A Leap In The Dark? Why Cal Crutchlow's Move To Ducati May Be Smarter Than It Looks
The news that Cal Crutchlow has signed a two-year deal with Ducati led to howls of despair from MotoGP fans, especially among those in the UK. Why, they asked, would Crutchlow willingly leave the Tech 3 Yamaha team and the as-near-factory-as-possible M1 to take on the miserable task of taming the Ducati? Why throw away another year on a bike which he knows he can score podiums, and perhaps even wins on, in exchange for riding a bike which has been a proven failure since Casey Stoner last climbed off it and headed next door to the Repsol Honda garage? If Valentino Rossi, the biggest name and most politically powerful rider in motorcycle racing couldn't make the bike competitive, what chance does Crutchlow stand?
Though only Crutchlow himself fully understands the motives behind his choice, he has left plenty of evidence offering some insight into why he has signed for Ducati. Though fans around the world have tried to point to a single reason - usually either money or having a factory bike - the decision-making process is far, far more complex than that. It is a case study of the complex thought process that lies behind the decisions a rider must make when steering his career. With so little time spent at their peak, and so many factors outside of their control, the decisions a rider makes are not as clear-cut and simple as the fans would like them to be.
So why did Crutchlow go to Ducati? There is no easy answer to that question. Crutchlow had a number of options on the table, but not all led to the same goal. His objective, Crutchlow has made it clear on numerous occasions, is to win races and challenge for the title. Winning races requires a competitive bike, and there is no argument that the satellite Yamaha he currently rides is capable of doing just that.
Challenging for a title is more difficult - beyond the argument that the current level of competition makes it virtually impossible in the first place. The priority of every manufacturer is their own factory team, which means the factory team gets all the resources at the factory's disposal. The new parts go to the factory riders first, the factory teams get the best engines, the most support, have the most engineers. When a factory rider has a problem, he becomes that manufacturer's highest priority. When a satellite rider has a problem, that is looked at once the factory engineers are done with the factory riders. Beyond that, there is good reason to believe that manufacturers do not want satellite riders beating their factory riders - above all, it would not impress the factory team's sponsors in the slightest. Just how actively the factories enforce their superiority is up for debate, however.
So if a rider believes he is good enough to win a championship - and the truth is, every single rider on the grid believes that; if they don't, they cannot justify the enormous personal sacrifice they have to make to compete in any form of elite sport - then they want to be in a factory team. Satellite teams are useful as a way station en route to a factory team, or as a substitute when factories are willing to give cast iron guarantees of support. But a ride in a factory team remains the ultimate goal, and any other team is just a stepping stone along the way.
That meant there was no future at Yamaha for Crutchlow. The Japanese factory already have Jorge Lorenzo, arguably the best rider of the moment (at least until Marc Marquez gets up to speed), and their best hope of a MotoGP title. At 26 years of age, Lorenzo has plenty of racing left in him, and shows no sign of retiring until he is into his thirties. He will remain Yamaha's main title challenger for the medium term, until they find another youngster capable of taking his place, just as Lorenzo was drafted in to take Rossi's place.
Yamaha also have Valentino Rossi, clearly still competitive and an icon of the sport. Rossi can still win races, and he can surely still sell bikes, and will continue to be a hugely important marketing asset for Yamaha once he finally decides to retire. In a recent interview with the German website Speedweek, Rossi said he hoped to sign on for another two years after his contract expires at the end of 2014, and it goes without saying that Yamaha will be happy to offer him such a deal. The Yamaha factory team is full for the foreseeable future, or at least until 2017. By then, Crutchlow would be 31, the age at which most motorcycle racers have their best years behind rather than ahead of them.
Crutchlow also had an offer from HRC, with Honda team principal Livio Suppo showing great interest in the British rider. Talks took place on Crutchlow replacing Stefan Bradl at LCR Honda, riding the factory-supported RC213V fielded by Lucio Cecchinello's team. But while Crutchlow could have expected more support at LCR than he could have at Tech 3 - Yamaha's stated policy is to have two factory bikes and two satellite bikes, while Honda has much stronger factory backing for riders in satellite teams - he still would have been playing second fiddle to the Repsol Hondas.
A move into the factory Honda team is almost as hard as making the jump into the factory Yamaha team. At 20 years of age, Marc Marquez has proved to everyone that he is the future, not just for Honda, but for the sport of motorcycle racing as well. He is having a stellar rookie season, and will remain in the factory Honda team for as long as he desires. Dani Pedrosa, too, has a strong foothold at Repsol Honda, despite having so far failed to win a title for the factory. He came very close in 2012, and is probably favorite for the title this year, with MotoGP about to hit the tracks at which Pedrosa did so well at the end of last year. Pedrosa is the rider most likely to retire earlier rather than later, but it seems unlikely he will call it a day at the end of his contract. Just as at Yamaha, there is no room at the Repsol Honda inn for Crutchlow either.
