It has been a very tough year for Cal Crutchlow. Coming off the high of 2013, the year in which he scored four podiums, finished fifth in the championship, and looked certain to score his first win in MotoGP, his season in Ducati has been a massive challenge. Technical malfunctions, crashes, and a battle to find a way around the chronic understeer which plagues the Desmosedici. Crutchlow lingers in the middle of the pack, not fighting at the sharp end. This was not the season which Crutchlow had envisaged when he signed for Ducati.
At Aragon, ahead of the fourteenth race of the season, we caught up with Crutchlow, to talk about his year so far, his expectations for next year, and how he manages to keep his morale up through such a difficult period. Cal Crutchlow gave a candid and honest account of his season, not shirking the blame, and speaking openly of the fears and doubts which plague a professional motorcycle racer when they go through a season as tough as this. He opened a window into a side of racing which is not often talked about, and marks his courage as both a rider, and as a human being.
The interview went on for so long that we have had to split it up into three parts, which will appear over the next few days. In the first part of the interview, he speaks of his battle to adapt to the Ducati, and of 2014 being his toughest year in MotoGP so far. In the second part of the interview, he delves into the dark side of his year, of the struggle to maintain his morale while the results are not coming. And in the final part of the interview, he talks about how mental strength is the decisive factor in motorcycle racing, and discusses Jack Miller's ascent to MotoGP.
MotoMatters.com: You said 2011 was one of the toughest seasons you've ever had. Is this one tougher? Or easier because you know that it could be worse?
Cal Crutchlow: I think first and foremost, when I came to Ducati, I thought I could make it work, I thought I could ride the bike how it needed to be ridden. As every rider does in this situation, I think every rider has to believe in themselves and believe that they can do it.
I didn't know the situation until I rode the bike, sure, but would I say it's worse than 2011? Yes, because I'm expected to do well now, and in 2011 I wasn't. I wanted to do well in 2011, that was the difference. Not that I don't want to do well now, but I mean in 2011, I expected myself that I would just turn up and be competitive, because I'd been at the front in World Superbikes, and it really wasn't the case. But if you look at the results, I probably had better results in 2011 than I have now.
The pace is faster now, so it's difficult to take. There's more bikes that are competitive, there's more riders that are more competitive now than they were then, but I'd say this year was tougher, because I know what I'm capable of. In 2011, I didn't know what I was capable of, I just thought that I was getting my arse handed to me by other riders, which I was. But now, after, I'm not saying I know how easy it was in the last two years to be competitive, but I could be competitive more consistently, more easily, whereas now, it feels like I'm riding 70% harder and I'm nowhere near competitive. So yeah, I'd say this year's tougher.
MM: How have you tried to adapt to the bike? Obviously we know the Ducati has understeer, it's the first problem which every new rider talks about. You have taught yourself to become a corner speed rider, how did you cope with not being able to do that?
CC: The Ducati is very different from what I've been used to riding. It's as simple as that. And I think that I haven't adapted my style perfectly to it. At the start of the year, when I first started to ride the bike, and for the first five races, I was adamant I wasn't going to change my style, because as I'd said a few times before, I'd spent three years trying to learn to ride like Lorenzo, and I'd never mastered it, but I'd got close, and a lot better than what I was when I first started. And Daniele [Romagnoli], my crew chief, taught me to ride like that, I adapted my style to ride like that, and we had some good results on that machine.
So when I came to Ducati, I was trying to carry the corner speed with the bike, and it wasn't capable of doing it. So you have to change your style in the braking, to be so late in the braking, because the Ducati is so strong in the braking zone. Better than any bike I've ever ridden in the braking zone. But that's my weak point; I brake soft initially, hard in the middle, and then let go of the brakes. Whereas the Ducati needs to be ridden, you brake later than where I'm braking, harder, and longer, and into the corner. And I like to be able to release the brake and turn the bike. It was a lot different to what I was used to. So I'm still trying to adapt every time I ride the bike.
The problem I feel I'm facing is that every time we go to a track, the only thing I remember is riding it on another bike. And I believe with Andrea [Dovizioso] last year, that was exactly what he was doing. He'd ridden two different bikes in two seasons, then he came onto a third bike in a third season, and he was trying to ride the bike very much like what I'm doing now. And he was the same sort of distance, the same pace as what I'm doing now. Then he started to understand the bike immediately at the first test this year, and he's just continued that since.
So that's why, you know, if I stayed another year, maybe the same thing would happen to me next year and I'd be a lot more competitive. I'd like to think so. But that doesn't mean I've stopped trying to adapt my style and stopped working, because I haven't. It's just difficult to go to these circuits and ride in the way that I do.
MM: Because it's the same with both Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, it does seem that it takes a year to adapt to the Ducati. Talking to Andrea Dovizioso last year, and he just looked shellshocked, where this year, he's different, he's much more upbeat.
CC: I think it's a similar situation to what I'm in now. And as I said, if I continued and stayed for a second year at Ducati, I reckon I'd be exactly the same [as Dovizioso]. I'm not saying I'd suddenly start winning races and getting podiums, Andrea is probably riding the best I've ever seen him ride in his whole career, as is Iannone, and they're definitely both riding a lot better than me. Their morale's a lot better than mine as well, and you have to believe that half the time, that's worth four tenths.
You know, I looked at the Misano result, and I believe that, I ran off the track quite a few times, I made a lot of mistakes, I lost ten seconds there, I lost ten seconds in the speed of the bike, because they were gaining four tenths on me per lap just on power with their engine, and then I believe the other is about they had a good result the race before, or they had a good few results or they had a good qualifying, to boost your morale or your mentality.
It's so funny, if you go and suddenly, just say I went out tomorrow morning, and I was fastest in the first session, you don't know what that can do for your morale in the second session and the rest of the weekend. As you know, I don't like having the softer tire option for Ducati, but they use that to their advantage, because if they use that and go fast, and go to the front, they sort of carry that momentum throughout the weekend. They know they can be competitive. Whereas I'm reluctant to use it, because you're never going to race it, hardly ever. I think I've raced it once this year. So then, we have to use it over the weekend, because of the rules, we haven't got enough tires otherwise.
So yeah, as I said, the changing the style thing, I've never stopped trying to change my style, and trying to be competitive, but I believe it's difficult to just come to a circuit and suddenly be able to be competitive.
MM: You need to retrain your muscle memory, track memory?
CC: Yes, also at Misano, I really thought Misano would be a lot better because we had had the test there. But then we went there and the Friday was wet, so I thought, maybe that would play into our advantage again, because we'd already had the test there. But then when it turned out the grip level at the track was not the best, it again didn't suit my style as much compared to the others. They just braked later, carried less corner speed, and came out faster. Where when I tried to carry the corner speed and tried to turn the bike, it became difficult.
I think the rest of the year is going to be tough, the other guys have got a lot different package to what I've got. They did even at the last races, but now they've got even more things. It's a strange situation, but Ducati are giving me, my guys in my garage are always working hard, I've no complaints of the machine, of how hard they're working. We're working as best we can with what we've got, and it's as simple as that.