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Toseland: I can be champion again!

19 May 2010

The smile that everyone wanted to see was back. Assen, April 2010. This was when James Toseland's World Superbike season really kicked off, with two fantastic podium finishes, showing his masses of loyal fans that the man who became world champion in 2004 and 2007, can do it again.

Toseland may have a hectic race schedule, travelling across the world week-in, week-out, but he still found time for a charity gig for St. John Ambulance in Peterborough, which raised an estimated £3,000. Following a two-day test at Misano in Italy – in which he finished a positive second in the timings – he flew straight in on Friday, for 'An Audience with James Toseland'.

The evening included him performing solo for the first time on the piano and vocally. It also featured an appearance from his cousin Sophie Elton, similarly with a natural gift for music. Musical flair clearly runs throughout the family. He admitted he felt 'quite nervous' and a little 'rusty' on the piano, as he hadn't had much time to practice after moving house recently. Toseland had just moved from Ramsey to Douglas. It was a quick visit, with James flying back out to Italy the next morning, for PR events for the next race and for him and his band Crash to be reunited for a performance.

Unfortunately, the season started with a bang for James – and not a good one. After a difficult campaign in MotoGP in 2009, the Isle of Man resident made the switch back to the World Superbike series for this season, taking a ride with Italian outfit Sterilgarda Yamaha – but during the Phillip Island curtain-raiser he suffered a broken hand, which compromised his performance in the first two rounds in Australia and Portugal, costing him valuable points.

Valencia was a much stronger race for the 29-year-old and saw him record his first rostrum of the season, with a third place, his first podium since 2007. This was a turning-point, showing the rest of the competition that 'JT' was on his way back to his best, despite having injections to prevent the pain during racing.

Next up: Holland. Despite a poor qualifying in tenth position, Toseland roared to the front and in the first race snuck briefly into the lead, eventually finishing a close second. His next race saw an intense battle with nine other riders and he claimed a vital third place. The real James Toseland was back!

“It was a great feeling to return to the podium and to be fighting for the win!” he enthused. “My confidence is back. That was the first time I actually felt fully fit, as I was riding without anaesthetic. I just want to be on the top step now!”

After four rostrum finishes, Toseland lies in fifth position in the championship, still seeing the world title as his aim for the season – with the voice and demeanour of a very hungry, determined young man, eager to taste more success.

“Yes, I believe I can be world champion,” he affirmed. “I am chipping away. There are four guys in front of me at the moment, but at every race I'll be doing whatever I can to get ahead of them, and to pull those points back. There are 50 points on the table for each round and I'm 97 behind, so it can definitely happen.”

Leading the way in the rankings is his compatriot Leon Haslam. Previously, JT had been Great Britain's only hope in World Superbikes, but this season boasts no fewer than seven British contenders, with four of them all eagerly fighting for the top spot. The podium in Assen was an all-British affair with Haslam, Jonathan Rea and of course Toseland up there. With the hype before the campaign having been all about the returning double world champion, was Haslam leading the pack a shock to James?

“I was a little bit surprised, but I knew how strong he was,” he reflected. “I also knew how strong Suzuki had been in the past. He literally clicked with the bike in the first test in Portugal, and he's been on top form from that point – so since then, I'm not at all surprised. He did a great job last season, as he finished sixth in the championship. There's no reason why he can't go all the way.”

There are not many sports in Britain currently that can claim to have so much home-grown talent battling for world honours. There is a very likely chance of three Brits fighting it out for this year's WSBK title, so it seems strange that this country only holds one round on the calendar. In the past, there were races at Donington Park and the atmospheric Brands Hatch. In fact, in 2007 there were three British rounds, which has since been knocked down to just the one meeting in 2010, at Silverstone. Compare that to Italy, who stage three rounds this season.

“It's a no-brainer,” Toseland contended. “We should have two rounds in England. We have seven Brits competing at the highest level, at the front as well – they are not just making the numbers up at the back. As we saw with both races in Assen, we had Brits on the podium, including one race with the three of us representing Great Britain. I think if we had two rounds in the UK, like we did a few years ago, it would be brilliant – Brands Hatch with us Brits in it, there would be 100,000 people there. I don't understand why we don't have a second round.”

Spain, like England, may have just the one meeting on the calendar, but they do have a competitor who could prove to be a serious spoiler to many riders' hopes of championship victory – Carlos Checa. The 38-year-old has been proving there is still life in the elder statesmen of the field. Making Checa's season even more remarkable is the fact he's on a privateer Ducati, compared to those around him on full-works machinery. Was it a surprise to the Yorkshireman to see the Althea Ducati doing so well?

“Yes, a little,” he acknowledged, “but then I shouldn't be surprised as he's an ex-GP rider. He didn't get on with the Honda so well last year and Jonny Rea did a really fantastic job with outshining him, because Checa is a great talent. I think the Ducati is a really strong package, whether it's a satellite or works Ducati. I do think Checa will have some issues on the powerful tracks being on the satellite bike, but I think with the actual chassis and bike he has, he's got a good opportunity to keep doing well this season.”

Whilst he concentrates on catching his rivals in the championship, looking ahead to the remainder of what is a long season, there are a few unknown tracks for the number 52 rider. Does this worry him?

“Salt Lake City in America is a brand new one for me,” he revealed, “but luckily there's a PR day before the race weekend which will give me the opportunity to take a look at it and get a few laps under my belt. The Nürburgring I haven't raced on for eleven years, which obviously is a long time – and of course I don't know all of Silverstone now either, but I know the first part of the Silverstone track quite well.”

Meanwhile, MotoGP 2010 is now underway and of course was a big part of James' life for two years. After six months to reflect on his time in and away from the series, how does he feel about his departure and being replaced by American Ben Spies?

“I felt I was stopped prematurely and I was bitterly disappointed,” he admitted. “I've had to remove it from my mind completely but like anything, it wears off and I'm just focussing on what I'm doing now. If I'm on a bike that's capable of winning, I can win, I know that. Taking trophies home is what makes me happy, and that's what I'm doing and that's what I'm going to continue to do. Obviously my last championship was three years ago, so I've had to dig deep and to win the world championship again would be wonderful. It would be a better feeling than winning my first two after everything I have been through.

“I wish Ben Spies all the best in what he's doing – it was just unfortunate it was my ride he got. It was difficult to take, but I'm doing a similar job to what he did last year on the same bike, in the same team, which I'm paid to do. He's doing what he's supposed to be doing in MotoGP, so everyone is happy at the moment. We are still both riding for Yamaha, and we have to do the best job we can.”

Toseland will be looking to continue his rich vein of form, in the hope of clinching that memorable third world title this season. As he told his fans at the gig after an entertaining evening, he just wants to give them 'plenty to smile about' this year...

by Leandra Graves


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