So if Crutchlow wants a factory ride any time soon, his best bet is to go to Ducati. There is a seat available, after the Italian factory decided not to renew Nicky Hayden's contract. Ducati are desperate to get the best talent they can on the Desmosedici, and as his podiums demonstrate, Crutchlow is one of the best in the world.
But a factory Ducati has proven to be a very long way from being competitive, with the factory's last win coming in 2010 in the hands of Casey Stoner, the only man capable of riding round the Desmosedici's frailties. Since Stoner left even podiums have only come in exceptional circumstances, when a wet track or chronic lack of practice time has shaken up the established order. The bike is clearly badly flawed, and in its current incarnation, Cal Crutchlow is unlikely to get so much as a whiff of the podium without the weather gods taking pity on his plight.
Crutchlow's hope is that the bike will improve enough next year for him to be closer to the front. But given the dismal history of the past couple of years, and the bike's long decline since Casey Stoner won the 2007 championship back when Bridgestone could build a tire specifically suited to the Desmosedici, any hope of improvement at Ducati seems optimistic to the point of naivety. After all, if Ducati wouldn't change for Valentino Rossi, why would they change for Crutchlow? Rossi had the power to badly damage Ducati's brand when he spoke out against their inactivity - a power he used very sparingly, and very strategically - because of the status Rossi has. 106 victories, 80 in the premier class, and a total of 9 world titles means that his riding ability is beyond doubt. It was clear the problem was with the bike, and yet Ducati were still incapable of making the changes necessary to turn the Desmosedici into a competitive MotoGP machine. Why would Crutchlow be successful where the most famous motorcycle racer on the face of the planet had failed?
Hopelessly naive? Not necessarily. There are reasons to believe that the situation at Ducati is now very different to the one faced by Valentino Rossi. Very different, in large part precisely because of Rossi's failure at the firm. The fact that Rossi and his crew, led by the experienced Jeremy Burgess, failed to make the bike competitive was proof, if any were needed, that the problem really was the bike.
Rossi arrived at Ducati thinking that the bike only needed a little work to turn it from winning races occasionally in the hands of Casey Stoner to being a genuinely competitive racing machine. After all, if Stoner was capable of regular podiums on the bike, then he, Valentino Rossi, should be able to match those results and lead development in the right direction. Rossi was rudely disabused of any notion of being competitive on the bike the very first time he rode it. It was much, much worse than he thought it was, and he understood that he had underestimated just how much of the Ducati's success was down to Stoner's freakish ability to ride around problems.
That just left the problem of bike development. At Qatar, in an informal chat, a member of Rossi's crew suggested that the state of the Desmosedici was a measure of Casey Stoner's inability to lead bike development properly. Having listened to Stoner at his race weekend media debriefs for the past three years, I was sceptical. I knew that Stoner had been pushing for changes that had simply not been delivered. The bike you start the season with was the bike you ended the season with, he had said repeatedly. This impression was underlined when I was taken aside by a Ducati spokesperson and had emphasized to me just how much Ducati were doing for Stoner. They had brought a set of triple clamps, I was told, with modified flexibility. Compared to the four or more chassis iterations which the Japanese factories were used to throwing at their riders every season, I was unconvinced by Ducati's arguments. By the time Valentino Rossi and his crew left Ducati, they too were unconvinced. Much had changed, more than ever before in the history of the factory, including the abandoning of the frameless chassis concept, but it had been directionless change, all sound and fury but no motion. Ducati was running furiously, while remained firmly rooted to the spot.
In the meantime, however, real change had started to happen. Halfway through what would be Rossi's final year at Ducati, the company was bought by Audi. Though the deal was viewed by most automotive industry insiders as a vanity purchase by Audi boss Ferdinand Piech, there was no doubt that Audi was serious about making a success of the Italian bike manufacturer it had just bought. It took six months for Audi's management to analyze the company, at which point they started to make changes to the organization. Filippo Preziosi, the likable and brilliant engineer who had led Ducati Corse since 1999, was moved aside to make way for Bernhard Gobmeier, a German who had previously been responsible for chassis development at BMW. Alessandro Cicognani was relieved of his role of MotoGP project director, replaced by Ducati's former WSBK chief Paolo Ciabatti.
Less visibly, Audi started to make internal changes at Ducati, focusing on changing working processes and shortening communication lines. That process continues today, despite considerable internal resistance from Ducati Corse's engineering staff who face a radical shake up in their way of working. The rigid hierarchy is slowly making way for a more flexible approach, flattening the organization to make it more efficient. Ducati Corse was known for its technical brilliance and its incredible work ethic, but not for its effectiveness as an organization. That is where Audi is focusing their efforts, but such organizational changes take time. The best case scenario is that it can be done within a year; a more realistic appraisal says it will be two years before Ducati Corse is fully up to speed.
