Motorsport Thoughts

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Career Progression - the Brookes/Ellison Effect

At this time of year there's a lot of chat on the Rumour Mill thread about what's happening next year - who's going where and all. Some of it turns out to be totally true, some of it happens a year later than was rumoured (like Max going to WSB), and much of it turns out to be complete rubbish and is swept under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Understandably a lot of rumours centre around young up-and-comers being promoted up the ranks very quickly, and this hardly ever turns out to be true. It's understandable because we all want to see the talent come through and progress – watching the same guys hold the same seats every year would clearly be boring and would render the lower series pointless. And to an extent it is sometimes a little disappointing to see someone hogging a seat who should be replaced by fresher blood – take a look at some of the guys over in F1 who are taking a grid slot and little else despite years in the sport.

There are all kinds of reasons why things are a little more cautious than what we often hope for – having a 'name' driver/rider can boost your brand compared with an unknown, the risk of someone lacking in experience, canny contract negotiations by the guy already in the seat, sponsor favouritism, etc.

Another reason is the point of this thread, and it's to do with the career development of young riders and taking the right steps and risks at the right time particularly in terms of the world stage. I call it the Brookes-Ellison effect, after Josh Brookes and James Ellison.
Josh Brookes' two years in World Supersport and Superbikes make interesting reading. He came to most people outside Australia's prominence by winning the Philip Island WSS round as a wildcard in 2004, and then backed it up taking the Aussie domestic Superbike and Supersport titles a year later. So far, so good – certainly enough to get onto the world scene somewhere. Sure enough, he was picked up by Caracchi to run their Ducati in WSS in 2006. He took 6th at PI but things didn't go well overall, and he departed fairly early in the season to step up to WSB with Bertocchi Kawasaki. Again this wasn't a good move – he only scored a couple of points. The team acquired new backers and Hondas for this year to become the Alto Evolution team, and to be fair he's had some promising runs although in midfield mostly. Again he's departed [following the team woes] and is back to WSS with Stiggy Honda which has only left him with five races in total to make an impression to find something for 2008 – a big ask. It's fair to say that his undeniable talent is in danger of being snuffed out.

James Ellison is another guy who's had some interesting moves through various series. He's won the European Superstock Championship (in 2000 and 2001, I believe) before taking the World Endurance title in 2003 after a year in WSS. World Endurance isn't usually seen as a route upward in short-format racing, so James was off back to Britain in 2004. He competed in the BSB Cup class – that's for year-old machinery running within the main race – and took the title as well as 11th overall in the standings. At the end of that season the WCM MotoGP team gave him a run out and signed him for 2005 where he got a few points. He then got the call from Tech3 for 2006, and we know how that turned out. He now races mid-pack in AMA Superbikes for Corona Honda.

The point is that Josh and James are two amongst many guys who could be in a better position than where they are because of the progression choices they've made. With the best will in the world, probably the best Josh can hope for next year is to stay with Stiggy and try and get a full season under his belt, which will most likely be quite successful. I would be amazed if he got a Ten Kate chance, simply because he's not stuck somewhere for a full year in Worlds and so his name barely registers on the standings. James grabbed at two MotoGP chances which came his way and have now left him over in the States after they didn't work out and not with a top team – in an alternate version of events he could be a pretty successful guy in World Superbikes right now (riding as a wildcard in 2004, he took 5th at Brands in WSB on a year-old Yamaha in fact). I've maligned James Ellison as much as anyone but that could genuinely be possible – James Toseland wasn't stellar until 2002, for example.

I make no apologies for focusing on mainly Brits in this thread, simply because they and BSB are more familiar to me.

Two examples where the opposite is true – and guys have made fairly good decisions – are Neil Hodgson and Shakey Byrne. Neil took the BSB title in 2000 with GSE, stepped up to WSB with them and then went to the factory Ducati team and took the title with them in 2003. His Superbike credentials are not in doubt. He then had a duff season in MotoGP with D'Antin and went to the States which went OK considering the Duke wasn't a match for the Suzukis or Hondas – and he beat both Bostroms on home soil. Now he's without a ride but this is where those years 2000-3 come in – because he's got a steady string of seasons and two titles he can still negotiate for top rides. James Ellison by comparison, jumped at a MotoGP chance that didn't yield anything – so the last success people will see on his CV is the BSB privateer Cup. Now a successful season or two in full BSB [which he could have had] instead of going to MotoGP straight away is starting to look like it would have been a good idea. Shakey won the 2003 BSB title before moving to MotoGP to ride the ApriliBeast and then the ill-fated KR-KTM. Again, they didn't work out but the BSB title in the bag means he'll always be able to get back on a top BSB bike somewhere. You can't help but the Joshes and James Ellisons of this world could have got further on with a little more patience.

There's a parallel to be drawn with F1 racing and some of the promotions from lower series there – Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton all fully earnt their spurs doing GP2, justifying their promotion up to top F1 seats. Some guys we've seen in the past have been plucked by F1 skipping several stage of the ladder, and as a result if it doesn't work you're a little lost for where to go. If Kimi Raikkonen (plucked from British Formula Renault to F1 – the equivalent of going from the British 125cc Champs to full MotoGP in one step) had turned out to be rubbish, he'd really be struggling.

So, I guess the point is – the ladder series are there for good reason. Moving up the ranks is important and it's important to do it in the correct way and at the right time – sometimes a sudden move can work but often putting in the hard graft gradually will work out better. Getting too eager can blow things if it doesn't work out. So don't be too eager to grab that MotoGP opportunity unless the time's really right.


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