Interview: Cal Crutchlow – The Long Winding Road to Glory

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Cal Crutchlow has not taken the customary route into MotoGP. No racing 125’s in the Spanish Championship, before the inevitable climb up through the Grand Prix support classes to MotoGP. Instead, he took a very sideways path, through BSB, World Supersport, and World Superbike, before encountering a very tough first year in MotoGP.

That circuitous path has stood him in good stead, however. Crutchlow is now on the brink of breaking into the elite circle of riders who have won a MotoGP race in the dry, and his services are in demand. It is surely just a matter of time.

I sat down with Crutchlow at Assen, with the intention of trying to extract the secret of his riding from him. I had a whole line of questions lined up on the technicalities of braking, the mechanics of cornering and how to race a MotoGP bike, but I got distracted by a long and philosophical chat before my recorder was turned on.

By the time we started the interview proper, it went off in a different, but just as fascinating direction. Cal Crutchlow talks about his love for the sport of motorcycle racing, how he got started, how he arrived in MotoGP, and why it is so important to be a factory rider. And why it is so very, very difficult to win a race in MotoGP.

A&R: Why are you a motorcycle racer?

Cal Crutchlow: It’s funny, I said in an interview the other day, I don’t race motorcycles to be famous, I don’t race motorcycles to earn money, as such. It’s my job, and I do earn a salary doing it, but I do it because I love it. And I’d still be racing on a Sunday in a club race if I had to pay for it. If I had to work all week as whatever I was and go club racing on a Sunday, I’d still do it because I love it. So it must be an inbred thing, in my blood, when you see how many racers now had their fathers racing.

And it must be something in the mind, because really, I wasn’t interested in racing motorcycles until I was twelve or thirteen. Whereas, you look at Lorenzo, he’s been racing from when he was one, two. Same with Pedrosa and Marquez and the others, they’re so young. I really wasn’t. I played football, and then I used to go all the time with my dad and I used to ride little PW50s. But I suppose I race because I love it.

I made this comparison with Andy Murray the other day. Andy Murray wants to play tennis, he doesn’t want to be famous. People take that as him not being the most sociable or personable person, or whatever. But it’s not that, he’s just a normal guy. And because he wants to play tennis, and not be famous, people think he’s wrong when he isn’t, he probably just loves his sport. And that’s probably the way I feel a little bit, you race because you love the sport.

A&R: You started riding round PW50s, and then you did some motocross when you were younger?

CC: No. I did nothing until I was thirteen. Then the first lap I ever did round a track, I crashed. And my dad said, ‘this ain’t for you’. I said ‘give me another chance’ and I raced the next day, and I had a first and a second. Bear in mind it was only a nothing race, but I had first and a second in my age group, whatever.

It was at Darley Moor, the challenge that they had there, it was just a kids’ race, basically, and I had a first and a second. Then I kept coming, and the funny thing was there was always some guys who would lap you. By the end of the year, I’d gone from being lapped by this guy, to beating him. So I made decent strides.

And then we were quite fortunate. My Dad, bear in mind he’s no millionaire, he worked hard for what he’d earn, and he’d always paid for his own racing, he was just a privateer, and it was the same for us. My dad had to fund my racing at the start, but luckily over the years, I started to get better, and we didn’t have to fork out as much money, I managed to pick up some good sponsors, but you have to have the character to go and get the sponsors.

My dad would always say he was never able to go and get sponsors, where I could. I could turn around, and I was only 15 or whatever, but I was able to have a connection with guys and do what I needed to do, to be able to say ‘could you pay my tire bill?’ Or fuel, or whatever. Yes, my dad still had to pay for a little bit of the racing, obviously we had to have the expenses to go and that.

But we never had it easy, but luckily I was good enough to start getting some nice rides, and then we went to British championship and I did the Junior Superstock, and I did OK in that, but at the end of the year, I had nothing.

All the other guys went to British Supersport, and I had to go to the R6 Cup. And I guarantee now, still to this day, the best thing that ever happened to me was that I never won that championship. Because the winner had to ride for Rob Mac in British Superbike. Where I finished second, and I got a British Supersport ride. And then I learnt my craft from British Supersport and won the championship.

I think, it’s funny how you look back at your career, and see the way it turned, and the decisions you made, and I always believe I’ve actually made some very very good decisions. And I went from British Superbike to World Supersport …

A&R: Which was an unusual move….

CC: True, but I also went in three years to MotoGP. I went British Superbike, World Supersport, World Superbike, MotoGP. And I don’t know anyone else who’s been able to do that. But I made very clever decisions. If you had asked me in my first year in MotoGP, was it a clever decision, I would have said no, I’d rather go back. But now, if you look at it, I did what most of the World Superbike riders won’t do. It’s take a salary cut, take a risk, and have the determination to do it.

