Toni Elias Interview
Since joining the MotoAmerica paddock with the Yoshimura Suzuki team in 2016, Toni Elias has become one of the fiercest contenders of the FIM/AMA Road Racing Championship. After six rounds so far this season, the 34-year-old Spaniard has secured an impressive eight wins, along with a handful of podium appearances as well.
Elias is a stable name in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. His achievements include claiming the Moto2 championship during its inaugural season back in 2010, and he has won races in the MotoGP and former 125cc and 250cc classes.
With an illustrious motorcycle-racing career on his resume, Elias came to the United States to fill in for an injured Jake Lewis for the Yoshimura Suzuki team. Due to Elias’ impressive performance, he was asked to remain on the team.
We caught up with Toni during the sixth round of the 2017 AMA/FIM MotoAmerica Road Racing Championship held as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he shared his thoughts on the current state of the American championship, the United States in general, and the development of the new GSX-R1000.
Ultimate Motorcycling: Hi Toni, thank you for having us. You’ve had a strong start to the season so far. As of now, you have seven wins under your belt and are leading the points. Could you tell us how things are going and what your strategy is moving forward?
Toni Elias: It’s been very important to arrive at this point with some gap in the points and an advantage. I didn’t expect that because the class is very tough. Josh Hayes, Cameron Beaubier and Roger (Lee Hayden) are really strong. For example, my big problem was at the beginning – we have a new bike. It was so difficult to set up the bike in the beginning because we didn’t have any information on it.
There is a big difference between this year’s bike and last year’s bike. It’s so short and I didn’t like this but I had to race four races with this. I didn’t have the chance to try different parts because some parts were still arriving from Japan and it was not the final solution. It was a little solution to the problem but it allowed me to win some races, some 2nd place finishes, a crash and sometimes I was in a difficult situation.
After that, the new parts arrived from Japan and we solved the problem. That created a nice situation for us because I’m always up front, with a lot of consistency and I’m trying to win as many races as possible. Since the parts arrived, out of four races, I’ve only lost one race and I lost by 0.0002 (laughs). The bike is working really well and I can fight with much more calm.
UM: The 2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000 (Elias rides the base model, not the upgraded GSX-R1000R) was unveiled and is now available. How did development of the bike go for you and the team? Were you able to lots of testing prior to the beginning of the season and how did that go?
Elias: We didn’t test much. Also, the winter tests were so short and close because we went to Malaysia for the first tests when we received the bike. It was so difficult because we were together with the Suzuki MotoGP team and we had to follow the Suzuki MotoGP procedures. They wanted to start the test without any kind of control – the bike was free; no traction control, no engine-brake control, no anti-wheelie control, no power-delivery control. I said, “Wow, it’s like a wild animal, no? This is so dangerous” (laughs) and they said, “Please, we need to do this step by step. One change at a time.” It was so difficult, Roger and I were so desperate because it was like “Okay, now we will introduce step one of traction control.”
For one full day, we had to take care and we didn’t push because it was only one step of traction control or one step of engine braking or one step of anti-wheelie control. Everything was so slow. One change had to take 45 minutes to one hour to modify. Roger and I were like “Oh, man!” (hands on head). In one day, only 12 or 13 laps. Then two days like this. After the third day, we could start to work with more changes at the same time and we improved much faster and it was much safer. The last day, then we started to push.
But the first two days? It was a desperate situation (laughs) it’s the procedure they wanted and even though we didn’t like it, the bike was becoming better and better. After that, we only had one test – Thunderhill.
Then COTA test but it is so short because you’re sharing the track with Supersport and the KTM RC 390 cup. Not much time; only four sessions of twenty minutes. And like this, it’s difficult to work. But we are very clear in our minds as a team and as riders. Working with roger also, we share all information and at the end, we both choose our own way, but when you have to develop bike like this, it’s important that we work together. We did it and we arrived just at the last moment but in the end, it was good.
UM: You have one of the more aggressive styles in MotoAmerica; you tend to slide the bike a lot. I know that you train with Supermoto and you’ve also been experimenting with flat track. Can you tell me about how you’ve developed your style from Moto2 and how you’re adapting to the American circuits?
Elias: These are separate things. Even if you’re training a lot with Supermoto or Flat Track, you’re not able to do that with the bike, if the bike is not good. Normally, the set up I like, the tendency with those kind of set ups, I don’t want to do that but the bike does that anyway (laughs) the bike is always on its side. The only thing I have to do is try to be smooth in the slide and lose as little time as possible – make it effective. It’s only the setup, the way we set up the suspension and the way we set up the geometry; the angles, everything.
