playing the piano. It's the only thing that takes my mind off racing.

"I was playing piano before motorcycles were introduced into my life. I started playing at 7 or 8 years old, and I had lessons until I was 16. At school, motorcycles had more 'street cred' than the piano. If I think back, I realize that I really focused more of my energy on motorcycles; I've really got a passion for it. Motorcycling gave me a competitive outlet that I never had with the piano.

"I've always loved playing the piano, and I'm good enough now that I get real enjoyment from it. Yamaha has given me a chance to give something back. I've been to Japan three times this year just to play the piano, and the boss of Yamaha music came to a MotoGP race for the first time ever."

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland

James Toseland