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EXCLUSIVE James Ellison - Q&A

24 July 2013

By Christian Tiburtius

An exclusive interview with James Ellison, in which the Milwaukee Yamaha star talks in depth about his racing career in MotoGP, BSB and the AMA...

Crash.net:
I guess you're in sunny Kendal at the moment?

James Ellison:
No, I'm in Heysham, my mum lives in Kendal and that's always been my home and business address. I haven't actually lived in Kendal for a long time. The last 3 years before Heysham we were living in the motorhome because it just depended on where we needed to be. We based ourselves at a campsite sort of near J36 of the M6 but the majority of time we were on the road sleeping at service stations in the UK and Europe.

We moved back this year and wanted to get a house so we rented one. I didn't want to be too far from my mum with us losing my dad last year, but I didn't want to live in Kendal either because it's so grey and rains all the time, and it's very expensive. I'm close enough to family, I've got cousins who live here and it's perfect for us because we're very active and are always out on the bikes. My wife's into fitness and training too but she needs to calm down a little at the moment because she's five months pregnant.

Crash.net:
Given your obsession with fitness, would you say that a motorcycle racer is a biker or an athlete?

James Ellison:
Athlete, 100%.

The amount of training that goes into it is ridiculous. People don't understand that it's a full time job if you consider the training, food preparation and so on. The kind of food you have to eat is bloody expensive as well. I have dieticians that have tested my blood groups and blood samples. I've had to take samples to Germany to figure out what my body reacts to well and what foods it digests better than others to optimise energy levels.

My current trainer/dietician is Brad Howell, he's an ex racer who got into training, he did a couple of transformations like in 'Supersize me'. After he finished racing, he put on a lot of weight and one day woke up and thought 'sod this' and trained until he was absolutely ripped. He then put all the weight back on again by eating pizzas and stuff and then lost the weight again so he could document how he did it.

He ended up with the RPT (Realtime Physique Transformation) program which I've been doing for the last four years now. It's a combination of food and exercise designed to make sure your body gets the right nutrition. In winter I do that particularly strictly for a couple of months to make sure I'm fit for the season. During the season you step it back a notch because you wouldn't be able to sustain that and you need a certain amount of carbs for a race meeting. I'm starting the carb loading now for Brands, my whole training and diet regime is built around the Sunday race.

Another reason I'm so keen to be prepared is the mechanics, they work a lot and often longer hours than the rider. I know they're putting the work in on the bike so I have to make sure I put the work in myself. If I got to a race meeting, hadn't trained all week and we got a bad result, I'd know it was down to me. If I've done everything I possibly could then you can always walk away with decent results.

I think if I hadn't been a racer, I might have been another type of athlete. When I was at school I had some records and I used to do the javelin, 100 and 200 metre sprints. Also I played rugby and did the Javelin and 200 meters for Kendal, I had to stop all that though because it was getting in the way of my racing which was turning into something I wanted to do for a living.

Crash.net:
So you were never into bikes when you were young?

James Ellison:
Only because my dad did it. I liked to go and watch him. When I was at a young age I more enjoyed just being active around the paddock with my brother playing on pit bikes and the BMX. He used to do classic bike racing at club level and it was some time later before we appreciated what he was actually doing. I didn't really get into watching the bikes probably until I was about 14. It was between watching Kevin Schwantz and my cousin's ideas that got me into bike racing. My cousin's really close to me, we're like brothers really, and he's one of the main reasons we've moved here now.

We both wanted to start racing in '93, I wanted to do motocross because I thought road racing was boring and he wanted to do road racing. Whatever we did though we wanted to do it together, so we were outside the NEC and decided to toss a coin to decide. We tossed the coin, it came up road racing and we went inside to get all the information we could about it so that we could ask my dad to see if we could do something about it. My mum and dad have always been so supportive of whatever we wanted to do; they never had any money but always figured out some way to allow us to chase our dreams.

It was my dad who got me my first bike, an MBX80, which I've still got and is my most important possession. I bought it back from another rider in 2001 and my Dad spent all of last year rebuilding it from parts lying around the garage, he was fighting bowel cancer from the end of 2011 and finally lost his battle on 19th Sept 2012 - ironically my birthday. He was terminal but hid that fact from the whole family until his final day just so he could be treated as normal and not be a burden on anyone. He must have been in incredible pain working away in the garage in freezing conditions but he did it because he knew how important it would be to me.