Because they’re happy to sit there, and take a good salary, and not willing to fail. They’re not willing to fail, where at the time I was willing to get my arse kicked, fail, and come back. And that’s what I feel I’ve done. So you know, you have to take a bit of a risk, but if you look at my situation now, it’s much better than it would have been being in World Superbike and trying to get across here. Because in all honesty, it’s very difficult to come across to MotoGP now.

AR&: The question is, as a racer, you just want to win, that’s what drives you. Is it more important to lose against the best, or to win against second best?

CC: And that’s one thing that is so annoying about MotoGP, winning is not easy. I’m not saying it is for the likes of Lorenzo and Pedrosa, but even Valentino now, he’s in a similar situation to me, we’re finishing in the same position, but to win is so difficult [Editor: this interview was done on the Wednesday at Assen, three days before the race]. And before, I could win in World Supersport, I could win in World Superbike, and if I’d stayed in World Superbike for another year, I probably could have had a lot more wins. So the winning aspect is difficult.

You know, I love to win. But I also have personal goals that I think, that’s the same as winning to me. You know, in the end, I think if you win here, and do it, you’ll carry it on. It’s one of them things, as long as it’s not a lucky win. I think if you earn it, and you’re able to win… But it’s difficult to beat these guys. It’s difficult, it’s difficult to swallow that is, because I want to win, and I want to be a winner, but to beat these guys, you’re thinking, how can I win? But I believe it’s possible, I also believe it’s possible on a satellite bike, and if I had a goal, that would be one of the things to achieve.

A&R: To win a race on a satellite bike, a straight up, honest victory?

CC: If I could win on a satellite bike, that would be one of the big things. But winning is so difficult in MotoGP. But finishing against these guys here in the positions I’ve been in, I would not change that to go back to World Superbike and win. Yeah, there’s no feeling like winning, but I’m in a completely different championship, these guys are at a completely different level.

I’ve tried to explain to some people, and they don’t understand until they come to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the championship of World Superbikes, or the caliber of riders, because they are very good, but the guys who are all at the front in World Superbike, really, I’m not saying like Eugene [Laverty] and Tom [Sykes] and Johnny [Rea], but the ones that have been so strong would be Biaggi and Checa and Melandri. If you see their racecraft, and how they pass and stuff like that, it’s no wonder, because they’ve been to MotoGP. But I also think that MotoGP now is a stronger championship again.

A&R: You’ve made such enormous progress since you first arrived, has that been because you’ve set yourself one small goal at a time, those personal goals for yourself?

CC: I don’t know. Obviously after the first year, I had to go away and think about things a lot. Because, even my relationship with the team was tough. Now, it’s the funniest thing, because me and Hervé get on so well, Hervé’s always said, and he still says to me today, do what’s best for you and your family and your career. Because he’s a friend as well as a team manager.

And it’s like, I don’t want to say in motorcycle terms, but if there was a Formula One job available, he’d say ‘go and take it, because that’s better than what I can give you.’ And he would tell me that, but from the time of racing in the first year, I had to go away and think about it, and come back.

The steps we’ve made are because I learned what I had to do. And it wasn’t easy, of course, I was winning in World Superbike, I was strong in World Superbike, and I expected to come here and do the same. It never worked, and obviously I had to take a step back.

But that was something I only learned the first year. And then I came back and was able to do some good results early on last year, and keep the momentum going, but it’s not easy. To make that step again next year, it’s going to be difficult, I can tell you that, but it seems that we’ve done that again from last year to this year, which is nice.

A&R: What do you need to make that extra step? Something in yourself, something on the bike?

CC: I think a bit of both. I know that’s always a cliche thing to say. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before, if you put Lorenzo on my bike, I still believe he’d win. I think it would be more difficult to win the championship, but as I’ve said to you before, it’s not just about the bike, it’s about the way he gets from his house to the airport, from the airport to the track… He’s a factory rider, you know?

They have so many fewer things to worry about in their life than a normal rider does. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but until you’re in the situation, you don’t really realize how little they have to worry about compared to what other people have to worry about.

So, if you put him in this team, would it be different to his team? Of course! Because he hasn’t got 30 people running around after him saying, I’ll tie your shoelaces for you, or this, that and the other. I’m not making an example of Lorenzo, I’m making an example of any factory rider.

So I don’t think it’s just that, I think it’s a combination of a few things, but yeah, definitely, I still have to step up, and knowing the areas, but it’s difficult to change. As I’ve said before, to be able to just click your mind and say, I need to be able to do this, it’s not easy. When you’ve changed so much already? It’s always that last little bit.

Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.