Is Cruthclow ready to join the elite?

Cal Crutchlow’s superb start to the 2012 season has prompted the perception of the Englishman to change markedly. Having underperformed last year he is now viewed by many in the paddock as the rider most likely to break into the leading ranks and finish on the rostrum.

While Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa have monopolised the podium places in the opening three races of the year Crutchlow has shined for the satellite Tech 3 Yamaha squad.

The former World Supersport champion opened the season with a brace of fourth place finishes before finishing fifth last weekend inPortugal. Having struggled for much of last season to adapt to the rigours of MotoGP he has been one of the biggest surprises of the current season.

As a rookie Crutchlow showed promise on occasions but a fractured collarbone at his home Grand Prix put him on the back foot for much of the year. Having been outclassed by his more experienced teammate Colin Edwards it seemed that Crutchlow would be another Superbike rider who couldn’t translate his speed onto a prototype.

Tech 3 clearly felt that other options were more attractive with the team announcing late last year that Bradley Smith would graduate from the Moto2 class to the team in 2013. In effect Crutchlow was put on notice to impress this year or else find himself on the unemployment line.

With Andrea Dovizioso, a former 125cc world champion, joining the French team as Crutchlow’s teammate for 2012 it became apparent that the Englishman would be facing an increasingly challenging situation for his second year in the Grand Prix paddock.

A change in regulations however has completely revitalised Crutchlow with the new 1000cc machines suiting his style in a way that the 800cc bikes never did. The previous generation of MotoGP bikes placed a premium on riders achieving metronomic consistency. Finding the right braking point time after time and turning in at the same moment became the key to unlocking the potential of the machine.

For an aggressive rider like Crutchlow it was the antithesis of his style of riding and with no experience of prototype machinery he struggled to adapt. In the dog-eat-dog world of MotoGP any weakness is immediately set upon by rivals and a struggling rider can instantly fall into a cycle of underperformance.

The new bikes however gave Crutchlow the chance to ride a bike that allowed his ability to come to the surface for the first time. When Jorge Lorenzo was asked following the Spanish Grand Prix about his fellow Yamaha riders improvement he said, “the 1000cc gives more opportunities to riders like Cal who is more comfortable on it.”
“He is more aggressive and can push on mistakes with it,” commented Yamaha’s 2010 champion. “Whereas with the 800cc if you brake too late you can lose half a second with a mistake, with the 1000 maybe a tenth. Cal has had great races and with the 1000 he seems faster.”
Having taken front row starts at both theQatar and Portuguese Grand Prix it is clear that the one lap pace that marked his rookie World Superbike season is once again able to come to surface this year. InJerez however Crutchlow also showed tremendous maturity and consistency to hold onto the coattails of Pedrosa to finish fourth and comfortably ahead of his teammate, Dovizioso.

The Italian had been expected to comfortably be the team leader at Tech 3 and use it as a stepping stone to the factory Yamaha squad for next season. With Ben Spies enduring a nightmare start to the season there is definitely a potential opening alongside Lorenzo for next season but it is now far from certain that Dovizioso would be the favourite for the ride.

Having finished over 30s behind Lorenzo at each this season Spies is under pressure from Yamaha to get results and it is starting to show. When asked about the rumours linking Dovizioso to his ride the American told The Dundalk Democrat, “I don’t care. Dovizioso has been in the series about triple the time that I’ve been here and he’s had his chance at factory seats.”

With Crutchlow now riding at such a high level the pressure is set to rise even further on Spies and with Crutchlow having replaced Spies at the factory Yamaha World Superbike team in 2010 history could repeat itself next year in MotoGP. The Englishman’s tremendous start to the year now makes him a potential podium threat and has placed him very well to be in a position for a factory ride next season.

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