As I was on the road driving or flying to GP races it was easy for him to hide everything from me. On the phone he would always swerve the subject of his illness every time I asked how he was and wanted to just talk about my racing. Words cannot describe what an incredible person my Dad was and anyone who knew him will agree. I just hope I can be a fraction of the father he was to me to my 'soon to be' little boy.

Crash.net:
Do you have a motorbike you ride on the road?

James Ellison:
No, the only one I've got is the motocross bike that Tamworth Yamaha gave me this year to train on, the only time I liked being out on the road was on the back of my dad's bike when he used to take me to athletics meetings or our regular trips to Devils Bridge. I was never really that interested in having a road bike.

Having said that, I just love riding motocross. We go to Texas in the winter for three months so Sarah can spend time with the family and I can be outside trials riding and motocrossing. I'm not that good though, if you saw me on a motocross bike, you'd think I can't even ride it, I'm shit on one but I just love going around in circles and wearing myself out.

It's more of an endurance thing because of the types and muscle groups that it works. All the work I do in the gym isn't lifting big heavy weights or sitting on a bloody machine, it's all stuff to do with balance and trying to get myself in positions that tire out muscles that are being stressed on the bike. That's all you can do without actually riding a motorcycle. So basically, the best thing you can do other than riding your race bike is to ride the motocross bike.

Crash.net:
Colin Edwards said recently that taking an over-structured approach to training can set you up for problems in the race in case you miss some?

James Ellison:
That's what I was saying about being prepared. If you don't do the training then you can feel that the blame for a bad result is yours even if it isn't. So that is true. When I was doing a lot of travelling in the world classes and didn't get to do any training it could get into your head a little that you hadn't trained so that's why it's important to do it though regardless.

Colin Edwards seems very relaxed about training and I don't think he's ever run in his life. Don't get me wrong though, I think he's downplaying it a bit because he does a hell of a lot of motocross riding. I went to his boot camp this winter to do some preparation and got some idea of that. He keeps it low key but he does a huge amount of preparation and is totally serious about racing. As far as getting into a gym though, he's not bothered.

The thing you've got to consider is that there's a new generation of riders now, I know Marquez is in the gym, Pedrosa's in the gym and you can be damn sure that Lorenzo's always there and these are the riders leading the championship. It does make a difference.

Crash.net:
How did you get into MotoGP in 2004?

James Ellison:
I won two European Superstock championships back to back, a World Endurance championship and then won the Privateers' Championship in BSB, so I was always in front of something.

The reason I got the MotoGP ride was that the year I won the Privateers' BSB cup with Yamaha we got a wild-card entry in WSBK and I was the highest scoring Brit out of riders like Toseland and Walker, and that was our first go at it. We came sixth and sixth, Peter Clifford was watching that race and that's how it started.

A guy who was working for Peter Clifford, Jez Wilson, one of the mechanics for WCM, said to Peter Clifford 'Look mate I think you need to give that lad a ring'. So he did and I ended up doing the rest of that season and stayed on for the following year. Jez Wilson is my mechanic again this year.

The bike we were on was basically just a glorified R1 and they didn't even think it would qualify in 2005 but we ended up getting some good points finishes and had a mega time. All this time Herve Poncharal was watching and he told me we needed to talk when he met me after the Laguna Seca round.

The main reason I got that ride was more to do with Dunlop because towards the end of that season Tech 3 were on the brink of folding and Dunlop had approached them and said that they would support them if they'd use their tyres. Herve said yes, that was fine with a one rider team and at the time they were on the point of signing Robby Rolfo. Because Robby was moving to Tech 3, I got the opportunity to test Robby's Ducati at Valencia and I ended up being sixth in that test and faster than Sete Gibernau. Dunlop were watching that test and said to Herve, 'Let's put Ellison on the Tech 3 bike instead' and Herve agreed.

It should have been just a one rider team with me doing development for Dunlop. We went to the third test in Sepang with me again running top six on the 2005 bike and then I think Dunlop kind of got ahead of themselves and thought 'if we run a proper MotoGP rider on this we'll get a good result' so they brought in Carlos Checa.

That's when everything just fell to bits for me. Once he was there, I was just an afterthought and doing long runs on the tyres, all the focus went onto Carlos. I don't want to go into it too deeply because I'm with Yamaha now and they've been very good to me and it's all in the past, but let's just say it wasn't what I originally signed up for.

