Motorsport in Great Britain is part of the national fabric; this, after all, is the nation that hosted the first Formula One World Championship race in the now-positively sepia year of 1950. Six decades later, 10 World Champions, 14 Driver’s Titles and 37 Constructor’s Championships belong to the ‘Sceptred Isle’, a nation that unequivocally remains the Silicon Valley of F1.
While Hawthorn, Moss and later Stewart and Hunt conquered the 4-wheel world, Surtees, Duke, Hailwood, Read and Sheene did the same for Britain in the top-flight 500cc Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing series. Indeed, John Surtees even switched allegiance and stamped his authority on Formula One by winning the 1964 World Championship at the wheel of a Ferrari.
At the 1981 Swedish Motorcycle Grand Prix, Barry Sheene took the 23rd and last win of his illustrious career. Since then, the Union Flag has been conspicuous by its continued absence from the World Championship rostrum.
Will it take a 27 year old from Coventry to put that straight?
At first glance, he looks as far from the contemporary image of a future World Champion as you can get. Calvin ‘Cal’ Crutchlow doesn’t sit symmetrically alongside the groomed and mentored personalities of Marc Marquez and Sebastian Vettel. Not for him the backing of multi-million pound drink companies and factory outfits like Honda and Yamaha. There’s something about the Midlander’s apparent ease and willingness to make a mockery of himself that belies the true steel and grit that lay beneath the leathers.
Crutchlow wasn’t even a Sheene-admirer as a child. Until the age of 11, the Englishman was a convinced football fanatic, even earning trials with Coventry City and Aston Villa as a youth. In his own words, one day he ‘realised I didn’t want to get wet on a football field every Saturday. So I decided to get wet on a bike instead.’
The die was cast, and Crutchlow duly won the UK Junior Challenge in his freshman year of 1999. The British SuperSport title followed, rewarded with British Superbike rides in 2007 and 2008 that garnered enough attention to net him a place on the World Superbike grid in 2010.
3 wins and 5th in the championship table at his first attempt (not counting a trio of contested races in 2008) brought him to the attention of ex-racer Hervé Poncharal and his Tech 3 outfit and the Briton found himself catapulted into the big time lights of the Moto GP world. Although 2011 was largely a quiet season in the midfield, Crutchlow seized a superb 4th at the closing race of the year in Valencia. 2012 merely accelerates the rise through the ranks and a maiden podium in Brno. Another followed in Australia and Cal Crutchlow had unmistakeably thrown his hat into the racing ring.
On to 2013; 2nd on the grid in Qatar was converted to a 5th place by the flag. Austin was a 4th, followed by another 5th in Jerez. The break through was Le Mans; in a race dominated by dismal weather and high profile crashes (Valentino Rossi was just one victim) Crutchlow never wavered and took a career best 2nd. Forget the fact he had a broken leg – a trifling inconvenience. 3rd was his reward for overcoming a painful qualifying accident in Mugello, until his season appeared to take a sudden nosedive with a clumsy crash in Catalunya. Yet in Holland he was back – and in what form.
The first British pole position in a decade was barely mentioned in the national press. Even less so Crutchlows’s gritty recovery from a duff start on Saturday to claim 2nd behind the rejuvenated Rossi.
Why is Crutchlow special? His results give the hard basis to his claim as Britain’s next Motorcycle World Champion, but the most impressive aspect is his mastery of what is, essentially, a ‘hired’ bike.
His Yamaha YZR-M1 is essentially the same as the machines ridden by World Champions Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, but its satellite nature excludes it from the kind of dedicated factory tuning and support enjoyed by the Italian and Spaniard. The differences in a sport where 0.5 of a second can mean the difference between 1st and 10th are hidden deep within the frame of the bike, but they do exist within its bowels. Crutchlow’s YZR-M1 has duelled with the best from Honda, Yamaha and Ducati on a regular basis and comfortably out-distanced key rival satellite riders Stefan Bradl, Álvaro Bautista and Aleix Espargaró.
In an age dominated by Spanish and Italian riders, the Coventry born rider has provided a refreshing change to the mix and revitalised what is a niche, but fanatically-followed sport in the UK. With BBC Sport losing the rights to television coverage at the end of the 2013 season, following his exploits and path to (we hope) the World Championship crown will be much harder. But if you have an ounce, a grain of the determination of the Midlander, you will be watching in 2014 and beyond, as Cal Crutchlow takes the fight to the best.