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22 days ago
By Matthew Birt

Crutchlow: the wizard of Oz

MotoGP™ commentator Matthew Birt looks back at the #AustralianGP

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.

Highlights: Glory for Crutchlow as Marquez crashes out

I’d imagine there are a few people around the world right now having to face up to the prospect of eating a massive portion of humble pie. And at the head of the table getting ready to serve it is Cal Crutchlow.

Go back to mid-July and leading up to the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring when Crutchlow had mustered a miserable 20-points from the opening eight races. That dire run included five races in which he didn’t score a point and he was coming under a barrage of criticism for always talking a good race but never delivering when the lights went out on a Sunday afternoon.

He sat 18th in the World Championship rankings and trailed Danilo Petrucci by four-points, even though the Italian had missed the first four races with a badly damaged right hand injury picked up in a pre-season testing crash in Australia. In the previous round before Germany in Assen, Crutchlow crashed four times and at that stage of the season he seemed to be spending more time lying in the gravel than my daughter’s pet goldfish.

The hashtag Crashlow was starting to appear with increasing regularity on social media and there were some who felt his performances in the first half of 2016 were so abysmal that his contract should have been terminated by LCR Honda before we even got to the summer break.

There was certainly a chorus of disapproval from his harshest critics when it became obvious that he was remaining with Lucio Cecchinello’s Honda project into 2017.

Eight races have been consigned to the history books since Assen and what they will show is a truly remarkable transformation in fortunes for the much-maligned Crutchlow.

In those eight races he has scored 121 points. That’s only four less than he scored in the entire 18-round World Championship schedule last year. Not only has he unlocked the door back to the podium, he is now a MotoGP™ winner. Not once, but twice.

No British rider has won twice in a single season in the premier class since the late legend Barry Sheene way back in 1979. Prior to Sheene, the illustrious list of British talent to win two more races in a single premier class season includes legendary figures like Leslie Graham, who won the first ever 500cc title back in 1949, Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood and Phil Read.

Not bad company to be keeping at all.

The haters will always hate and I’m sure there have been plenty undermining Crutchlow’s controlled and calm ride to victory at Phillip Island because of the demise of new World Champion Marc Marquez.

The Spaniard said the leash was off with the title already in his pocket. He said he could throw caution to the wind but the outcome of that strategy was Marquez throwing his Honda RC213V to the scenery at turn four when he was comfortably clear of Crutchlow on lap 10.

I’ve not spoken to anybody who in the instant Marquez came to a stop in the grass that didn’t think Valentino Rossi was going to hunt Crutchlow down and win. I’ll openly admit that the moment I saw Marquez imploding out of our commentary box position at turn four, I thought I’d be calling in a Rossi win. Rossi was convinced too that with Marquez down and out that he had Crutchlow at his mercy. The Italian made 13 overtakes in a breathless and flawless charge from 15th to second but he could not make the crucial fine one to deny Crutchlow.

And just as he has done so many times before, Crutchlow proved me wrong.

You have to be riding in the form of your life to beat the likes of Rossi, Vinales and Lorenzo in a dry race and Crutchlow is in a moment of his career where he feels like he can walk on water. He rode an immaculate race and never looked like allowing Rossi the chance to get even remotely close to a seventh premier class win Down Under.

Not many people have ridden comfortably away from Rossi in the Italian’s career but Crutchlow did just that for a win that I’m sure tasted sweeter than his first in Brno. His Czech Republic success was stunning but it was in wet conditions that can often make tyre choice a lottery and the outcome as much about survival as speed. Had he never won another premier class race then nobody could have taken that achievement away from him. But there would have always been somebody reminding him that his win was in a wet race.

Crutchlow has now ticked winning in MotoGP™ in a straight showdown in the dry off his bucket list.

No British rider had ever won a Grand Prix in any class in Australia before Sunday and the last time a non-factory team rider triumphed twice or more in the same season was Marco Melandri back in 2006. That was also the same year that Toni Elias became the last non-factory rider to win a full dry race in MotoGP™. That should put some perspective on Crutchlow’s achievement. Crutchlow has now won the same amount of races in 2016 as Rossi and in the last six races he’s won more times in MotoGP™ than Andrea Dovizioso has done in 158 premier class appearances.

Looking back to Sunday, at first glance, Marquez appeared to have been caught cold by plunging temperatures that would have made heat loss in the right side of his hard front tyre selection absolutely critical. Marquez had blown an ever bigger lead back in 2014 when he’d been caught out by quickly decreasing heat in his front tyre at turn 10.

As it was, the freedom to push without the constraints of thinking about the title chase lured him into his first DNF of the season.

What impressed me most about Crutchlow was his reaction to the exit of Marquez. It was in 2014 that he squandered second place on the factory Ducati with a mistake at turn four on the last lap.

He could not have known that it was pilot error on the part of Marquez.

The Marquez crash could have properly spooked him but Crutchlow pushed hard enough to keep heat in his front tyre to avoid a repeat of his 2014 calamity. It was tough to take crashing out of second back then, so imagine the crushing disappointment and deflating experience a tumble out of the lead would have been.

In truth though he never put a foot wrong. There were no heart in the mouth moments and he made the task of keeping Rossi at bay appear relatively easily. Even Rossi had to concede that had he qualified higher than 15th, which was his worst since Germany back in 2011, it was unlikely he could match Crutchlow’s pace.

Crutchlow’s ride in Australia and the way he has bounced back from the adversity and flack he took at the start of the season is proof again of his heart, courage and brain.

So it is quite appropriate that last Sunday he was MotoGP™’s Wizard of Oz.