EXCLUSIVE James Ellison - Q&A
11 December 2013
An exclusive interview with MCE British Superbike star - and new father - James Ellison.
Fourth in this year's BSB championship with Milwaukee Yamaha, Ellison will join Chris Walker at the new-look GBmoto Kawasaki team in 2014…
How is the new addition to the family?
Really good, I'm loving every minute. We just had a little boy two weeks ago and we've called him 'Ryder'.
Has that got anything to do with your profession?
No, not really though it's true that I've got a good mate who's keen on fishing who's just called his son 'Fisher'. No, it's just a name that we both liked which happened to tally with what I do. When you look at him he just looks like a 'Ryder'. He's also half American, Ryder's not a popular name there either, we just wanted something fairly unique for a unique little boy.
What was easier then, the birth of your son or riding the triple at Brands?
I'd have to say riding the triple at Brands. It was just that I was worried about Sarah, it's hard to see someone you love go through so much without you being able to control anything. When I'm racing I'm at least in control. You just feel so helpless, Sarah was mega throughout the whole thing but I was just worrying all the time. Once Ryder was there that was all forgotten about and it's just perfect. Looking at his feet, I think he might be a runner in the future because they're just massive!
Coming back to racing, when you look back at 2013, do you feel frustrated or satisfied?
Really frustrated because we should have been in the hunt for the title in the last round and we weren't and I put that down to inconsistency throughout the year. Some of that was due to me crashing, but there's no denying that we had more than our fair share of mechanical problems.
I don't want to make excuses or point the finger, but that's just a fact. We had a lot of mechanical problems be that in practice, qualifying or during the race. I think there were three occasions when I missed a Q3 session when I was looking good for the front row. So instead of starting on the front row, you're starting three or four rows back and then have to fight your way to the front. It was a frustrating because we could have done a lot better.
The way we started at Brands was typical because we won the second race but couldn't get a result in the first because my visor came off on the grid and I was pulled off the grid. We started off well though, we'd tested well, left both Brands and Thruxton with the fastest lap and were always good for a podium. It was just that gremlins then meant that we started getting podiums and DNFs.
I crashed out of three races and totally take the blame for those because they were my fault, but three crashes shouldn't cost you the championship.
Did you feel that you had the bike to win the championship?
Yeah, we definitely had the bike to do it and that was the frustrating thing. I don't feel like 'Ah well, we did our best and even without the problems we wouldn't have won anyway', which you often do. I feel that with the team, the bike and the preparation which went into it we were top of the list to get the title this year. I felt it slip away as the year went on and that was really hard. Yeah, we definitely had the bike to do it. I wouldn't even say it was bad luck because you make your own luck.
Maybe a lot of it was to do with the fact that we didn't have the fastest bike out there and that the team were pushing so hard to develop the bike and make it quicker and maybe that caused too much stress on the engine. One of the main issues was the cam chain which went quite a few times, at Assen for example the cam chain wore out the plastic tensioner and the plastic swarf from that blocked the oil ways and then the crank went - another DNF. The team did learn from the failures in that they didn't happen again, and all credit to team in that the failures couldn't be foreseen but a non-score is a non-score.
Short of building me a brand new bike every weekend maybe we couldn't have avoided what happened because parts just wear. It's a 2009 bike which has new parts fitted but some of those parts don't get replaced. I don't blame the team at all, it's just unfortunate that it happened when I was riding so well, I was second to Alex [Lowes] in the fastest lap list and only crashed out three times.
Did the situation mean that you sometimes had to over ride the bike?
When I had to start from way down the grid I would sometimes get pretty frustrated trying to pass people and risked crashing out because if I started from down the grid I could often see the fast guys I was competing against stretching away.
I thought the new shootout system would give us a chance and things would change but we got to Assen went really well in qualifying and then my fuel injector broke in Q3. So I was on the second row again feeling really frustrated when I should have been on the front row. I got my head down and managed to get into the lead and was sitting pretty then just after half distance my engine blew up. I was just thinking 'For f*cks sake, what do I have to do!' Every time I put a race behind me and got my motivation back up, that kind of thing was happening.
I'm normally a really consistent and calm rider regardless of what happens but this year the situation, breakdowns and inconsistencies did get to me a little. Because your position is under attack, it can make you ride just a bit more defensively to guard your points, instead of going for 1st, 2nd or 3rd, you might take a 4th. Also you may not make a move when you could have done.
It may also have affected my concentration in some races. At Brands where I crashed out, I didn't really need to go to the front of that race but deep down I was just desperate for podium credits. In retrospect I think I should have just sat there behind Chris and picked a better move. I rushed into the pass when I didn't need to and ended up crashing out. I often had to think about the championship rather than the race in hand. I think I kept my composure as well as I could have done though.
Is a crash easier to handle mentally than a bike failure?
