James Ellison embarks on a surprise return to the MotoGP World Championship in 2012, six years after he last competed in the premier category.
Since then, the Englishman has supplemented his status as one of the UK’s most versatile racers with stints at Superbike and Supersport level, ensuring his experience arguably belies his 31 years of age.
Making his intentional racing debut more than a decade ago in 1999, Ellison competed in the European Superstock 1000 Championship aboard the Castrol Honda. A successful start to the season had him in the top five in the opening two races, but while Ellison scored a further four times, he wasn’t able to scale the podium.
Nonetheless, his efforts caught the attention of the leading Ten Kate Honda outfit, who signed him to their ‘Young Guns’ team for 2000. It was an opportunity Ellison grasped readily, claiming his first podium in his opening race at Donington Park, before scoring wins at Assen and Oschersleben. The wins were enough to propel him past closest rivals Markus Wegsheider and Chris Burns, and to the title.
Ellison stayed to defend his Superstock 1000 title in 2001, albeit with a change to Suzuki GSX-R1000 machinery under the Hi-Peak Crescent banner. It was a shrewd move, Ellison winning three of the opening four races to assume the initiative, before a fourth success at Oschersleben ensured he would keep the fast approaching Walter Tortoroglio at bay for his second title in two years.
Not unsurprisingly, Ellison was subsequently promoted to the World Supersport Championship for 2002 with the factory Kawasaki Racing team, champions with Andrew Pitt in 2001. However, it was a tough initiation for Ellison as he struggled to gel with the ZX-6R.
Minor points’ finishes over the course of the season peaked with a run to ninth at Oschersleben, Ellison finishing down in 20th position in the final standings.
The disappointing season had a detrimental effect on Ellison’s hopes of finding a ride for 2003, the Briton using personal sponsors to purchase his own Superstock Suzuki GSX-R1000 and enter it under the Team HAP banner. Despite the less-then-ideal circumstances, Ellison raced beyond his means, claiming a win at Brands Hatch on the way to third place in the standings.
In addition to his Superstock 1000 commitments, Ellison also spent his 2003 season racing in the Endurance World Championship alongside Olivier Four and Jason Pridmore in the Suzuki GB Phase One team. It was a successful endeavour, Ellison impressing on Superbike machinery to claim the title.
That effort was rewarded with an offer to compete in the British Superbike Championship for Jentin Racing. Riding a Yamaha in the Cup category, Ellison was the dominant force, comfortably seeing off Jon Kirkham and Dennis Hobbs in the sub-category, while he would also go on to score a best of fifth place on the way to 11th overall.
However, perhaps Ellison’s most notable effort in 2004 was his pair of World Superbike wild-cards at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, the latter of which resulted in an outstanding run to sixth and fifth in the two races.
That performance duly caught the eye of the MotoGP paddock, in particular the privateer WCM Harris team, who handed him a ride in place of Chris Burns. Making his debut at the Czech Republic Grand Prix, Ellison started six MotoGP races in 2004, peaking with a run to 13th place in Losail.
His efforts were enough to earn him a full-time deal for 2005, Ellison racing the Blata WCM alongside Franco Battiani. With the Blata V6 never making an appearance, Ellison was forced to compete with the team’s self-prepared and vastly underpowered four-cylinder machine.
Though he matched Battiani for pace, Ellison cracked the points on just four occasions, but his determination and attitude on the uncompetitive machine had earned him a credible reputation in the MotoGP paddock and he was duly courted by better fancied teams at the season’s end.
Tipped to join d’Antin Ducati after a successful test with the team, Ellison instead put pen to paper with Tech 3 Yamaha with the full support of tyre suppliers Dunlop.
However, the ‘dream’ deal would turn into a nightmare, partly due to Ellison being the only M1 rider not to get the new chatter-free frame.
Instead, the Englishman rode the full season on the troublesome original 2006 chassis, taking a best finish of ninth at Catalunya on his way to 18th in the championship. Ellison took his lack of new parts with creditable tolerance, understanding that Yamaha was putting all its efforts behind Valentino Rossi's title challenge, and continued that professional attitude right to the end of the season - long after he had been told his contract would not be renewed for 2007.
