Enjoy Cal while you can: Crutchlow retirement loomsby Mat Oxley on 10th September 2019
Cal Crutchlow looks likely to retire at the end of next season because he’s in a lot of pain, which is no big surprise for someone who’s had more than 150 MotoGP crashes
Cal Crutchlow has earned three race victories in MotoGP, the only British rider to win in the last 37 years Photo: MotoGP
Cal Crutchlow most likely has another 27 races to go before he hangs up his lid and leathers.
If he does retire at the end of next season it will be a significant moment for British motorcycle racing, because the Coventry-born rider is the greatest British grand prix rider of the last generation or two and the seventh most successful Briton in grand prix history.
The only riders from these isles to have won more premier-class GPs are Mike Hailwood, Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Barry Sheene, Phil Read and Les Graham, winner of the inaugural 1949 500cc world championship.
Three MotoGP victories isn’t a huge number, but Crutchlow has achieved these successes during grand prix racing’s most competitive era, while riding for a non-factory team, unlike the six Britons ahead of him in the list, who all rode for factory teams: Hailwood (MV Agusta and Honda), Duke (Norton and Gilera), Surtees (MV), Sheene (Suzuki), Read (MV) and Graham (MV).
“I’ve always been a crasher and that’s the way it is,”
In 2009 Crutchlow won the World Supersport title and the following year scored his first World Superbike victories, so he could’ve had a lucrative career in WSB, but at the end of 2010 he decided to risk it all in MotoGP, an unhappy hunting ground for British riders since the days of Sheene.
During the 33 seasons between 1949 and 1981 British riders won 135 premier-class GPs. During the 37 seasons since then, British riders have won three premier-class GPs; all of them Crutchlow’s.
The story is a bit different in World Superbike: in the 31 seasons since the creation of the street-based championship, British riders have won 250 WSB races, more than twice as many as any other nation. WSB has long been a British-dominated championship because Britain started racing streetbikes before the rest of Europe. In 1985 the MCN Superstock championship was created and immediately became Britain’s number-one race series, so when WSB started in 1988 British riders were already in the streetbike groove, while Italy, Spain, Japan and so on were still focused on 500cc and 250cc GP bikes.
Therefore Crutchlow stepped right out of his comfort zone in 2011. And since he graduated to the class of kings, he has done things no other British rider has done in almost 40 years: win races in the premier class and lead the premier world championship.
There is no doubt he has a lot of talent, but his greatest assets are determination and bravery. Since he graduated to MotoGP he’s had 137 crashes, during race weekends, which certainly means he’s fallen off a MotoGP bike at least 150 times; crashes in testing included.
“I’ve always been a crasher and that’s the way it is,” he told me a while back.
Indeed. After Crutchlow contested the 2000 and 2001 Aprilia Superteens championship series principal Ian Newton had this to say about him. “Cal’s big thing was always his determination. He would crash his brains out and the crashes didn’t seem to knock him at all. Very, very few guys can do that.”
That’s certainly true. He’s as tough as they come. “A gritty little boxer type – get stuck in and have a go,” added Newton. But there’s no gain without pain. There’s a whole lot of agony in those 150 or so crashes, which is the main reason Crutchlow is considering retirement when his current HRC contract expires at the end of 2020.
“This isn’t about me thinking I’m getting slower, it’s more about my body hurting,” he says. “My body hurts. Not just because of last year’s crash [his 140mph get-off at Phillip Island’s Turn One in October], but in general. I don’t know how long I can keep dealing with that, year in year out, instead of having a bit of a normal life."
A scan of Cal Crutchlow's ankle after his crash at Phillip Island in 2018
Worst of all are the ongoing nerve problems caused by his huge accident at Phillip Island last October, which left him with a badly mashed right ankle.
“I need one of those stairlifts at home,” he adds. “I think the problem is the metalwork pushing against the nerves and tendons. If you read other people’s experiences of the same injury I had they say it’s wrecked their life and they’ve not had a normal life since. I’m still racing a motorcycle and still living a great life, but I’m in pain. The nerves are really, really hurting me.