Yeah, because a crash is often my fault, I can say I'm sorry, learn from it and try to make sure it never happens again. But when something happens beyond your control you may have worked your arse off all weekend, you've worked so hard in the weeks before that, your diet and everything has revolving around that weekend and then you're let down by a wire coming loose or a cam chain breaking. That's hard to handle. To walk away from all that effort and danger with nothing is really terrible.
So you're going from a championship winning and race winning team, who you believe you could have won the championship with last season, to one whose riders finished in eleventh and twelfth last season?
Before Silverstone last year, Shaun [Muir] was happy to have me on the bike again next year. I'd been approached by other top teams but I said that I was happy staying where I was. I wanted to have another year on the bike to keep a bit of consistency and learn from this season's mistakes, prepare the bike a bit better and get the job done.
But after Silverstone Shaun kind of changed his tune a little bit, I heard he was talking to other riders and saw other riders going into his motorhome. He was also avoiding calls which isn't like Shaun. I think he was having a hard time making the decision because when I finally got hold of him he explained everything.
He said he felt he'd let us down with the problems with the bike and everything and just wanted a fresh start and that's why he'd been talking to other people. At that point me and Mark [Smith-Halvorsen – GBmoto principal] had had a couple of discussions and up to then I'd said I was happy staying where I was. His offer was tempting but at the time Mark wasn't sure which manufacturer he wanted to use. After Silverstone though he said he was going to use a Kawasaki.
At that point I thought that I needed to get things sorted. I needed to talk frankly with Shaun first because I didn't want to just walk away from him because he's always been there for me in the past. I also told Mark that that's what I was doing. Eventually we did have that conversation before Brands when he told me that he was talking to other riders and I told him that I'd felt that things hadn't been right for a while now and to save him the hassle I told him that I'd been in discussions with other teams. I said that if that's the direction he wanted to go in then that was fine.
At the time I knew that he'd already been talking to Brooksey [Josh Brookes] because he needed someone for the roads.
Perhaps part of Shaun's motivation was a desire to have a rider who could compete on the roads too?
Yeah I think so and Brooksey will obviously be doing that.
So when Shaun told me that, I thought, 'Fair enough' and that made my decision to go with Mark's offer a no brainer. GBmoto is a new team but I've seen them improve every season they've competed and I can see the potential in the way it's structured, organised and run. I was actually quite close to doing a deal with Mark the year before, but went with the proven team instead. My brother [Dean] knows some of the key team members very well and has a very high opinion of them.
The fact that the team then went with a Kawasaki rather than a Honda really swung the deal. It's a well turned out team. I was keen on moving on to a bike that was more suited to the BSB championship. All this year we've been losing a lot of time because of the Yamaha's lack of punch out of corners, and there are a lot of corners in the short circuits in BSB. The Kawasaki leaps out of corners well. The Yamaha was only really fast when it could circulate alone on its own terms carrying good corner speed and if you were behind someone you could have problems doing that.
With all that in mind, after I finished talking with Shaun I called Mark and said, 'Let's do it' and I haven't looked back since. I've not fallen out with Shaun and he was happy for me and I wish him well with his plans in racing and on the roads.
Kawasaki will also be giving us factory support. The Kawasaki is quite an open book because so many other teams are using them so we've worked hard to design a bike that can do well and put together a good testing schedule. We've got a plan.
Have you ever tried a Kawasaki?
I sat on one at the show! But no.
Luckily my brother owns a ZX10 for his company so I'm hoping he'll give me a go on that.
Tommy Bridewell's performance when he jumped on the Halsall Kawasaki also helped me make my decision, it showed that the bike wasn't just fast in Shakey's team. Also Josh Waters told me that the Kawa was fast and told me in which areas it was an improvement on the Yamaha.
So now we've got a team with good experience and two riders who can run at the front, it's going to be good.
What's Chris Walker's role in the team, is he purely a rider?
That's right, Chris is purely a rider, he's there to do the same job I am. I think both of us could be in the Showdown at the end of the year and have a shot at the title.
No team starts off as a factory team, Neil Tuxworth for example started off selling parts from a van at Cadwell Park. GBmoto has made strong progress to be where it is now. All teams have to start somewhere and there's always a point at which they go from being a top ten finisher to being a front running team. I think that moment has come for GBmoto, because they've got the right structure, bike and riders and I think next year it'll be far harder to get into the team because they'll be in demand.
Was there a financial consideration with this move?
Yes, I get more now than when I was working for Shaun but the cost of living has also increased now that I've got another little mouth to feed.
Is there talk about the future or is it purely a one year deal?
It's a one year deal but there's talk about renewing it quite early because Mark wants to make sure there are no hiccups in the teams progress. I'm pretty confident I'll be here for a while.
I always try to explain to people who aren't into bikes that being successful in BSB is kind of like a cake recipe where all the ingredients have to be perfectly balanced - the right crew chief, a strong bike, a great team leader, a happy working environment, a fast and committed rider etc... - for the 'cake to rise' or team to succeed, and if one thing is missing it just doesn't work.