Motorcycle fans here at Silverstone this weekend are talking the P-word – as in "podium" – but their hero Cal Crutchlow is taking a more downbeat line. "My main aim this year is to just to get on the grid, rather than be watching the race from a hospital bed," he said.
The 26-year-old Coventry rider was referring to his tumble from grace on the Northamptonshire circuit last year, when he crashed his Yamaha YZR-M1 in practice for the British MotoGP and broke a collarbone. The incident happened only six races into a 17-round season, and led to a crisis of confidence that saw Crutchlow finishing 11th in his debut year in motorcycle racing's equivalent of F1.
But now there's a new Crutchlow on the block, one that emanates confidence and desire. "We're racing a lot better a lot better now, and we're a lot more consistent," he said. "I had a difficult season last year, and we've come back from that."
Crutchlow uses the regal "we" not because he is suffering from a bout of jubilee-inspired pomposity, but as an acknowledgement to his Monster Yamaha Tech3 team, who are nurturing both his head and his bike. Right through the darkest moments of 2011, his experienced crew chief Daniele Romagnoli continued to believe in him.
"I saw in this rider a very great potential," Romagnoli said. "He really is a braveheart rider. He likes the fight, and he never gives up. What he did last year was pretty normal for a rider in his first season in MotoGP."
Tech3's faith in the Brit is now paying off: Crutchlow is enjoying a sensational start to the season that has seen him qualify on the front row three times in five races, and achieve two fourth-place and two fifth-place finishes. "My lowest position so far this year has been eighth, when I fell off at Le Mans in the wet and got back on," he points out. "Last year I would have bought an eighth place."
But for Crutchlow to climb on to the podium after tomorrow's 20-lap contest on the 3.6-mile circuit, he will have dethrone one of MotoGP's big three – points leader Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha, reigning champion Casey Stoner, and the Spaniard Dani Pedrosa, the latter two on Honda's RC213V.
Does he know what he has to do to beat them? "No, or else I'd be there. The guys at the front are so incredibly fast, they make no mistakes, and they're all world champions. But I don't think we're that far away."
Romagnoli is a little more sanguine. "Cal needs to do nothing more than he is already doing," he said. "Fourth or fifth – that is enough. If we try too much for the podium, it's easy to make mistakes."
And a racing faux-pas would be so easy to commit on a weekend of capricious British weather when not even the savviest team manager can predict whether tomorrow will produce glorious June sunshine or a monsoon cloudburst.
It made the stomach curdle to see Crutchlow splashing through puddles of standing water in yesterday's damp practice session on his 1000cc, four-cylinder Yamaha at up to 180mph.
The bike unleashes 280 horsepower at the twist of the throttle and hits 60mph in 2.2 seconds (Britain's most popular car, the Ford Fiesta, takes up to 14 seconds for the same job). The Yamaha is also festooned with electronic protective devices to soften the power delivery, limit wheelspin, and keep the front wheel on the ground on a missile that constantly wants to rear skywards.
"The bike's not a robot – you can still crash the thing," Crutchlow said. "The electronics are more of an aid. You still have to control the throttle."
Crutchlow is now in fifth place in the championship, five points ahead of the MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi, who is struggling to develop his Ducati Desmosedici GP12 into a podium performer. A more pressing problem for Crutchlow is trying to land a place on the MotoGP grid in 2013 in a complicated market that is as crowded as a job centre in Athens.
There's only one vacancy left in both the official Yamaha and the satellite Tech 3 squads, and a queue of riders trampling on each other's throats to try and fill the seats. Reigning champ Stoner is retiring after this year, so maybe there is a gap with Honda. Ducati are apparently eyeing up Stoner, but who would commit their future to a bike that's proving as slippery as an Italian politician?
"I'll be in MotoGP next year, but I might be changing tyres," Crutchlow joked. No way will that happen: if he can follow the advice of guru Romagnoli, he could be getting used to climbing the podium.
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