Passing The Torch
Since the rumblings began emanating from the machinations of Colin Edwards’, Hervé Poncharal’s, and Lin Jarvis’ closed-door meetings to figure out how to get Ben Spies and Tom Houseworth into MotoGP in 2010, and the subsequent announcement last Fall, one of the most popular ways to cast the story (and indeed, one of the few speculative avenues that doesn’t automatically involve Silly Season 2011) is to suggest that the tensions between Colin Edwards and James Toseland will somehow be amplified in the arrival of the superior abilities of Ben Spies. I realize magazines and newspapers need to manufacture material in the off-season to sell copies, and we who post on The Web need to draw traffic when potential advertisers don’t care that the sport is on hiatus. But I am here to tell you that this particular road is a dead end street. Headlines of “Tension at Tech 3”, “Monster Battle Brewing”, and “Trouble in Paradise” (a city in Texas, but not home to either rider), can be summarily ignored.
Consider that, though he has no wins in his 7 years of not missing a start in MotoGP, Colin Edwards has an enduring career because it was quickly realized he provides useful data for bike and tire engineers. He is a developer who brings home the equipment and can communicate intelligently about it. Every team needs at least one of those and having two is a godsend, especially if the information is somewhat transferable between the riders.
At the beginning of the 2008 season, Edwards took a demotion, of sorts. He was installed at Tech 3 by Yamaha and Michelin, if for no other reason, to keep his development abilities on retainer and out of any competitor team's garage. He was partnered with James Toseland, and the two often ran in tandem all season long. At the end of that season, after the announcement of Bridgestone as the only tire supplier, some of his support departed with Michelin. The pair of riders stayed, based in part on what was thought to be successful teamwork, and a paucity of better talent available to Hervé Poncharal’s checkbook.
However, in the off-season, James Toseland insisted that he be allowed to work with Edwards’ crew chief, Gary Reynders - forcing Edwards to start anew with Guy Coulon - and so a grudge was installed. After the first pre-season ’09 test at Sepang, Edwards was widely quoted as saying he figured out a “trick” or “secret” to riding the (new-to-him) specification Bridgestone tires. He clearly chose not to let that information cross over the new wall separating the team garages, and the two riders went on to have drastically differing fortunes in the ensuing season (Edwards improved to 5th, Toseland sank to 14th). I would not claim to know any insider details, but from the outside, it would appear that the success of the team is linked to Edwards (his 5th place standing being the best ever for a Tech 3 rider). Achieving that success with Toseland’s “discarded” crew chief, must surely have been a generous heap of salt in JT’s substantial wounds, and vindication for both Edwards and Coulon.
Sibling rivalries can go in two basic directions: good or bad. Sometimes a familial rivalry starts out as friendly competition, but at some point, one of the parties doesn’t take kindly to being beaten and a grudge develops. That person may feel they were cheated by the victor, or worse, may in fact be the victim of a cheating family member. Or, he or she may simply be a sore loser and fails to accept the opportunities to work together as a family. This path will lead to a bitter split which can often not be reconciled. Occasionally, in that process, the quarreling parties push each other to achievements neither would have accomplished if left to simply battle the rest of the world; the grudge providing additional fuel for the passions. Inevitably, the emotional tanks run dry, and the days of battle must end, leaving the begrudged to assess if they really got what they wanted, while the family suffers in mourning and split loyalties.
Thankfully, the majority of sibling rivalries - though usually less dramatic - are of the familial unity variety, where the members eagerly push and challenge each other and encourage success. No one is particularly happy to lose, but the family bonds in their collective achievements. At some point, one develops into the front-runner, and another must accept that he or she will usually be outclassed. The runner-up chooses to make the leader work their hardest to stay in front, and the leader realizes they are both improving in the challenge. The one being beaten takes on the attitude that his or her role is to make sure that no one from the “outside” bests anyone in the family, and accepts that if they have to lose to someone, at least it is a family member. The winner is pushed by the knowledge that if a mistake is made, the sibling will be right there to exploit it.
Sometimes, the runner-up will get out of the competition and use their resources to work directly for the front-running family member. And, often that person is the older sibling who finds an opportune time to “pass the torch” to the up-and-coming successful youngster. In this scenario, the senior family member considers it a legacy to unify around the successor; realizing that any other approach would probably do more harm than good. And so begins the 2010 MotoGP season for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team of Hervé Poncharal…
Colin Edwards has known Ben Spies for years (this is to say that they were not pushed together by mere coincidence of economics). Both men openly consider the other to be a good friend and inspiration. With Spies being 10 years younger than Edwards – and for all of that difference, Edwards has been on the World’s stages of motorcycle racing – there is no question about seniority. Yet, there is also no question that young Elbowz is the superior raw talent, is home to considerable analytical prowess, and is a bit more determined. But no one succeeds in a vacuum, so everyone involved in making the deal (and most of us on the outside) clearly saw the potential of a wily veteran development rider cast as mentor for the conquering machine that is the Spies & House package, who also happen to be friends and compatriots. That Edwards can test, develop, and help set up a baseline for a team mate’s bike should be beyond doubt, at this point, but when said team mate is also of a similar build and riding background, the potential is that much more lucrative.
Perhaps it is because I am an elder sibling that I come by this perspective naturally, but there is no doubt in my mind that Colin Edwards is as excited to be in the position he is in now as any 36 year-old motorcycle racer could be about anything in his career’s future. Whether or not he has fully reconciled with the likelihood that he will probably not defeat Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa through natural means in a season-long points championship, he is keenly aware that he has been partnered with someone who maybe could. Any older sibling in that scenario will not spend much time laboring over whether he can maintain a position at the front of his family, reminding everyone who got there first. Rather, he will do his best to set the fiercest pace he can and hand over all the information available to ensure that the younger sibling can keep up with, and eventually surpass, the elder one.
Both men have been regularly quoted on this topic since the deal to pair them up was made public. My favorite comes from Edwards himself, in his “Texas Tornado” column in the December 2009 issue of Road Racer X:
“At the end of the day, we still have to race each other, but it should be fun. Naturally, I'm getting asked about the wall in the garage coming down, and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't; Ben and I get along and share everything anyway...
I think I'm probably one of the only guys in the paddock who adapts really well to having a high-profile team mate...”
“Colin is a great guy and he’s somebody I’ve looked up to through all my career. I still do and it will be good working with him and learning from him. He’s got a lot of experience and is willing to help, so that is a big bonus for me.”
Colin Edwards voluntarily re-structured his contract to arrange for this exact situation. There would be no upside for Edwards to attempt an alpha-dog role and make life difficult for Spies. And, there is no downside in helping Spies reach top form as soon as possible, because it will always be credited as his legacy, at the very least. More than likely, he will be able to learn and improve his own performance along the way. This, it seems to me, would also bode well for him in 2011, and open doors beyond, whenever he does finally stop racing. From this point in his life and career, it would be difficult to imagine a better scenario for him. And, I doubt anyone had to convince him of that; he’s a smart guy and I’m sure his own excitement is more than sufficient motivation.
So, unless there is video of Ben Spies repeating the Repsol Corner maneuver at Estoril in 2006, do NOT believe any story that claims to illuminate a contentious atmosphere in the Tech 3 garage. It just won’t be true.