With no obvious MotoGP deals available, Ellison opted to head stateside for 2007 to ride the Corona Extra Honda in the AMA Superbike Championship. However, despite receiving factory-backing, Ellison struggled to make his presence felt on unfamiliar circuits, leaving him 11th overall, scoring his best finish at Road America with a run to fifth place.
For 2008, Ellison returned to British shores after scoring a deal to ride the Hydrex Bike Animal Honda in the British Superbike Championship. Though a privateer ride, Ellison quickly established himself as a worthy front runner, climbing to the second step of the podium in only his fourth race with the team. Making it onto the podium a further three occasions – as well as impress with another top five finish during a WSBK wild-card at Donington Park -, Ellison ended his year a fine seventh in a strong field.
His efforts were enough to earn himself a chance to join 2008 champions GSE Airwaves Racing, who went into the 2009 season with factory-assisted Yamaha YZF-R1s at its disposal. As expected, Airwaves Yamaha dominated the season, but while Ellison was a four-time race winner and made the podium a total of 15 times, he was consistently out-performed by team-mate Leon Camier, leaving him a fairly distant runner-up.
Even worse, Ellison was left without a ride heading into the 2010 season after GSE Racing announced it was withdrawing from the series. With other rides filling up around him, Ellison eventually secured a last-minute deal to race with Swan Honda, run by the same Shaun Muir Racing operation that prepared his Hydrex bikes from 2008.
Taking a win from the opening weekend at Brands Hatch, Ellison began the season striving to go one better in 2010, but his title dreams would be crushed next time out at Thruxton when a high-speed accident left him with a broken leg.
Leaving him sidelined for three events, it would take until the second-half of the season for Ellison to return to his best form, but a second win of the year at Silverstone ensured he’d finish a respectable seventh overall.
Back to full fitness, though Ellison was anticipated to remain in BSB for renewed shot at the title, he was instead announced as returning to the World Supersport Championship for the first time in almost a decade with Simon Buckmaster’s front-running PTR team.
Racing under the Bogdanka PTR banner, Ellison suffered a tough first half of the season, particularly when technical issues scuppered a podium challenge at Donington Park. However, a set-up overhaul mid-season transformed his results during the second-half, Ellison taking a second place at the Nurburgring (after a spirited battle for the win) and third at Portimao, lifting him to seventh overall.
He was also able to fit in a return to BSB competition, joining the privateer Sorrymate.com SMT Honda team for five of the final six events. During his stint with the outfit, Ellison notched up a podium at Brands Hatch, representing a first for the small team.
Even so, despite his strong end to the 2011 season, it was still a surprise when it was announced that Ellison would embark on a return to MotoGP competition in 2012. Signed to front Paul Bird Motorsport’s burgeoning CRT effort, Ellison will ride an Aprilia RSV-4 based prototype alongside similar entries submitted by Aspar and Speed Master. Career Highlights: 2012:
Ellison makes a surprise return to the MotoGP field with Paul Bird Motorsport’s burgeoning CRT effort 2011:
World Supersport Championship, Bogdanka PTR Honda, 7th
British Superbike Championship (13 races), Sorrymate.com SMT Honda, 16th 2010:
British Superbike Championship, Swan Honda, 7th (2 wins) 2009:
British Superbike Championship, Airwaves Yamaha, 2nd (4 wins)
World Superbike Championship (2 races), Airwaves Yamaha, 26th 2008:
British Superbike Championship, Hydrex Honda, 7th
World Superbike Championship (2 races), Hydrex Honda, 25th 2007:
AMA Superbike Championship, Corona Extra Honda 2006:
MotoGP World Championship Tech 3 Yamaha, 18th 2005:
MotoGP World Championship, WCM Harris, 23rd 2004:
British Superbike Championship, Jentin Yamaha, 11th
MotoGP World Championship (6 races), WCM Harris, 26th
World Superbike Championship (4 races), Jentin Yamaha, 19th 2003:
European Superstock 1000, HAP Suzuki, 3rd (1 win)
Endurance World Championship, Suzuki GB Phase One, Champion 2002:
World Supersport Championship, Kawasaki Racing, 20th 2001:
European Superstock 1000, Tech 2000/Hi-Peak Suzuki, Champion (4 wins)
b>2000: European Superstock 1000, Ten Kate Honda, Champion (2 wins) 1999:
European Superstock 1000, Castrol Honda, 10th