It was the lowest point in my career to be honest, I'd got this mega opportunity which behind the scenes really wasn't one. Walking away from that felt like I'd have to start from scratch again and all the good results I'd got in the past were kind of deleted.

Crash.net:
Do you think your move to AMA (in 2007) was dangerous for your career?

James Ellison:
Again, I was promised that it was going to be a factory Honda team. That couldn't have been further from the truth. I actually helped build the bike at the guy's house I rode for. I stayed in the wendy house in his garden and helped to sand and paint the fairing and, having just come from MotoGP, that was a bit of a reality check. I just thought 'This is the situation, let's make the most of it'.

The bike was just basic, I could have built it on my own, just a disaster. We had no electronics, nothing, and Mladin, Spies and all them boys were running serious bits of kit. I tried my best every round, got some top five finishes and finished tenth in the championship, but it was basically just an amateur team with an underprepared bike.

I enjoyed the atmosphere, I met a lot of great people and I met my wife out there so I've got some good memories. I'm a racer though and I didn't have a good season even if we did beat some top riders in factory teams.

Crash.net:
How did the move back to England (in 2008) come about?

James Ellison:
From that I could see that you needed a factory ride to succeed and none of the factory seats were available in AMA that year. If there had been a factory ride I would have stayed there.

I've got a good friend, Robin Croft, who's Mr SMT and we've been in contact for a long time and he always has my best interests at heart and followed my career since 2004, even flying out to MotoGP tests in Malaysia and Qatar to support me. He'd heard on the grapevine that Shaun Muir was looking for another rider so he recommended me to him. I don't think Shaun was all that keen at first because he didn't know what I was capable of and wanted someone who could run top ten. Robin pushed it and pushed it and we finally came to a deal. We ended up having a good year and got our first podiums.

I like the way Shaun works and I enjoyed that year I had with him in 2008. He wanted to keep me on, but I'd been offered a two-year deal with GSE, and you don't turn that down. The split was pretty amicable in the end because he knew I had no choice with an offer like that.

Crash.net:
What was your understanding of the contract you were offered by Paul Bird to go to MotoGP last year, was it a one-year contract?

James Ellison:
That was the thing, it wasn't. When we first spoke, it was for a bare minimum of two years, or potentially three depending on how the second year went. The problem was there was no contract, it was a handshake, there was meant to be a contract though.

Before I left for Texas that winter, I'd sorted the ride with Paul and I said I needed a contract. Paul said 'I don't do contracts, just ask Stuart [Easton]'. I knew he'd had contracts with Shakey and other riders in the past, so I said 'Look mate, I do do contracts'. I'd been let down previously so wasn't prepared to ride without one. So he said that if it made me feel any better he'd draught one the same as Shakey's for me and Paul Risbridger (team manager at the time) would get that done.

I remember sitting down with Paul Risbridger at the Aprilia stand at the NEC and him clearly saying that he wanted it to be a long term thing and a two year deal to develop the bike and said that he'd get the contract written when he got away from there. It kept going back and forth between me, Paul R and Paul B and still nothing was turning up. I was then told it'd be emailed to me in the States, still nothing, and still nothing after I'd come back for testing. I then found out that Risbridger had been given the flick so there was no hope in hell that I'd get that contract.

After Qatar I came back again to try and get the contract sorted and again it was that he didn't do contracts. I was getting paid for the job but we still hadn't decided on a contractual figure. When he told me how much he was going to pay me for the year, I said 'Mate, I just can't survive on that, it wouldn't even pay the travel expenses'. He basically said that if I needed money I had to get it myself by looking for sponsors or even getting another ride, and this was after the first round. There was nowhere I could go though as I'd made my commitment for the year and all the rides were gone. We shook hands on it because I knew I had no choice.

In that respect, he's a man of his word as he still paid me, I had to chase him every month, but he did pay me. If it hadn't been for my personal sponsors SRS rail systems limited, Robin at SMT and my parents bailing me out when I needed ferries or flights paying for, I wouldn't have been able to get to the last round in Valencia.

When he said he didn't do contracts in that final meeting, I knew he had me on a piece of string like a puppet and I wasn't taking anything for granted and was just trying to do my best every time I went out there.

Crash.net:
Do you think you got due credit for being top CRT in France?

