James Toseland's announcement that he would be leaving World Superbikes and Ten Kate Honda to join Tech 3 Yamaha in MotoGP next season has divided opinion in the motorcycling world. On the one hand, there is delight that Toseland, a charming and obviously talented young rider, is moving up to test his mettle in the cauldron of MotoGP. On the other hand, there is a great deal of scepticism about the wisdom of his jumping up to join what is currently one of the weakest teams in the MotoGP paddock, especially among British race fans, whose hopes have been dashed so very cruelly for many years now, virtually since the departure of Barry Sheene from the GP stage.
The fear most commonly voiced is that by moving to Tech 3, Toseland could end up suffering the fate of another British champion called James who went before him. James Ellison suffered several difficult years in MotoGP, first aboard the underpowered WCM, then last year with the Tech 3 Yamaha team, on the chatter-ridden Yamaha M1 which may have cost Valentino Rossi his title. The spectre of yet another talented British rider disappearing into relative obscurity after a couple of years struggling with substandard equipment in MotoGP is one that looms very large in the psyche of British MotoGP followers.
So, is Toseland doomed to failure aboard a poorly-supported bike on an underfunded team, or has he made an astute move which will see a British rider on top of the podium in the premier class once again?
Critics of Toseland's choice cite the Tech 3 team's lack of competitiveness over the past 2 years as evidence for their case that this is a fundamentally bad move. But there are some interesting changes going on at Tech 3. The first sign of change was HervÃ© Poncharal's announcement in early June that his Tech 3 Yamaha team had secured bikes and support from Yamaha for the 2008 season. Poncharal explained that the rationale behind closing the deal with Yamaha so early in the season was allow themselves plenty of time to attract big name riders and proper sponsorship to be competitive. With the signing of Toseland, the first part of that mission has been accomplished.
And Toseland's signing points to another change: Currently, the Tech 3 Yamaha run Dunlop tires, as Dunlop provide the biggest part of the team's funds as title sponsor. If James Toseland has agreed to move to Tech 3, then the likelihood that Tech 3 will be on Dunlops is fairly small. That would mean that Tech 3 would need to find another benefactor, but Toseland's popularity both inside and outside the UK should make that easier, especially with the British motorcycle insurance specialist Bennetts acting as Toseland's personal sponsor. Strengthening Tech 3's case was the fact that the official announcement, provided by Yamaha Racing, stated that Toseland would be riding a factory Yamaha M1 in 2008, suggesting that Yamaha will be working much more closely with the Tech 3 team next year, and treating it as a genuine factory second team, rather than a privateer team that they lease bikes to. This approach makes a lot of sense, as it has worked well for Honda in the past with the Gresini team, and is yielding much improved results for Ducati with the Pramac d'Antin team.
So a factory-supported Yamaha, shod with Michelins or possibly even Bridgestones, on a well funded team is already a much more attractive prospect than Tech 3 has presented either last year or this. But this choice offers another advantage: By moving to a satellite team, the weight of expectation will fall more lightly on the young Briton, especially if he comes in as holder of the World Superbike title, as looks likely. He will be expected to finish consistently in the top 10, and have a year to get familiar with the very different demands of MotoGP machinery and learn the few tracks he will not have visited on a Superbike. If Toseland had stayed in World Superbike and taken the factory Repsol Honda ride which was rumored to have been offered to him for 2009, he would have been under a great deal more pressure to win almost from the moment he hit the track. He would, after all, be on what should, under normal circumstances, be the best bike on the grid, with the best team and the best backing. Any shortcomings would have been immediately and firmly laid at Toseland's door. Riding a satellite Yamaha will give him allow him the little bit of breathing space which could help him to grow as a rider.
But what about the alternatives? Why take the Tech 3 ride when he had at least two other offers on the table? Indeed, one of those offers was from Pramac d'Antin, to ride a Ducati for them, and turning down the fastest bike in the world seems like very poor judgment.
While there is some merit in that argument, a close perusal of the results for the Ducati so far this season shows that if you take Casey Stoner out of the equation, the Ducati is a distinctly less appealing prospect. Stoner has been brilliant this, and his new-found maturity, his rapport with the team and his confidence in the Bridgestones may perhaps flatter the performance of the Ducati. Undeniably the fastest bike in a straight line, Ducati's competitors have been closing down that advantage, and the focus is turning towards maneuverability again, rather than sheer horsepower. And the career prospects at Ducati don't look all that promising: Marco Melandri has just signed with the factory team for 2008 and 2009, and Casey Stoner has options all the way through 2010. Going to the Pramac team means you could be stuck on a satellite team for longer than you would want.
Toseland's other option was Gresini Honda, but despite being the odds on favorite to dominate the new 800 cc era of MotoGP prior to the start of the season, Honda spectacularly underestimated what would be needed to win. Only the genius of Dani Pedrosa, many long nights of hurried redevelopment, and a rare bad day for Bridgestone saved Honda from suffering its longest ever winless streak in the premier class. Even now, the Honda is not a particularly appealing proposition, with HRC saying that they will have an evolution of the bike ready for Brno, which they may have to throw away and start again from scratch before the start of the 2008 season. Once, a Honda was almost a cast-iron guarantee of good results in MotoGP, but just at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it is a very poisoned chalice indeed, with expectations high, but the ability to deliver much less.
Then there's the question of just how kindly HRC would take it if Toseland took the Gresini ride, ignoring their requests that he stay in World Superbike for another year. Any prospect of a factory Honda ride would surely be greatly diminished by such an act of outright disobedience. Honda has a long memory and a reluctance to forgive transgressions.
So, if James Toseland wanted to move to MotoGP, the Tech 3 ride may not be such a bad move after all. If Yamaha come through with good support, and the team gets decent tires, Toseland has a chance to be competitive, while still being able to learn the bike and the tracks without too much pressure. At 26, he is still young enough to make the switch. If he left it for another season, then adapting to the MotoGP bikes would have been even more difficult, and he would have faced the possibility of seeing the options he has this year disappear for next year. All in all, this looks like a very shrewd move.