Cal Crutchlow joins Ducati a year after Audi first started making serious changes to the company. He will once again be sharing a garage with his former teammate Andrea Dovizioso, who left Tech 3 at the end of 2012 to become a factory Ducati rider. In a way, Crutchlow's timing is more favorable than Dovizioso's, as the Italian joined just as the organizational changes were starting, while Crutchlow moves to Ducati as they are in full swing. Dovizioso has seen little practical progress, but he has been the victim of his decision to move earlier rather than later. Ducati Corse may have been very busy changing, but the focus has been on the organization rather than the bike.
The new engineering and testing process started at the beginning of the season has seen some changes come to the bike - the new chassis Dovizioso debuted at the Sachenring is the first major step to come out of this process - and there are several more to come. More changes will come after Misano, but the underlying problem - a weight distribution problem caused by a poorly packaged engine and gearbox - will have to wait until next year at the earliest. Ducati Corse is now shifting its focus from organizational changes back to engineering, and only now will the design and production of new parts start to speed up.
There are signs everywhere of Ducati's intention to change. Warren Willing, the man who helped Kenny Roberts Jr win the 2000 500cc title, and who has been involved in many extremely successful racing projects, has been brought in to advise Ducati on their MotoGP project. Ducati is rumored to be looking to hire more top talent, courting Aprilia engineer Gigi Dall'Igna (though probably unsuccesfully) as well as former Ducati World Superbike chief Davide Tardozzi. The old guard has been swept away almost completely, and a group of highly competent leaders with proven records are being brought in.
Ducati clearly want to win, but just as clearly, wanting to win is not enough. The Italian factory has put all of the right pieces in place to drastically improve its chances, and is finally going through the painful process of taking a long and critical look at its internal organization and working practices. If ever there was a time when Ducati was on the right path, this is it. The trouble is, of course, that while Ducati are busy turning their ship around, Honda and Yamaha are steaming ahead, long comfortable with their technology and with their engineering process long since settled. Even once Ducati get going in the right direction, they still have an awful lot of catching up to do.
And so Cal Crutchlow has taken a gamble, one of the biggest in his career. Bigger than his leap from BSB to the World Supersport class, and perhaps as big as his move from a factory World Superbike ride to a satellite team in MotoGP. He is gambling that Ducati will be better once he arrives, and will make enough progress in his time at the factory for him to be back with a shout at the championship, or at least regularly winning races. If he succeeds, he will stamp his name firmly on the series, and cement his position among MotoGP's 'aliens'. He will strengthen both his own and Ducati's brand, following in the footsteps of Carl Fogarty, who led the Italian factory to so much success in the World Superbike championship.
But what if his gamble doesn't pay off? What if the hoped-for progress fails to materialize? Isn't Crutchlow stuck at Ducati for two painful years, just as Valentino Rossi was before him? Not necessarily. While Crutchlow is the victim of unfortunate timing this year, as the only major rider to be out of contract, at the end of 2014 almost everyone's contract is up for renewal. He has another shot for 2015, especially with Suzuki set to join the series, opening up two more factory seats in MotoGP.
But wait, I hear you say, Crutchlow has a two-year deal with Ducati, and is stuck there until the end of 2015. Surely he won't be in the frame for all of the factory rides which will be open for the 2015 season? Hasn't he shot himself in the foot by signing up for two seasons?
Maybe. If Crutchlow is smart - and after spending a considerable amount of time talking to the British rider, he certainly is that, much more than he likes to let on in public - he will have instructed his manager Bob Moore to insert a get-out clause in the Ducati contract, giving him the option to quit after just a single year. Anyone signing for Ducati will want to have an option to leave early, and if Ducati want top riders, then they will have to grant them such an option to get them to sign in the first place. If there are no signs of progress by the middle of the 2014 season, Crutchlow will surely be making it clear to any factories who wish to pursue him that he is available for the right price.
At first glance, Crutchlow's decision to go to Ducati looks foolish, either stupidly naive in the hope of progress from the Italian factory, or nakedly greedy in his pursuit of cash. Yet while Crutchlow will be handsomely paid - rumors bandied around suggest he will receive a base salary of 2.5 million euros a season, over eight times his basic pay of 300,000 euros at Tech 3 - his decision is neither as naive nor as cynical as it may seem.
His pursuit of a factory ride may seem quixotic, given the current level of the Ducati, but there are real grounds for hope that the Italian factory has managed to turn itself around. That will be good for Crutchlow, but most of all, it will be good for MotoGP. The two-horse race between Yamaha and Honda is simply too limiting to make the championship meaningful. Having Ducati competitive will add prestige to the championship, and will put Crutchlow back at the forefront of MotoGP.
Cal Crutchlow's move to Ducati is a calculated gamble, and like all gambles, it requires some bets to be hedged. The Englishman is betting that Ducati will have changed enough to be competitive, and he will have ensured an escape route should that turn out not to be the case. Yes, he is taking a big risk by moving to the one factory in MotoGP which has so vary publicly failed to build a competitive bike. But given what has changed already, and what Ducati must surely have told Crutchlow about their plans for the future, it may not quite be the leap in the dark which so many of his fans believe it is. It might just work out, but if it doesn't, Cal Crutchlow had better have a parachute to hand.