“I’ve got three plates and ten screws in there. When I push down it’s so painful you can’t imagine. It feels like raw meat. I can take nerve painkillers, but when I got home last from Australia I stopped taking them because I knew I’d get addicted.
“Earlier this year I had five months when the foot was fantastic. Then since Sachsenring it’s got really bad again. But it’s not just that – my shoulders hurt, my arm hurt and my knees hurt too.
“I want to do normal stuff, I want to take my daughter to school, I want to play with her. I want to be able to walk in a straight line, which I can’t at the moment."
Crutchlow may be seven years younger than Valentino Rossi, but there’s no doubt that he’s in worse physical shape. He’s scarred and limping, a bit like the old 500 superheroes whose bodies paid heavily for their glory.
“Someone my age might not have any pain and be fine. Valentino is still going at 40, but I feel… a bit different. I also feel I’ve given my absolute all to the sport. And if my 100 per cent isn’t enough to win the MotoGP world title, then so be it, I can accept that. I feel I’ve given 100 per cent every lap of every race. I’ve enjoyed my career, with all the ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change it… Well, I’d change the fact that I’ve missed a few podiums here and there.”
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Crutchlow has always talked the talk as well as he’s walked the walk. He comes across on TV as cocky, but that’s all part of the character he plays in MotoGP: the chippy underdog, always talking himself up, always up for a fight, always bubbling over with self-belief.
Some people reckon Crutchlow’s self-belief verges on delusion, and they’re probably right. But sometimes that’s what it takes: unless you convince yourself you can do something then you’re never going to achieve it. Fooling yourself into believing you can do the impossible has always been part of making it in motorcycle racing.
And yet Crutchlow’s tone has changed recently. MotoGP gets fiercer with each season, with tighter competition demanding more risk-taking and a weekend format that forces riders to lay it on the line in more sessions than not. Nowadays it’s just about impossible to have a good race unless you qualify well and you won’t qualify well unless you’re at the sharp end of FP2 and FP3, which determine your graduation to the Q1 and Q2 qualifying sessions.
“I’m faster in races but I’m not as fast over one lap,” he explains. “I find it easier to race than I do to hang it out for those three or four laps at the end of FP2 and FP3. I’ve pushed [Andrea] Dovizioso to change the rule [the FP/Q1/Q2 regulation] because he’s my age, so he’s feeling it as well! We should be able to work – we want two 45 minute sessions to work [on bike set-up], then go at it.”
Of course, MotoGP’s pitiless format is the fault of us all, to an extent. Specifically, it’s the responsibility of the sensation-hungry world of television, a fact that’s not lost on Crutchlow.
“The problem is that everyone wants the TV show, so it’s your fault!” he grins, nodding towards a couple of TV commentators. This is something he has always enjoyed doing – taking the mick out of the media.
He continues in this vein by suddenly contradicting much of what he’s just said.
Will Crutchlow hang his leathers up after 2020? Photo: Motorsport Images
“I’m not saying I am going to retire. What happens next year if I’m not feeling any pain and I’m leading the championship? Things will change again. Put it this way, I don’t need to race. I race because I love racing and I keep coming back because I love the sport and I keep giving my all.”
Next month when Crutchlow travels to Phillip Island for the Australian Grand Prix he will visit the Melbourne surgeon that undertook the two operations to fix the ankle after his October 2018 crash.
The big question he wants answered is this: should he remove the metalwork at the end of this season or not?
“I think the metalwork needs to come out, but I don’t want to take it out at the end of the year. I need to but I don’t want to, because it means I won’t be able to race at the start of next season.
“To take out the metalwork they have to move those nerves again, so how do I know how the nerves are going to react to that movement? That’s the big worry. Surgeons say it could be two weeks and you’ll have no pain, or it could be two years. I’ll only have seven weeks [between the last test of 2019 and the first test of 2020], which means I’ll have to go through the same as I did last winter, which was a nightmare. Fifty per cent of me wants to take out the metalwork at the end of this season and 50 per cent doesn’t.”
That’s the big question Crutchlow must answer soon.
The big question British fans must answer is this: who will carry British hopes in MotoGP after he retires?