Cal Crutchlow’s MotoGP triumph in Brno deserves Olympian acclaim | Richard Williams

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For some, the imminent blizzard of damehoods, knighthoods and other honours for Britain’s medal winners in Rio will serve as a sharp reminder that John Surtees – the only man in history to have won world championships on two and four wheels – continues, at 82, to be denied the title bestowed upon Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss, not to mention Sir Philip Green.

Silverstone’s grandstands and grass banks will be full of enthusiasts to witness next week’s MotoGP meeting, but motorbike racing has never enjoyed much in the way of status in Britain, even though the top international formula was dominated for several decades not only by Surtees but also by Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, Phil Read and Barry Sheene. So it was no surprise when Cal Crutchlow’s success at Brno last weekend – the first for a British rider since Sheene’s win in Sweden 35 years ago – went widely unnoticed, drowned in the acclaim for various homeward-bound tumblers, pedallers, trampolinists, divers and dressage artists.

In terms of the motor sport hierarchy, it’s a class thing. Formula One draws royalty and celebrities to its paddocks, even at unlovely Silverstone. MotoGP enjoys no such glamorous patronage, which is very much to its benefit in some respects, ensuring an absence of pomp and pretension. Unfortunately sponsors and broadcasters tend to be attracted by those very qualities, which is largely why MotoGP finds itself tucked away in the TV schedules and failing, at least in Britain, to enjoy much coverage in newspapers, including this one.

A maiden victory for the 30-year-old Crutchlow, midway through his sixth season in the top tier, is not going to change that overnight. Despite being totally overshadowed by the events in Rio, however, his achievement was worthy of a place alongside any of them, being the reward for a combination of skill, courage, persistence, and sheer racecraft at the highest level of international competition. And very spectacular it was, too.

Racing on the Brno circuit goes back to 1930, and until 1948 the original 19-mile track ran through eight villages on public roads combining asphalt and cobbled surfaces.

Bikes started racing there in 1950, on a circuit reduced to 11 miles. The first British winner of the 500cc race was Dickie Dale, a former RAF flight mechanic, in 1958. John Newbold, the son of a Derbyshire butcher, was the last, in 1976. The modern permanent circuit, which lies within the perimeter of the old one but does not use any of its roads, came into being in 1987. At 3.3 miles, it is reckoned to be a long lap by current standards, and certainly a demanding one.


John Surtees practising at Monza in 1957. The only man to have won world championships on two and four wheels deserves greater honours. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Crutchlow won last Sunday’s Grand Prix of the Czech Republic because he responded to difficult conditions by taking a risk. Heavy rain had fallen all morning, stopping an hour before the race was due to begin. The track was still wet when the riders left the pits but the vast majority of the riders started on the softer of the two wet-tyre compounds, believing that it would soon dry out and they would be able to switch to bikes fitted with intermediate or slick tyres.

One or two compromised, with a soft tyre at the front and a hard one at the back. Crutchlow, however, opted for the harder rubber at both the front and rear of his privately entered Honda, knowing that he would sacrifice grip early on but feeling that if the track dried only slowly, his tyres would offer longer life and the chance of lasting through the full 22 laps.

He paid an immediate price, dropping from 10th on the grid to 15th at the end of the first lap as others exploited the grip from their softer rubber. But within a few laps he started to make up places, finding that as the track gradually dried he was able to get his tyres closer to their operating temperature. His progress was so rapid that by lap 16 he had overtaken the leading trio of Ducatis – Andrea Iannone, Scott Redding and Andrea Dovizioso – into a lead that he would never relinquish. Valentino Rossi briefly had his Yamaha within five seconds of the Englishman, but took the flag with a seven-second deficit.

To sweep past the Ducatis, which had finished first and second in the preceding Austrian GP, must have given Crutchlow particular pleasure. He endured a painful season with the Italian team in 2014, joining them after three promising years with the Tech 3 Yamahas in the perfectly reasonable belief that only a full works organisation could offer him the chance of grand prix victories. The season quickly went sour and it was not until a month after the announcement that August that he would be leaving the team at the end of the year that a third place in Aragon gave him his only podium on the troublesome Desmosedici.

While the Ducatis have since improved dramatically, Crutchlow has gradually recaptured the zest of his Tech 3 years. In his second season on a Honda entered by the Monaco-based LCR team, once again he is a dangerous underdog. But for a poorly timed pit stop, he would have won last month’s German GP. The win at Brno does not mean that he is now going to start dominating the likes of Rossi, Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo on their factory-entered machines, but it does represent the visible flowering of the promise that he showed when making the difficult transition from Superbikes to the top tier five years ago.

Crutchlow has never had the fastest machine in the MotoGP field, and sometimes he exceeds the limit in an attempt to compensate for a performance deficit. During last Saturday’s practice session he crashed and destroyed one of his bikes. His team worked until past midnight to build up a replacement. How the mechanics feel about that usually depends on how the rider responds on the track.

Whether on two wheels or four, wet conditions offer the ultimate test, and Crutchlow has shown on many occasions that he welcomes the challenge. His success on Sunday reminded me of watching Keke Rosberg at Monaco in 1983, when Nico’s dad took a gamble on starting on slicks in damp conditions in his underpowered Williams-Ford and ran away from the turbo-engined Renaults, Ferraris and Brabham-BMWs, whose drivers all opted for wet-weather tyres.

Those are the kind of wins that stick in the memory. Silverstone is a meteorologically challenging place at the best of times, but on Sunday week there will be no shortage of spectators praying for a spot of rain.

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