Vintage Jim McDermott: The Land Of Tose: It's Good To Be The King

James Toseland, leader of the World Superbike Championship nearly throughout the 2007 season, finally clinched the title for Ten Kate Honda last weekend in Magny-Cours, France. Toseland, who came into the race weekend with a 29-point advantage, nearly lost it all, finishing in 7th and 6th place, to lift the title by just two points from Nori Haga.

Toseland won 8 races in 2007, more than anyone, including Bayliss—who would have predicted that in the pre-season? Throughout the year, JT displayed a newfound level of consistency, maturity, and aggressiveness. Ten Kate gave him a fairly reliable, fairly well-prepared yet unbelievably fast bike; Pi provided a traction control system that suited the CBR1000RR Fireblade, and Toseland won Honda their first WSBK Championship since Colin Edwards in 2002.

What a contrast to Toseland's first title win with Ducati, which also came at the final round, in Magny-Cours, in 2004. Almost no one expected JT to win that title—not his own team, and likely, not even Toseland himself.

2004 had been a transitional year in World Superbike. It was the first season with the new control tire/Pirelli rule, which dramatically leveled the playing field throughout 2004. Also, the rules for four-cylinder machines were changed and finally allowed unrestricted 1000cc displacement, equaling the two-cylinder bikes. Although politics caused most of the Japanese factories to avoid direct involvement with the series during this period, many privateer four-cylinder bikes filled the grid.

In many ways, 2004 was a year that reminded one of the inception of the World Superbike Championship. While the outside perception was that the series was floundering, the feel inside was optimistic. The new rules meant that smaller teams and privateers could get a decent result, perhaps even podium or win, which really hadn't been the case since the early 90's.

Veteran Frankie Chili actually led the championship on a 998/999 hybrid privateer machine early in the season, and even the Foggy Petronas bikes got a podium or two. But there were four riders who dominated that year: Toseland, Regis Laconi, Chris Vermeulen, and Noriyuki Haga.

Toseland muscled Laconi at Imola '04, finishing second and closing the gap to just nine points
image by jimola
Toseland and Laconi were new additions to the Ducati Fila Corse factory team, both coming off 998's to the 999. Laconi was the senior man on the Corse team, having ridden in both MotoGP and SBK. Toseland was drafted from the GSE Ducati squad, and most people figured 2004 would be a learning year for Toseland. Vermeulen, the reigning World Supersport Champion, was riding a Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade in his first WSBK season. Although previous World Supersport champs historically had a difficult time transitioning to SBK, Vermeulen was adapting superbly, winning four races, including a double win at Laguna Seca. Haga, the notorious "Samurai Of Slide", was riding a Ducati 999 for Renegade. He, too, was riding well, smoothing out his style to get the best out of the 999 and winning six races that year.
Tardozzi said, "...I went there, and I told him, you can ask him, that I am f*cking sick about fu*king small problems, because it was all small problems, close your eyes, open the truck door—otherwise, change job. Everybody has problems, everybody here in front of you, at the moment there was all Ducatis, are you faster than those guys or do you think we have to employ one of them for next year? Sometimes you need to be not so nice, but you must have a reaction."
It was clear that no one rider would dominate the series, as in previous SBK seasons. Vermeulen and Haga faced challenges that ultimately undermined their campaigns for the 2004 title. Haga had numerous mechanical DNFs, and crashed out of the penultimate race in Imola; Vermeulen, too, had several crippling DNFs, a disqualification in Monza, and the heady task of developing a brand-new bike with no factory support in his rookie season as a Superbike rider. Ducati had not yet unlocked the secrets of the perfect setup for the 999, and both factory and privateer riders complained about a lack of front-end feel from the bike. The 999, in a higher state of tune to compete with the new 1000cc fours, required shorter service intervals. High-priced components had to be replaced sooner, which many non-factory teams couldn't afford, causing many embarrassing DNFs for Ducati 999 customer bikes in 2004.

Taking all this into account, it seemed difficult to predict a winner. Ducati had dominated the series for so long, the safest bet was on Ducati Fila Corse pilot Regis Laconi—he was the more experienced rider on the best bike in the best team. Toseland, clearly the junior rider at Fila Corse, was expected to win a few races (he won three to Laconi's eight), but most assumed it would be a learning year for him. He hadn't won a title since 1997, when he was British CB500 Cup Champion. He had finished 3rd in 2003 WSBK, clearly showing he had talent and potential, but it just wasn't in the script for him to be Champion in 2004.

