The Problem With Alice: Toni Elias Speaks
In motorcycle racing, as in all endeavors in life, some people do better than others. And whenever one competitor does better than another, the search starts for just why that should be.
In a team sport - which MotoGP is, despite the overriding importance of the ability of a single individual, the rider - fingers are quck to be pointed at elements within a team, or even the team as a whole, when a team underperforms. Sometimes, such accusations are entirely justified, and there really is a single cause of the team's woes, but more often than not, when a team does not live up to expectations, the reality is a good deal more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
Two examples come to mind inside the MotoGP paddock. The first is the JiR Honda team, led by Luca Montiron. After JiR split from Pramac after the 2004 season, Makoto Tamada's results took a nosedive. What's more, a similar thing happened to Shinya Nakano when he joined the team, and the JiR team only saw success again after the team was effectively taken over by Team Scot once Andrea Dovizioso entered the MotoGP class. In this case, the cause seemed fairly straightforward: Montiron had talented riders and proven equipment, and yet the results were consistently mediocre at best. Once Montiron was pushed aside, the results saw a dramatic turnaround, justifying the conclusion that the problem was most likely to be Luca Montiron, and his ability to run a team.
The other example is what was this year the Alice Ducati team, owned by Pramac, and run for the first part of the year by Luis d'Antin. At first glance, conclusions about the team's poor performance could be put down to the same cause as JiR's: poor management. After all, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli, two riders who had performed above expectations on other equipment, were suddenly struggling at the back of the field. Once Luis d'Antin was fired by the team, just prior to the Sachsenring MotoGP round in July, the results improved dramatically, Elias getting back-to-back podiums in Brno and Misano. But Elias' dismal performance in the final races of the year, as well as a closer examination of the history of the team paints a much more complicated picture than just poor management.
As a team manager, Luis d'Antin had been extremely successful in the past. His eponymous team won the Japanese Grand Prix in 2000, Norifumi Abe taking victory at Suzuka. And in the years that followed, the d'Antin bikes could be found in the first half of the field. D'Antin's fortunes took a downturn when he switched from Yamaha to Ducati in 2004, and neither the 2003 World Superbike champion Neil Hodgson nor his team mate, and WSBK runner up Ruben Xaus got the results they had shown they were capable of in World Superbikes.
Since then, d'Antin's relationship with Ducati has often been troubled. The team itself suffered many financial problems, with rumors of unpaid hotel bills and bills for parts dogging d'Antin right up until he left the paddock this year. But there was more to the team's problems than just financial mismanagement, as an interview with Toni Elias on Crash.net makes amply clear.
In the interview, Elias accuses Ducati of not supplying the team with the parts it needed to be competitive until after Luis d'Antin's departure at the Sachsenring. "When we finally received [the new parts] we made a leap in performance, and we got back in the top ten, so for me Germany is when the second part of the season began."
And to underline Ducati's role in all this. Elias points to what happened after he told the team that he would be leaving to join Gresini Honda at the end of the year. "I told Ducati what my plans were for 2009 in Motegi, and from that moment on the parts disappeared. From then on it was back to the lower half of the standings." After two podiums on improved equipment, Elias didn't finish in the top 10 again for the rest of the season.
So it seems that Ducati, and possibly Pramac, were engaged in a political powerplay, aimed at increasing Ducati's control over their satellite team. Ducati - in the person of Livio Suppo - have stated publicly several times that they are trying to turn the satellite team into a true junior team, much as they have in World Superbikes, following the lead set in Formula 1. It seems fair to assume that in order to achieve that goal, Ducati were not afraid to use whatever influence they had over the team to ensure that they achieved their long-term goals, even if it was to the detriment of short-term results.
Evidence of this strategy can be seen in what happened to the team members after the end of the 2008 season. The mechanics and engineers have spread out through various world championship paddocks, with members going on to join the Yamaha and Aprilia World Superbike efforts, Kawasaki's World Supersport team, and Sete Gibernau's return to MotoGP with Onde2000. The parts and logistics engineer Liam Shubert, in a post over on his excellent blog MotoLiam.com, explained that the atmosphere and sense of togetherness so vital for running a team had disappeared over the last year, causing him to decide to leave the MotoGP paddock and return to the US.
These were all changes that had little to do with the way that Luis d'Antin ran the team, but were perhaps more to do with the shift of power which had accompanied the takeover of the team by the Pramac group, after purchasing the team from Luis d'Antin prior to the 2007 season. With the team management engaged in a slow struggle for control, is it any wonder that a team with clearly talented riders and the fastest bike on the grid - as proven by Casey Stoner - should find it so very hard to compete?