In Defense of Toni Elias
Now that the 2009 season has come to a close, and Toni Elias has signed with his current team boss to move down a class for 2010, there will be a temporary ebb in the debates about who this man is and where he belongs in the sport. There is a long-developing opinion espoused, subscribed to, or at least tacitly accepted by a growing number, that Toni Elias takes the first half of a season to lazily absorb his life in the top tier of motorcycle racing before beginning a mid-season panic where he must suddenly show results good enough to secure a job for the subsequent season. I don't know when this line of reasoning began, but since it seems to pass for critical thinking these days, I, for one, have had enough.
I'll save you some time and give you the punchline up front: Toni Elias has never been on the same bike two years in a row since entering the MotoGP class. How good would your first half of the season be?
Name the current riders who have had great success (say, a win, or frequently on the podium) in their first year on a bike... let's keep it to the MotoGP era: Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa. There's a familiar list, right? Loris Capirossi with a couple of wins for Ducati. After that, it's a long way to Colin Edwards who featured on the podium a couple times in his first year with Honda and then again with Yamaha, followed by Nicky Hayden in his rookie year, and then Andrea Dovizioso with one podium appearance in his rookie year. Name the rider(s) who scored wins in his first year with more than one team: Rossi.
Now, name the rider(s) who have been on a different bike every year in 5 years of MotoGP experience: Toni Elias. Marco Melandri is the next closest rider in this view of things, beginning with his 4th new bike in as many years (for 2010), but after starting his career with two pairs of years of relative stability. And, for those not firmly in touch with recent history, since Garry McCoy did not race the Ilmor X3 in 2007, every rider was on a radically new bike that year, even if they stayed on the same team.
A brief look at Toni Elias' MotoGP career offers a practical study in, what should be, anonymity: 12th, 9th, 12th, 12th, and 7th place finishes in the season points championships, with each year offering a rather different path to what appears to have been a predictable outcome (see graph below). But with at least one podium appearance every year (after his rookie year), and his solitary victory being one of the most spectacular in the history of the sport, he is not merely a mid-pack also-ran.
His first 3 years were injury-plagued, and since most injuries are self-inflicted in one way or another, there is little excuse. But do not overlook the obvious: when getting hurt enough to miss races during the season, a rider is likely to improve in the standings as the late-season progresses. Is that what is meant by "waiting for contract talks", or is it typical healing from injury?
In 2007, the switch to the 800cc formula clearly did not benefit his riding style, nor that of his team mate, nor that of anyone riding a Honda and not named Pedrosa. It can be argued that having Bridgestone tires that year propped him "up" to that 12th place tally at the end of the season, after recovering from a severe leg fracture. But, aside from 2 podium appearances, it was clear he did not get on with that bike. Was he waiting for contract talks when he scored a 4th at Jerez and a 2nd at Istanbul (at the beginning of the year, before getting hurt)? After the 2007 season, both he and his team mate made the leap to Ducati; something everyone assumed was a positive career move (not one of desperation) for both riders.
In leaving a good team with inferior equipment to ride the bike that had just dominated the World Championship, we see an interesting lab experiment in 2008. Though much more was made of the struggles that befell Marco Melandri and his failed attempt to ride the Beast from Bologna, it cannot be ignored that Toni Elias was experiencing nearly the exact same thing. It was the inexplicable difficulties experienced by both of these men that raised the specter of problems for Ducati. In Melandri's case, he was aboard a factory bike with factory support, while Elias was aboard a satellite bike whose team owner was engaged in some "problematic" financing that cost the team access to support from the factory. When Luis D'Antin was shown the door and new management was installed - and at around the same time debate began about the likelihood that Melandri would even finish the season - Toni Elias received some upgrades for his satellite machine (most signficantly, an updated swingarm linkage; not exactly what one thinks of as the missing link for instant improvement). He found a way to improve his lot, made two podium appearances, and beat his erstwhile team mate. Waiting for contract talks, or overcoming adversity?
For 2009, both riders could not wait to, once again, have to begin the season anew on unaccustomed equipment. In Elias' case, he returned to the welcome confines of old friends, and the promise of a greatly improved, and "factory-supported", ride compared to the valve-spring Honda he left behind at the end of '07. For Melandri, no reminders about the year of Hayate are necessary. For Toni Elias, the change to standard-spec tires meant that his specially designed custom-made options were completely eliminated, and as a result, his unique riding style severely hindered... again. While attempting to come to grips with a new kind of tires that he had no feel for, he had begun to question the "support" his bike was receiving from HRC. After placing 6th at Laguna Seca - and after team owner Fausto Gresini infused some cash to purchase more "factory support" and garnered an updated (2008) chassis at Sachsenring - as if following a script, Elias went on to a Top 10 finish in every race the rest of the season, save for a wet-track crash at Donington while in the lead group. This was also waiting for contract talks before being "properly motivated"?
Even a fairly brief examination into his situation each year will explode the theory that he waits until late in the season to show true form. In 2006 and 2007, he was performing well (even though new to the bikes), until getting injured. A little deeper research reveals that he has responded immediately to mid-season bike updates directed at accomodating his unique style, which could have only served to encourage his state of mind at the time. It is little more than coincidence that these events occurred during the Silly Seasons.
What Toni Elias' five years (thus far) in MotoGP demonstrate is the high price of discontinuity and the even higher price of the current rules package; meaning that the decrease in practice limits a riders' chances to get familiar with new equipment. What he has done every year is improve with time on the team and mid-season developments for the bike. This is conveniently dismissed as a mechanism to stay employed, but he has never been afforded the chance to carry that momentum to a subsequent year. He is not like Valentino Rossi, who engineered bringing much of his team and Jeremy Burgess with him for his (one) team switch. He was not courted by manufacturers with the promise of tailoring a bike to suit him. He has had to re-establish his place in the sport with each new year spent in it, and 2010 will continue the trend.
Does he deserve another chance in MotoGP? Does the MotoGP grid deserve to have more than 18 bikes and riders? Should he get that chance, and should he also get the chance to stay with a team and bike package for longer than one year, I dare say there is likely to be a competitive Toni Elias not seen before.
Graph and statistics courtesy of Jerry Osborne, Mototheory.com.