James Ellison:
No, did I hell. That was the other thing, I was supposed to be paid bonuses when I did well, after I'd done well he'd say I had a bonus coming, but then nothing. I lost a lot of respect for him then because he didn't seem to be the man I thought he was.

It was hard for me because I loved everybody in the team, the mechanics, crew and organisers, but Paul had me on a piece of string and could drop me when he wanted to. I think he kind of enjoyed it being in that position; it was mentally draining for me though.

After France it was like 'Good ride, you've got to do that every race now'. He actually put it down to the fact that he'd given me a bollocking the week before, after I pulled in at Estoril. For the record, that was because we were having serious electronic problems on the bike, Casey was coming round to lap me, there was a big battle going on behind him and it was getting dangerous. It's the only race I've ever pulled in from but it was a big no-no with Paul, so he ended up threatening me that he'd put Stuart or Shakey on the bike for France, but then came to his senses.

Up to that point, we hadn't really had any help from Aprilia and it wasn't until after Estoril that we got some support from them to help sort out the problems we were having. You could see that as the year went on Espargaro and De Puniet were gapping everyone else, not just us, because their team was continually paying for upgrades. It wasn't really until the last three or four rounds that we finally got the new engine that they were using but I could only use it in the warm-up and race. We really needed to be able to use it in free practice as well to be able to dial it in and get a decent result.

Crash.net:
But I guess by that time your relationship with Paul had deteriorated totally anyway?

James Ellison:
I'd text him and try and call him after the weekend to let him know how we'd got on and I'd send the press releases over telling about issues such as gearbox problems - we had a lot of issues in the race which caused us to drop back just like the other Aprilia teams had stated in their press releases.

I would send those in press releases the way Power Electronics were doing so that people could understand why something had happened. Mine were never released though, they just sort of got erased and it was another weekend where I'd underperformed - I was thinking 'You're f*cking kidding me!'

In America I was in eleventh and the gearbox locked up, so I went off track. It took me about 30 seconds to get it back into gear and I then managed to get back into the points. It did that three times and I still got into the points and all I got for that weekend was that it had been a disappointing ride from me and that I'd underperformed - another word he liked to use. It took credit from the team because they'd worked flat out and that's all we got.

Crash.net:
How was your relationship with Phil Borley?

James Ellison:
I was getting on well with Phil, they were doing the best they could but I definitely felt his loyalty sway to Birdy on more than a few occasions.

Crash.net:
Why do you think you were having those kind of problems?

James Ellison:
I think that Paul just likes some riders and not others and it can be worse than that in that you can be liked one weekend and not the next. I think it's a power trip thing because he just likes to be in control. He can't control Shakey because he's got the championship won in the past and that if he walks away this season he'll leave him in the shit

This is the annoying thing because he helps a lot of people out, he really does, and he's helped me out in the past. He's loyal to the people who've worked for him for a long time and those people love working for him and I've always respected him for that. I lost that respect when I rode for him though.

Also one thing I will always be grateful to him for is when Birdy heard - from my Dad's best friend - in Misano after the race that my Dad was getting really ill and it might be good for me to go home. He did everything in his power and spent a fortune getting me and Sarah back the very next day.

I got home and he was half the size of when I last saw him. The first thing he said when I asked him why he didn't tell me how ill he was, was..."go look at your MBX80, I've finished it!" with a huge grin on his face. A day later he was gone and believe me I will forever be grateful to Birdy for that precious moment.

If he doesn't like you or something you've done though, he's the worst person in the world to work for, ever. Maybe it's because I'm not a push over, very passionate about my racing and wasn't prepared to take it when he was badmouthing me in the press. He's just too powerful and not many people talk back to him.

Crash.net:
You were paid to the end of the season though?

James Ellison:
Yeah, took me a while to get it, but yeah.

Crash.net:
You're in happier pastures with Shaun Muir now then?

James Ellison:
Yeah, the feedback with Shaun's mega, he's 110% behind you all the time, but likewise if you're not riding right he'll tell you. That's what you need, I don't mind people telling me I'm riding shit when I'm riding shit.

Before Snetterton, Shaun called a meeting and I drove up three hours to get there. It was more or less to try and get some input to help Josh, and that's a team that. We could have just left Josh to it or I could have phoned Shaun to say that I wasn't bothered about coming up, but we all chip in and have mutual respect for each other. We all have an equal amount of say. We spent ages going through the data together and I think it helped Josh get a great result at Snetterton.

