Sometimes the guy in 6th place gets there with such style that his story is more compelling, more inspiring, and more enjoyable than the victor's. For me, the biggest story of Silverstone 2012 starts at least as early as Donington in 2008. James Toseland showed up to his home race in his rookie G.P. year to find the expected amount of media attention. It seemed in the days leading up the race that Toseland was on every front page in the country, and it also seemed impossible for any literate person in the U.K. not to know he was the local boy in the coming race at Donington Park. Not shy on courage, Toseland wore the English flag on his shoulders, literally, by appearing on Sunday in custom white leathers adorned with the red cross of St. George.
What unfolded as the race began was painful to watch, even as a foreigner. Toseland charged into the first turn at Redgate and crashed. He gathered himself and his bike up and continued on, far behind the race for the victory, but was cheered as he made his lonely way from grandstand to grandstand. At least local hopes for a good result had not been made to suffer for long.
In 2009 Toseland returned and managed sixth in a race that saw both Rossi and Lorenzo crash while leading. Stoner and Hayden had gambled on rain tires that nearly disintegrated on their rims as the track dried. As far as sixth places go, Toseland's was not one for the record books, but there happened to be just such a sixth place in the near future of the British G.P.
In 2010 the British fans had no native rider to support in the top class as the race moved to Silverstone, but last year Cal Crutchlow hoped to make a good showing if not win (which of course he wanted to do, as they all do, every time they line up). But the 2011 Bridgestone tire struck again, and Crutchlow crashed on Saturday, breaking a collarbone. For his home G.P. he did not even appear on the grid. There is an old cliché in racing that goes, To finish first, first you have to finish. But that could be amended to: To finish first, first you have to start, then you have to finish. Last weekend Crutchlow spoke often about the disappointment he'd felt at not lining up even to contend his home race in 2011, and he was determined at least to do that in 2012.
But given how this season has gone for Crutchlow, just lining up wouldn't be enough. Toseland's WSBK crown had crowd hopes up in 2008, but the British fans are expecting Crutchlow's first MotoGP podium to arrive any day, and for good reason. He likes the new Bridgestone tire, he has a year's experience with his Tech 3 team, the 2012 Yamaha is the best bike on the grid, and he is no longer arriving at new tracks he's not ridden before. His results and pace in 2012 have been fantastic, better than several factory riders. It seems just a matter of time before he cracks the podium, and he only needs those few extra things to go his way to claim his first victory.
Could that victory possibly come at the British G.P.? As the weekend approached he was cautious in the British press to say that nothing would make him happier than a podium, but the fact about racers is that no matter where they line up on the grid or what team they are on or shape they are in, they are only ever perfectly content when they win.
But Saturday morning in the warm up session, he crashed (and only on his way back in to switch bikes, not even pushing) and found himself on his back, listening to the sounds of motorcycles and unsure where he was. Just try to imagine the emotions that accompanied the physical pain, the disbelief, the disappointment. For the second year in a row, but this time with an even better chance of a good result in his home race, he was on the sidelines.
Or was he? You or I would've been, for sure. But these racers are a strange lot, and you simply don't make it to the big leagues if you can't take a bit of discomfort.
In the media center we considered what would happen, wondered how bad the injury was, and if Crutchlow was indeed out of his second consecutive home race. Then word arrived in a whisper that the ankle was only sprained and that he might be cleared to ride. But if he were, how fit would he be and how able to race?
The circuit doctors said if there was a fracture he simply would not be cleared to ride. So the injury was a sprain instead. In order to be allowed to do two laps in the Sunday warm-up, he had to perform for the circuit medical staff to show the left ankle would take the strain, a performance which he later described to us as "f___ing murder." Running back and forth four times, rising onto his toes, putting pressure on the heel, all on a left foot he wouldn't put any weight on otherwise. That was because, in fact, the ankle had been broken and dislocated. The specialist he'd seen away from the track said he'd not be racing at Silverstone, Assen, Sachsenring or Mugello. But again, that physician was applying standards based on the sensibilities of average people.
Lucky for Crutchlow, his injury this time was not a collarbone and thus not one that prevented him from grasping the handle bars. But having been allowed by the medical staff to do two laps during the Sunday morning warm up, just getting on the bike hurt, as pictured above. Walking slowly to his bike as it idled in front of the garage, he limped as he favored the left foot. He climbed carefully over the machine, wincing as I made this exposure. He pulled away from the box with uncharacteristic difficulty, having a hard time shifting the transmission from neutral into first.
But he managed the two laps he'd been allowed and then kept going, riding most of the 20 minute session. Since he had missed the qualifying session on Saturday, he had to start from last place on the grid, behind 19 other top level racers.
In the back of his mind, or perhaps fighting for attention at the front, was concern about the left side of the front tire. Having had two cold tire crashes at Silverstone, he didn't want another of those with a broken ankle. But once he'd heated the tire, he got into a rhythm and was able to adapt his riding style to get around the injury by changing how he shifted. If he had to shift down three gears, he couldn't do that one at a time, he did them all at once before letting the clutch out. He managed to lap faster with the broken ankle than he had in any session of the weekend, and treated the British fans in attendance and watching across the nation to a truly remarkable performance. First he moved past the CRT bikes, then he moved past factory and satellite team riders alike, including Valentino Rossi, Stefan Bradl, and Nicky Hayden, finally finishing the race in sixth place. When asked why he didn't consider it a job well done when he reached seventh place, but instead kept pushing to chase down and pass Hayden, he said, "I race motorcycles for a living, and I don't want to just ride around like a knobber."
There's no knowing what he might've accomplished had he not broken the ankle. He might've ridden the wave of local support to the podium, and perhaps even his first premiere class victory. Or he might have charged into the first turn and crashed as Toseland did. Anything can happen out there, after all. But with expectations lifted due to the injury, and to the fact that he'd shown what he's made of by taking a place, even the last one, on the grid and giving his best for the British fans, he rose to the occasion in the manner that we sometimes see in sports. Someone who by pedestrian standards had no business being on a motorcycle turned in an heroic effort to thrill his home crowd. It was just fantastic, inspiring stuff from a remarkable athlete.
Note: The title of this piece was borrowed from Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats