Neil Hodgson and James Toseland have raced at the very highest level. Both are WorldSBK Champions and have ridden in MotoGP. They have been there, seen it, done it and got the T-shirt – shrunk in the Burnley man’s case.
At a BT Sport jolly-up in Norf Lahdan, we sat down with the pair for an unstructured discussion about the state of both championships, what could be changed, concessions, rider opportunties, salaries, and crashing.
Some parts of this have been edited in an effort to protect the guilty…
BSN: Aside from a control ECU what else do you think WorldSBK has to do to get it back to a level of competition where there are six riders that are capable of winning?
JT: To get to the stage where you can have five or six guys capable of winning on more than two motorbikes is down to the manufacturers respecting and wanting to do well in that paddock. I think there’s been a massive problem with manufacturers putting a lot of money into motorcycles and they’ve not necessarily been selling on the roads. It’s a big ask. Kawasaki have supported WorldSBK amazingly over the last few years as we’ve seen, there’s Ducati that’s always been a champion of Superbikes.
But as far as the others go, Yamaha and Honda.. I remember Honda pulling out of WorldSBK when Pirelli came in because of Hondas relationship with Michelin at that point. I was contracted to ride for Honda, and they decided to just pull out. I was very lucky that HM Plant Honda just tore my contract up and allowed me to go to Ducati factory team. I remember that was the first time where you saw manufacturers pulling back for various different reasons, within the market after the 2008 crash as well.
NH: I think that what they need to do, if they do really control the ECU which is massive, that’ll really help, but then they also need to just do concessions, like they allow concessions in the MotoGP and it worked, but I can understand that if you can imagine you were Kawasaki you’d think ‘Why are we being penalised, we’ve taken this seriously, we’ve invested a lot of money and we’ve done a really good job?’ It’s a proper factory team with test teams back in Japan going through stuff. By the time Tom and Johnny test stuff it’s been tested.
Where for example with Yamaha, Alex and Michael are the test team and they have one swinging arm to test in this year, maybe two. By then in Japan, Kawasaki have tested ten and have narrowed it down to two. So concessions so if you’ve not had a podium or not had certain amount of success then, say Aprilia haven’t this year, Honda haven’t this year, they should be allowed more testing or they should be allowed whatever it is however they need to work out the concessions.
I don’t know if adding weight is a risky road to go down, one that’s been suggested in the past but they haven’t done that in MotoGP. KTM is a great example, KTM are closer to the leaders some weekends than Yamaha have been in WorldSBK. KTM is in its first full season, but KTM have open testing and they can do whatever they want, whatever they want, fill your boots, get competitive so that makes racing better. So I don’t understand why they don’t mirror. I mean the ECU thing will help definitely.
BSN: Is there so much focus on winning MotoGP - except Kawasaki - that the manufacturers do it almost cos they have to? Yamaha have this R1 in Japan that Alex won on at Suzuka and that’s clearly had money spent on it. It’s a weapon. An M1R. Obviously some parts are different and not legal but if they don’t want to win that much then why?
NH: I ask the same question every week. On that subject as you can imagine how sensitive I am on that subject. I speak to Alex and he says. I knew Alex hadn’t crashed over the weekend at Suzuka but I surprisingly jokingly asked ‘Did you crash over the weekend?’ He said, ‘I didn’t miss an apex. I haven’t crashed it once in all the testing I’ve done on it,’
It’s amazing, it’s consistent, the electronics are consistent, they’re amazing but as we know they were in MotoGP before the standard ECU came in. He said last year the way we can understand it, the traction control is that good it’s like riding a dirt bike. When you ride a dirt bike on the gravel road you can stick the back wheel out to that point, he said the electronics are that good you can do that.
When you think about that, it’s like the dream you’d always want, if you had a motorcycle you could ride a GP bike with slicks on and I’m gonna put the back wheel on that point right now.
JT: That’s a good point actually, Since electronics have come on board, especially in WorldSBK which was 2004 cos I was the first one to test it, it’s not been that predictable - what you do with your wrist and what actually goes into the rear wheel. If it’s not set up right it can really ruin people’s confidence and the fact that a rider’s said that all of a sudden I’ve got that kind of control coming from my wrist and what’s going to the rear wheel and what the bike does just shows you what a standard ECU could bring to the championship, it has done in MotoGP.
For the first time we saw Cal Crutchlow win, we saw Petrucci on the podium, nine different winners on satellite bikes, bikes that wouldn’t normally have a chance of doing as good as that in the conditions we saw them do it. The qualifying times are much closer now from the factory boys to the satellite teams.
NH: Look at Karel Abraham, he’s a great example. He didn’t get within 2.5 seconds of Rea, didn’t get a sniff, never in any sessions at any point and he’s now within a second of the best.
BSN: A couple of times he’s qualified in the top eight…
NH: He’s got directly through to qualifying two, so that’s us highlighting not how good Johnny Rea is, what it highlights is how far out the rules are really in WorldSBK. Is it better now or when we did it, I don’t care about that, I want it so each weekend where on Sunday morning the fans say ‘So who’s going to win today?’ No idea, haven’t got a clue.
BSN: Is Jonathan too good for that championship? Should Carmelo Ezpeleta take the stance of ‘These championships these are mine, this rider is going to WorldSBK, this one to MotoGP, and here’s some money to make it happen’. I’m talking about riders and not passports. Is he a better rider than Cal Crutchlow or better than Scott Redding or better than Bradley Smith?
NH: I’d say there’s so many Brits that’s the problem. I’d say he is as good as Cal. I’d love to see them race together, bang on a level. We’re talking about a man who’s going to be three times world champion and a man who’s won two GPs last year. I don’t see Johnny as better than Cal and I don’t see Cal as better than Johnny, they’d be good team mates.
BSN: My question kind of was, should Dorna who own both series be taking people like Jonathan and Chaz and putting them in good MotoGP teams and then taking the lesser MotoGP guys and parking them in the factory Honda and Ducati WorldSBK teams?
JT: The problem is is he better than someone? It’s really difficult to say, there probably won’t be the opportunity.
NH: Johnny’s not gonna get an opportunity. It’s a good point though. If I was Dorna I’d be looking at stuff like that.
JT: With the lack of experience that Johnny’s got on those tracks and this bikes, like Neil says the teams aren’t going to take the gamble are they. It’s a massive, massive thing having all the track knowledge from all the circuits. When I went to MotoGP, there were eight new tracks I’d never even been to before. I mean against those boys it’s a tall order. You’ve really got to look like you’re definitely a step above.
NH: I’d love to see Johnny go into it and do it properly.
BSN: He had two or three rides…
NH: Which he did a fantastic job on.
BSN: And was told not to crash. You can’t really try can you?
NH: And at the time I was really focusing on what Johnny was doing on that GP bike, he was also back to back with WorldSBK so one weekend he was Bridgstone then Pirelli. Misano is not an easy track to just jump on and ride, and he had mixed weather conditions…
BSN: Motegi was awful. It was interrupted by fog, no air ambulance, sessions delayed…
JT: I think it’s just a combination of a lot of British riders in MotoGP at the time when he got good. Kawasaki supported WorldSBK so well, wages came into it, he’ll be on good money to be multiple world champion for Kawasaki. There would’ve been very, very little chance of getting on a factory bike straight away in MotoGP.
NH: He doesn’t want to move now anyway, he’s got Foggys record to aim at.
BSN: Even though he doesn’t care about that…
NH: No, course he doesn’t…(laughing)
BSN: Is WorldSBK viewed in MotoGP circles as a place for ‘never will bes’ and a graveyard for ex-GP riders?
NH: I don’t think anyone says anything like that. One funny thing was when Alex rode for Yamaha at the Eight-Hours last year, Pol Espargaro came into the garage at the first test and said: ‘I can’t believe how fast you are.’ Literally like that, ‘I thought you’d be slow’. Pol’s pretty direct, it went down well with Alex as you can imagine. He couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe how fast Alex was, because he thought Superbike was slower.
BSN: You two have come out if WorldSBK and gone to GPs, Colin Edwards, there are some very good riders that have come out of WordlSBK.
JT: Yeah, but we’re all late 20s. Mark Marquez re-wrote the rule book.
NH: I was 30 and I’m a bad example of why WorldSBK riders can’t make it, but if I’d gone into a proper team and been given two years I’d have been alright.
JT: Mark Marquez,coming up at such a young age and doing what he’s done, and Maverick Vinales in their early 20s, late teens even, has really kind of made it even more difficult for Supebrike riders to move into that paddock.
Moto3, Moto 2 is going to be such good grounding for these young kids to be able to get to the elite class so young. That’s so much better for the manufacturer because you’ve got years of an investment in them of being successful, of a rider with all that experience of the tracks, of the travelling, of all the things that is about doing MotoGP is a lifestyle.
They’re not going to take a late 20s, early 30s Superbike rider just because he’s fast, the risk is much less to take a good Moto2 rider now than a great WorldSBK rider, that didn’t used to be the case. A really good Superbike rider was much, much less risk than an OK 250 rider.
BSN: From the outside looking into it you do wonder about these guys like Sam and Loris and even Hector Barbera. Where do they get the motivation, to get up every weekend and go and get your arse kicked?
JT: What changed in 2008 was the financial crisis. You were on say £5-600k as a WorldSBK top, top runner and winning races with that lifestyle or you got a MotoGP opportunity with at best £100k - even if there was a fee - all in including travel. So all of a sudden you go from a bike that can win then you can fulfill your dreams or you can ride this thing even though it’s in the elite class as we know it, you’re actually nearly spending money to do it and you’ve got no chance, but those are the two contracts in front of riders as we speak.
BSN: I found out what kind of salary the top WorldSBK guys are on and I have to say I was amazed…
NH: Yeah, Johnny is doing really well, Chaz is doing really well. In Moto2 they’re not earning, decent money, it’s like if you’re a top five guy you’ll be only on £150k which is not big money, not to be at the front of Moto2.
BSN: Not when you’re only going to do it for five years, and then you’ve got to go do something else.
JT: And it’s probably cost your sponsors and your family at least half a million to get to that in the first place.
NH: They say the Moto2 class is third get paid, a third do it for nowt and a third are paying, that’s how that class works.
BSN: Do you think there are too many British riders in both championships?
NH: In WorldSBK I do, but it’s not the riders or WorldSBK’s fault, but there is isn’t there? If you’d just got one Brit doing really well then it’s that one Brit we get behind and support cos he’s beating all those foreigners. The problem is now is it’s three of them every week. Again it’s not the riders fault, I sort of feel sorry for them - but then I don’t cos Johnny Rea is having a right good time.
JT: It does actually tell you something about the issues at the top. I think these are the underlying problems, why we’re not seeing a lot of International riders going to Superbike because of the state of the national racing.
Now these kids have a national level Moto3 championship and there is a Moto 2 championship so I think at grass roots everything is diverted a lot towards the MotoGP paddock. I mean when I was a youngster it was just as difficult to try and get to WorldSBK when Foggy was winning in the late 90s as the 500 GPs.
We actually had more crowds sometimes than the 500GP racing so it was a very different era of the two championships running side by side in different popularities, because of nationalities really. You had got Australia and Spain, when I was growing up in 500s with Doohan and Criville and the rest of the boys, and America as well with Schwantz.
It was very much America, Australia and Spain and Italy a bit with Cadalora. In Superbikes it was very much dominated by Foggy when I was growing up in that massive six-year period of when I was introduced to racing. Like I say now, all championships are trying to get riders to learn how to ride particular bikes to go to that paddock.
BSN: There have been noises about a Moto 2 championship in Britain because Yamaha are the only ones making Supersport bikes any more and as soon as they stop the whole thing is pointless for manufacturers.
JT: British tracks are so specialist anyway. It’s such a tricky job for anybody to go in and beat somebody like Shakey Byrne on one of the best bikes, if not the best bike, with so much experience. For a young kid to go in there now and challenge and get a bike as good as that…
NH: That’s why Bradley Ray is doing an incredible job really, he’s on a B-team bike isn’t he, he’s on like the lowest spec of the Suzukis, first time on a Superbike and he’s bloody doing a good job.
BSN: The Lowes boys get quite a lot of bashing for crashing by the British public, do you think it’s time that they should just leave them alone?
NH: I feel very defensive of both of them, the problem is I know them both so well and we’ve had this conversation, I mean all three of us on numerous occasions. I manage Alex and always try to get him the best opportunities that are available and that fact that he crashes quite a bit goes against him.
So we’ve talked about crashing. The hardest thing is to get through even thought they’re both really intelligent is that seventh place is a good result. For him in WorldSBK on that day because that’s all you can do, your bike and you are seventh place well that’s good, that’s the best you can do. I know he thinks it’s shit and he thinks that everybody then judges him – Alex - and thinks he’s shit, he’s only 7th place, he was on the podium last time, but he can’t get that through his head.
It’s so frustrating cos he knows in his heart of hearts that he’s good enough to win a world championship in WorldSBK, but I know he has to learn to finish those races. He made a step forward this year.
BSN: Do they just try too hard all of the time?
NH: Yes. I know what it feels like, James knows what it feels like. For me the limit was the limit and you know my career, both of you, I’ve had a mediocre career at times with some nice high points. I raced and that was the limit, if I had two or three moments in the race I’d wouldn’t shut off but I wouldn’t try to go any faster.
BSN: James, Neil, thank you.
JT, NH: No, no. Thank you
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