Moto Media

Catch-up with Aleksandr Tonkov

Honda Pro Racing's Media Office talked to Aleksandr, to see how he ended up back in the World Championship after his plans to go to America, and what the difference has been this year to become a regular podium contender.

Aleksandr, following on from a good year with Gariboldi Honda, we all expected to see you racing the American Nationals as planned for this year, but you unexpectedly appeared in Qatar at the start of the season. What happened with the American idea and your pre-season?

"It’s complicated. Firstly we decided with my sponsor ESTA to go to America for the outdoors and everything was in place, so we knew the season wouldn't start until July. I was home for a few months doing nothing after the end of the World Championship, but then we had some problems with the team and we ended up planning to be back at the GP’s - by this point the Gariboldi option was gone. It was hard for the first few races, as I had only three weeks training before the opening event in Qatar, this was because of the plan changing at last minute, so I had very little time to prepare. By round three in Valkenswaard, The Netherlands I was feeling much better, but it’s taken a few races to catch up. Then after that in training I broke my elbow landing on someone’s bike, and although I didn’t crash, I cracked the elbow with so much pressure going through my arms. I had another month off the bike, which was hard, because we were already down on bike time.”

You’re looking stronger this year physically, what’s the difference from last season?

"After the injury I was so angry, because we were coming back strong until that point. So I said ‘okay, now we must work really hard’ because time is getting on. I’m 19, and the years are passing by, so I’m aware that I really need to make it happen now. I feel much better this year than last year; maybe I’m more confident, especially with knowing the tracks, the people, and also the bike is good. My brother is with me as well all of the time with the training, and a lot of my good feeling is with my manager. Last year I was alone a lot, even when I went training on the bike, so nobody could see my mistakes or where to improve, but now they follow me and Bader Manneh is my manager, friend, boss and possibly second dad!”

It must be good to have a native speaking Russian and some family with you. Tell us about your brother’s role?

"My brother used to race, and has been in the European championship as well as at the grands prix events, so he can help with the training and he understands. I asked him to stop his racing this year to help me; we are a private team on the side of the J-Tech team and it is good to have him beside me to help achieve the goals.”

Can you tell us how the J-Tech Racing deal came about and how it works?

"When we decided to go racing we made everything ESTA, which is my sponsor, so everyone knows we are in control of what we do. At the moment we don’t have the structure for a team; no truck, or awning, and to go to all the races alone would be very expensive. We made a deal with J-Tech and they bring my bikes to the events, as well as providing a working area for me. Really we just rent the place in the awning, as everything else we control ourselves, but we’re very grateful for what J-Tech have allowed us to do.”

What is ESTA?

"ESTA is an energy company in Russia, but they have a motorsports arm, which also has a Ferrari team. The boss is really passionate for motorsport, particularly car racing and motocross, but he really wants to get Russians back at the top level. Many years ago there were a lot of top Russian riders doing well, but it’s improving again now. We have me, Bobby and Brylyakov at the races and it’s nice that we can get the good results. ESTA is working on this, and they want the best for me. They aren’t just providing me with finance, they have a big involvement with what I do.”

Where do you live now?

"That’s a good question! Sometimes I live in Italy, sometimes in Belgium. I think I’ll be moving back to Belgium in the summer, as the tracks are dry and it’s so hot in Italy right now. We rent a house in Belgium and we have an apartment in Italy. I really like Belgium, but Italy is also like a home, as I’ve been there from 2010. I’ve only had three months in the last three years in Russia, apart from when I was injured, so it’s a long time away from my real home. The season is starting earlier and earlier, so when I go home in October I normally need to be back in Europe by November to start training.”

Do your parents come to watch you?

"It’s pretty complicated to be honest. With the need for the visa, and the flight and so on, it’s difficult for them to come. I don’t live near Moscow, in fact it’s 2000 km away, so to fly to Italy is like flying to New York. My parents both work, so they don’t visit the races, but we keep in regular contact.”

Do you miss home?

"I moved from home when I was just 11 to do the Russian championship, and my brother was with me, as he was also racing. It was really difficult. I had to think about the food, how to eat, how to live, sleep and so on. For sure I miss my parents, but it’s a lot easier now, especially with the technology to talk and see each other. Sometimes I do just want to see my mum, and when I’m tired I’d like a hug and some home food, but it’s okay in the long run.”

From the start of the season we’ve heard of a lot of bike improvements for you this year. Just how competitive do you think your CRF250R is?

"For sure the bike can be on the podium, as we missed out on third in France by one point, then a certain podium in Italy if I hadn’t made such a big mistake over the line. For sure with the riding the bike is very important, but I really like the Honda. It’s my second year and we’ve made a lot of improvements to make it better from last year. I really like it; it’s a comfortable bike and we’ve now found the power, so if everything comes together then it’s definitely possible to be at the front. Despite what a lot of people say, there’s not such a big difference in performance with the KTM; we are very close.”

Do you think you can beat runaway championship leader Jeffrey Herlings?

"I think it’s possible. It won’t be easy, as he is in such good shape, and he’s really fast, but everything is possible. I can’t say it can happen right now, or tomorrow, but I don’t race to finish second, and this is what I work for. I don’t think like ‘oh Herlings is the best so I don’t need to work to beat him.’ I raced him in the past in 85’s and in those times we had good battles, but in 2010/2011 I didn’t have an easy time with the team, whereas he was already a factory rider. I lost a little confidence, and pace, so he’s grown quicker, but I do believe I can beat him. I have started feeling comfortable now, and I’ve led some races. My speed is okay, my passing is okay, and physically I feel good, so it’s about making it work together.”

So in an overview what can you say about the year so far?

"We changed a lot of the problems from last year. We have seen the weak areas, and I am enjoying the training. It’s really important to enjoy it, and I really like the plan. It’s not that hard, but it’s not that easy, so I always feel good. Before, in the past, I didn’t like the training, and I was doing it because I needed to do it, but now we can see the improvements in the riding, it makes it worthwhile. The podium is the next step; I am happy and relaxed, so I have a good feeling. Sure I am still learning, and sometimes my determination can make some problems like in Italy, but I also have the right people around me with the right experience at grand prix level. Bader won GP's and had podiums so he helps me with the lines or how to be around the track and I feel that I have the full package now to go further.”

Copy and images courtesy of the Honda Pro Racing Press Office