In 2004, I attended six WSBK rounds (out of 11), covering the series for Soup, and I got to spend some quality time with Toseland. He turned 24 that year, and he was still quite boyish at times. It was clear that he believed in his abilities—no one gets to that level if they don't—but he did not yet have the steely resolve that he displayed in 2007. JT knew he could win races, but he seemed genuinely surprised to be leading the championship mid-year. Laconi had been winning races, but also had his share of misfortune—some DNFs and bad finishes. Toseland had been fairly consistent, hadn't set the track on fire, but quietly racked up points. He seemed to credit Laconi's bad luck for his championship lead, more than his personal performance.

Davide Tardozzi, Ducati Fila Corse team manager, was all over Toseland, like a bloodhound on a guy in an orange jumpsuit. I witnessed Tardozzi coming down on Toseland many times that year, browbeating him about lackluster qualifying performances when riders on customer Ducatis were turning much faster times. Toseland seemed to have a fair bit of self-doubt throughout a given race weekend, finally pulling together a better performance on race day. It was as though he needed to be immersed in the "red mist" before he could dismiss the voices that were throwing question marks at him in his head. Tardozzi, used to working with Fogarty and Bayliss—riders carved from granite—had little patience for Toseland's self-doubt.

During an interview at Silverstone, Tardozzi mentioned that he had pointed out to JT that all the riders on customer Ducatis who were turning better lap times, and asked Toseland if he should hire one of them instead the following year!

Tardozzi said, "...I went there, and I told him, you can ask him, that I am f*cking sick about fu*king small problems, because it was all small problems, close your eyes, open the truck door—otherwise, change job. Everybody has problems, everybody here in front of you, at the moment there was all Ducatis, are you faster than those guys or do you think we have to employ one of them for next year? Sometimes you need to be not so nice, but you must have a reaction."

When James won the Championship at Magny-Cours in 2004, his crew was overjoyed, but Tardozzi's reaction was somewhat muted, I thought. Laconi had come into Magny-Cours with a nine-point lead over Toseland, and everyone expected him to win the title. Certainly, both Laconi and Toseland had been told by Corse that they would be renewed or released, based on their final championship positions. With the #1 plate on his bike, Ducati kept Toseland for 2005. They re-upped Laconi, as well.

Toseland was obviously thrilled to be champ. After I had a drink or 12 at the Alstare Corona end-of-season party that year, I bumped into him at about 2 am (with the hottest umbrella girl in Magny-Cours on his arm), asked him how it felt, and he beamed "It's good to be the King!" Laconi, who got truly owned by JT in his home race, cried on the podium, but forced himself to have a good time at the party, too.

Toseland's title defense year didn't go well. He won only one race, and finished 4th in the Championship. Traction-control technology was just being introduced in SBK. The glitchy system put Toseland on his head more than once, and he never seemed to click with the bike. Early in the season, the vibe in his side of the garage was heavy with resignation, like the office of a political candidate who just found out he'd lost by a landslide. There were few smiles, fewer reasons to smile, lots of palmed chins, and deep sighs as the season wore on. Toseland was released by Ducati Corse at the end of the year.

By his own admission, in 2005, Toseland left Magny-Cours in tears, without a team, and with his career in doubt. How could he have known that he'd be lifted from the gutter, welcomed, and placed back on the Superbike throne just two seasons later? Clearly the nurturing, calm environment at Ten Kate was a huge element in Toseland's resurgence.

Intimidation didn't work. JT is a rider who seems to respond better to encouragement. JT finished 2nd in 2006 to Troy Bayliss, and he man-handled the series early in 2007.

So now, Toseland is off to MotoGP, to Herve Poncharal's Tech 3 Yamaha squad. Will this prove to be as nurturing and successful an environment as Ten Kate was for JT? Certainly, Poncharal seemed to have invested a lot of time and focus in Sylvain Guintoli, who got pushed out in order to make room for Toseland and Colin Edwards to join the team for 2008. It is widely assumed that Tech 3 will finally have Michelins, and "equal" equipment to the factory Yamaha team next season. Can Toseland finish in the top three, or even win the MotoGP Championship in 2008? It may not seem likely, but then who expected Bridgestone, Ducati, and Stoner to so thoroughly spank, well, everyone this year? Toseland has more confidence, ability, focus, and plain old grit than ever before. Can this World Superbike Champ do better than Bayliss, Corser, Edwards, and Hodgson—the others who emigrated to MotoGP before him?

It wouldn't be a World Superbike commentary if we didn't predict a "cracking, ding-dong" battle for the title next year. All Hail King James!
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