Crash.net:
So where can you get better wages - AMA, BSB, WSS, WSBK or MotoGP?

James Ellison:
It depends on the sponsor, but you're more likely to get good wages in WSBK if you're a decent foreign rider with pedigree. You'll do well because you're good for the championship and Dorna helps out. If Nicky Hayden for example wanted to come over now, he'd probably get as much in WSBK as in MotoGP - in the millions.

AMA used to be the place to be, but that's all gone now because there's no sponsorship from factories involved.

BSB can be good, I get an average wage for anybody working nine to five really, having said that though, you have a lot of expenses out of that which is why you need sponsors. I've got SRS rail systems and xpresscoffeeuk who've been helping me out for three years now and I couldn't get by without them.

Crash.net:
You've got front-running pace this year in BSB, but you've had a lot of inconsistency, why is that?

James Ellison:
Yeah, there's nothing wrong with the bike, pace wise we're top four every weekend. When I've finished ninth like at this weekend [interview recorded after Snetterton], I came from dead last for various reasons, I didn't finish ninth from the front, I was recovering from a problem so speed wise that's nothing to worry about. Where we've been inconsistent, it's really just been down to bad luck.

Crash.net:
What happened at Snetterton?

James Ellison:
It was the wheel speed sensor. We got away well in third and then the pace car came out. As soon as the pace car pulled in, we all set off to start the lap and mine wouldn't go into gear. I tried to get round a lap, but the bike was spluttering and wouldn't change gear and I wanted to pull over and turn the bike off to reset it. I did that and it didn't make any difference so I tried to carry on to get some points. The bike was awful to ride with no gears and having to shut the throttle off all the time to change gear.

Crash.net:
How would you compare the Yamaha to the other bikes on the grid?

James Ellison:
Our main disadvantage is coming out of corners. It's not the initial part; it's more like the mid-range. You get to the slowest part of the apex, stand the bike up and then accelerate. That initial acceleration we're fine with, the problem is that it then takes too long for the rest to build up because it's a big heavy engine. It's got lots of torque and wants to pull and wheelie but it doesn't want to drive forward so much.

If you look at Shakey, he just stands the thing up and he's gone and Alex is the same, that's what we need to improve and we'll be working on that at Cadwell tomorrow [17th July].

Any corners which are fast and flowing we can run through quick, that's our strong point, fast corners and going into corners. What we lose coming out, we'll make up going in.

Also the handling on that bike is phenomenal, it's awesome. It's the power characteristics that we need to work on.

Crash.net:
So given your pace and the problems holding you back, the Shootout format should work in your favour this season?

James Ellison:
They really will, I've never liked the rules and I've said that to Stuart (Higgs), but at the moment they're playing into our hands. That's just the way it is, I'm not going to say 'Yeah I love the rules' just because they're helping us out though, I still don't like them.

Crash.net:
Rules that give us the final between Hopper and Tommy Hill can't be all bad, can they?

James Ellison:
I had a front row seat for that one mate, I was trying to help Tommy out somehow, and it worked out. Shaun Muir and Robin Croft from SMT are really good friends and there were a lot of parts from Shaun's old Hondas on the bike I was riding. I came on board late in the season replacing Dan Linfoot to try and get the bike further up there.

Before Brands we spent time on the dyno at the SMR workshop and got the electronics working well so I said I'll try my best to get in the way and not beat Tommy. I beat him in one race because I knew it wouldn't make any difference to the points given that I had seen Hopper was out of that race and I'd promised Robin a podium. So I managed to do both things, get a podium and get in the mix a bit.

Honestly, you could see how badly both of them wanted it, they never gave an inch. It's still the best race I've ever seen and I feel they both deserved that championship.

Crash.net:
Is it true you're known as 'Village'?

James Ellison:
Ha ha, yeah - 'Village idiot'. It's just that I do silly things like missing ferries and flights. I'm quite laid back and that's lead me for example to drive 450 miles out of my way, on the way to a Superstock meeting. I'm not so bad now, but when I was younger…..

Crash.net:
Thanks a lot James.

James Ellison:
Pleasure.

Update: Ellison took a second place finish in race two of Sunday's Brands Hatch round, after a fall in race one. Ellison is fourth in the championship standings.


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