I had to change my style a little bit. I used to ride different setups in Europe but these setups only work well at COTA because that track is very similar to European tracks. But when you arrive at Road Atlanta, Road America, VIR, Laguna Seca, Barber – that European set up is so radical that it doesn’t work. The bike becomes very nervous and very aggressive. I had two serious crashes, especially the one in Barber. I went straight into the run off two previous times at Road Atlanta and said “wow, we have to change our minds. It’s so radical.”
When I arrived in Barber, I had a big highside because I was on the curb. I jumped over the curb and when the bike touched the ground (mimics highside) it was a very aggressive movement and I highsided. It was a big crash.
I had to learn. For example, the one I followed Josh Hayes because he used to ride the same way. Hayes used to go on the curbs, flying off the curbs with full gas and when he lands? His bike is stable. I said, “Okay, we need to see how he does this. How he’s set up.” We did it and it took us three races last year.
We followed that direction for the new bike; the same ideas. The bike is still aggressive because I need it that way, but it’s still smooth. The electronics this year work a lot better and have helped a lot as well.
UM: How are you acclimating to life in Southern California? There are some major cultural differences between lives here, as opposed to life in Spain. Are you enjoying it so far?
Elias: I’m living here full time now. I’ve been in Manhattan Beach since last November. I’m always there. I’ve only been back to Spain two times for no more than a week. It means a lot of time here. That is because sometimes the team needs me or the sponsors need me. Also, I like it a lot here.
My training includes surfing every day, two times a day. It gives me a lot of stamina and power in the arms. I ride well on the bike with this type of training and I run a little bit on the beach. Now, I’ve started training with Supecross and Flat Track but during the winter we did some Motocross at Milestone MX in Riverside, CA. There is some enduro riding in Hungry Valley too.
It is a good lifestyle. I love America. My idea is to stay here and in the future, we have lot of things to do and a lot of opportunities, which I like. Not only as a rider. As a rider for me, it’s been very nice and I’ve found happiness with this team and this bike but it’s opened my mind in many aspects of life. It’s because I’m living here, no? Then you start to open your mind about what you can do after racing, how you can prepare and you start to see many options here, which is so nice. Maybe some school! (laughs).
UM: You’re now in your second season with the AMA/FIM MotoAmerica Road Racing Championship and you’ve become familiar with the organization here. What kind of things do you think that you presence brings to the paddock?
Elias: Well, I think my experience is different because of my time in MotoGP. My mentality goes further because I can see the big, big potential in the championship because the country is powerful. The country is powerful; we have NASCAR, we have Supercross, we have Indy Car. I’ve been to these races just to see – they’re huge. Lots of people love it and my mind says, “why not MotoAmerica? Why can’t it arrive at this level?”
In the beginning I could see people loved to see me come here and win races but in a lot of ways, it was like – the enemy is here! We would like to see the American riders to beat him! I understand that but I want the fans to see me as a helper. I’m here to make this championship grow, with me, with Roger, with Cameron with Josh, with all the other riders. You have lots of very good riders like Josh Herrin, Bobby Fong, Jake Lewis, Danny Eslick, Kyle Wyman, and Mathew Schultz – there is big potential! We just need the manufacturers to come.
If Honda, Ducati, and Kawasaki came to the championship, all these riders will be able to fight with Suzuki and Yamaha. We’ll be a huge group fighting for the victory, which will create a different show. The good thing right now is that we have beIN Sports. Now it’s on TV! If we create a good show, I’m sure it’s better than NASCAR or Supercross. We just need to grow more!
I’m here to help grow this championship. If the TV producers need some ideas, I’m open. If MotoAmerica need some ideas, I’m open. Yesterday we were talking about the championship with Wayne Rainey, talking about tires for the future. I believe the way is very clear. We can see in one fast lap that the WSBK are a little faster but in a rhythm, the lap times are very close. That means that our level and our bikes are very good. We just need to improve some of the details.
I’m also here to help the future American riders. We’ve been talking with Wayne about this. I know the Spanish and European system and why there are so many Spanish riders in MotoGP. It’s very simple, it’s the base. We need to work with the kids when they are 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 – after that, it’s too late. I think now, we know this. We will start promoting those ideas, trying to get American kids to move in that direction.
UM: Sounds good. We appreciate your time, Toni!
Elias: No problem, thank you!