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20 days ago
By Matthew Birt

Birt on the first British win since 1981

Hopefully you can forgive us Brits for grasping the chance at reveling in a rare moment of glory.

With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.

I have a confession to make.

I am a big fan of Cal Crutchlow. Always have been from when I started working with him in 2010 and always will be.

So from a personal and patriotic side in Brno, I was thrilled to see him become the first British rider in 35 years to win a premier class Grand Prix.

Barry Sheene’s 1981 triumph at Anderstorp in Sweden was such a long time ago that Crutchlow wasn’t born until four years later. Prince Charles and Lady Diana married in the UK, MTV was launched and Raiders of the Lost Ark was a massive big box office smash. Yes, it really was that long ago.

Britain’s run without a premier class winner has been such a long drought that Valentino Rossi is the only rider on the current grid that had been born way back then. So hopefully you can forgive us Brits for grasping the chance at reveling in a rare moment of glory.

Crutchlow’s Brno victory was the latest chapter in a remarkable 2016 MotoGP campaign, which has now seen the last six races won by six different riders. Victories have not been shared between so many since 2006 and in three of the last four races, Jack Miller, Andrea Iannone and now Crutchlow have all won in the premier class for the first time. That hasn’t happened since 2006 with Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias and Troy Bayliss.

As I wrote from Assen when Miller won so superbly from Marc Marquez, variable weather conditions can throw up unpredictable results and give an Independent Team and rider a scarce opportunity to hog the headlines. This time around it was Crutchlow who seized the moment. A bold but brilliant decision to race Michelin’s hard front and rear compound rain tyre combination turned out to be the perfect strategy on a track that didn’t dry as rapidly as most had anticipated.

Crutchlow was brave on the grid to opt for the hard tyres and then strong-willed enough to stick to his guns when there were those expressing concern that his choice would blow up in his face. It’s that enormous self-belief and bloody-minded determination that has always been one of the attractions for me of Crutchlow’s character.

Our paths first crossed at the post race MotoGP test at Valencia in 2010 when he made his debut on the Tech 3 Yamaha. I was working for Motor Cycle News in the UK at the time and I’d heard he was a rider with colossal self-confidence. I was told he could be cocky to the brink of coming across as arrogant. And he was certainly not shy when it came to voicing his opinion.

Before he came to MotoGP,  those I spoke to about him likened him to a terrier dog. Wikipedia’s description of a terrier is small, tough, active, fearless, loyal and at times a handful to manage. As a comparison to Crutchlow, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

My research had also led me to be convinced he was a fearless and dedicated competitor who possessed a never-say-die attitude and a burning desire to show he justified his place among the world’s elite.

For a journalist he seemed heaven sent. Seldom would he roll out media friendly sound bytes. Every sentence was a headline, every encounter an unpredictable journey through brutal honesty, self-deprecating humour, and a combination of criticism, glowing praise or mickey taking of rival men and machinery.

Nothing has really changed to be honest and that’s why I like him. He doesn’t pretend to be somebody he isn’t. I don’t always agree with everything he says or how he says it, but there’s never been a dull moment.

Crutchlow’s liking for a cutting or occasional controversial remark is not to everybody’s liking. But I genuinely believe that 99.9% of it is done tongue in cheek and not with a shred of malice. I’m not saying he’s as innocent as a choirboy but he’s not the devil disguised in an LCR Honda shirt either.

A sport needs a hero and a villain and sometimes Crutchlow can multi-task and do both. I think he’s a firm believer in the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and he’s one of the best at self-promotion that I’ve seen in my time in the paddock.

I always laugh when it is contract time in MotoGP because Crutchlow always finds a way to snare column inches for himself. This year it was a link to Repsol Honda that kept him at the forefront of the gossip, even when his results were somewhat uninspiring.

Some have formed an opinion that Crutchlow is over rated. Some think his mouth is faster than his riding and he is too much of a prolific crasher to do what he did last Sunday. The stats prove that he has caused a bit of carbon carnage in his time but I think some people’s view of him as nothing more than a trash talker and crasher is grossly disrespectful.

Ever since he quit a promising football career for two wheels because he kept getting hurt in football (that’s twisted logic for you) he has won in every single category he’s raced in.

I’m not a gambling man, but I’ll wager a small fortune that it will be an awfully long time before his unique feat of winning in British Supersport, British Superbikes, World Supersport, World Superbikes and now MotoGP is matched.

From humble beginnings in the UK Junior Challenge in 1999 to the pinnacle of the sport in MotoGP, Crutchlow has always found a way to win. Crutchlow has always acknowledged that he lacks the God-given talent of a Rossi, Lorenzo or Marquez. His rise through the ranks to a historic success in Brno has been done the hard way. There have been broken bones, broken bikes and broken dreams. I’ve seen how deep he’s had to dig to become Britain’s most successful premier class rider since the glory days of Sheene.

Going back to that first encounter at Valencia in 2010, he’d been less than complimentary about some of the talent in MotoGP and then he got on track with them and got a rude awakening. He quickly realised that even those racing at the back were lightning quick and Crutchlow looked out of his depth.

I recall talking to him at the first test of 2011 in Sepang and he was struggling so much to adjust to the more powerful and more rigid Yamaha YZR-M1 and Bridgestone tyres that I honestly thought he was going to burst into tears mid-conversation.

I think if he could he would have waltzed back to World Superbikes at that time then he would have done so without a moment’s hesitation.

Crutchlow though is no quitter. He knuckled down. He looked deep inside himself, he studied and analysed where and how he could improve and cracked on with the job while cracking the throttle wide open. To prove the critics wrong he would need to use every ounce of his talent to its maximum potential and he did just that.

Such was his tenacity and commitment to establish himself in MotoGP that Crutchlow affectionately became known as The Honey Badger. Just so you know, a Honey Badger is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most fearless creature. It was an appropriate moniker.

There is also the side of Crutchlow that people seldom see. That’s the Crutchlow away from the glare of the camera lens. There’s the devoted and protective husband to wife Lucy and now doting daddy to new daughter Willow. There’s the Crutchlow who took time out from his honeymoon in early 2014 to build a new home for a family in Mexico as part of a charity project.

And I recall when his father Dek used to courier bikes all over the UK and beyond for MCN. If Dek couldn’t do a job or MCN was short on bodies then Cal would come in and ferry bikes around. And this was at a time when he was starting to make big waves in the domestic racing scene.

Some in the MCN office thought he did it just to alleviate boredom and keep himself out of mischief because he was such a livewire personality. Some thought he did it so when his father was unavailable, Cal would step in and make sure any future work for the old man wasn’t jeopardised. Having to come to know him since 2010, I tend to think it was the latter.

He’s funny and loud and genuinely doesn’t care much about what he looks like or what people think of him. I mean, come on, how many MotoGP riders wear Crocs in public? I couldn’t even bring myself to get miffed at him when he’d tweet a photo of me eyes wide shut and mouth wide open when we’d be catching the same early morning flight to a race.

In the last month, Crutchlow has scored his first podium in over a year in Germany, celebrated the birth of his gorgeous daughter Willow and now become Britain’s first premier class race winner since late legend Sheene in 1981.

Life doesn’t get any better than that does it? Well, unless he wins the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.