By Stephen English
Cal Crutchlow has seen his reputation grow hugely over the course of his three year MotoGP career at Tech 3, arriving in 2011 as a World Supersport champion and World Superbike race winner.
Replacing Ben Spies at the satellite Yamaha team meant Crutchlow had big shoes to fill, such was Spies' reputation only three years ago, but the Coventry native has surpassed Spies' achievements at Tech 3 and will become a factory Ducati rider for 2014.
"Three years is a long time for a team and a rider to work together and when Cal joined us it was his first time in MotoGP and in this paddock," said team manager Herve Poncharal as he looked back on their time together.
"He didn't follow the normal steps of Moto3, Moto2 and then MotoGP, and was coming from World Superbikes so it was a difficult year in 2011 as he had so much to learn about the paddock about a prototype chassis, engine, carbon brakes and Bridgestone tyres.
“Last year was a lot better and over the winter we all wondered would he make another step in 2013 and he is now with the top guys and inside the top five. In terms of pure speed I think he's the fourth fastest guy on the grid."
One aspect that has played a key role in Crutchlow's development was his relationship to Poncharal. The friendship that has developed over the past three years is clear to see and it will be with a heavy heart that their professional partnership comes to a close at the Valencia Grand Prix.
"Outside of racing we have something quite rare, because he is a friend," said the Frenchman. "We spend a lot of time together, he brings his motorhome to our base in France, and to spend time with a rider outside of the track in a normal environment lets us get to know each other better. We have a lot of common interest like cycling, I'm not as good as him but I love cycling! We love nature and we love to do normal things."
The announcement that Crutchlow would move to Ducati for 2014 had been expected, but due to the relative competitive positions of both teams it was still clearly a difficult decision for the Englishman. But while Tech 3 is clearly the more competitive proposition at the moment, history shows that the best opportunity to win the title is with a factory squad.
"It's a big change for me and I didn't want to leave Tech 3," said Crutchlow. "This is a fantastic team and I've become friends with everyone here and to leave a competitive package like the Yamaha I had to look at everything realistically.
"Over the last number of years no satellite team has been able to win [races], Toni [Elias] won in 2006 and Sete [Gibernau] did it before that, but that's years ago. I don't believe that it's down to the riders. Factories win championships and factories win races.
"It was a difficult decision to leave Tech 3 but not a difficult decision to join Ducati. I want to win and I want to better my career and I believe in myself 100%."
Even so Crutchlow also made it crystal clear that his primary objective had been to remain at Yamaha albeit with a full factory bike. But with Pol Espargaro set to join Tech 3 next season and Bradley Smith already under contract one rider would have been left on the sidelines.
There had been however an offer on the table from Yamaha for Crutchlow, but the Englishman felt it was not as good as what was on offer to others, presumably Espargaro, who has signed a two-year contract directly with Yamaha.
"I think that if people look at their jobs and they saw that each year they were getting better if they weren't getting promoted or someone else came in from a lower position into their job and had a guarantee of getting better stuff I think that most people would feel the same as me,” said Crutchlow.
“A lot of people don't understand the full story. Yamaha had a great offer on the table but they couldn't guarantee me what they were offering the other guys and I wasn't willing to settle for that. "
This slight was enough to push Crutchlow away from Yamaha and towards Ducati, but there was no ill-will between the Englishman and Tech 3 or vice versa. In fact for Poncharal it was quite the opposite, with a realisation that his rider was set to live out his dream as a factory rider.
"Clearly Cal is somebody that I have a lot of respect for and I care for him. In a way I am sad to lose him because I think that there are still things for us to do together but on the other hand I am happy that he now has his dream of being in a factory team. He tried to go to Yamaha but it was at the wrong time so going to Ducati with a lot of resources and new owners is very exciting for Cal. He likes nothing more than a challenge and I understand why he made his choice."
The challenge for Poncharal has now changed for 2014. If Crutchlow had stayed, challenging for race wins would have been the realistic goal for the French outfit. Now however the targets will be adjusted and giving time for Espargaro to adapt to MotoGP becomes the primary aim.
With two Moto2 graduates in his team, the only MotoGP squad to have such a status, Poncharal is well placed to discuss the progress of the class over the last four seasons.
In 2010 when Moto2 made its debut as a grand prix class it was met with scepticism and cynicism within the paddock. Many felt, and some still do, that grand prix racing should be for prototype machinery developed solely for racing. While chassis development in Moto2 is not restricted hugely the use of 600cc Honda engines has been criticised since the inception of the class.
While it is a fair point, the on track action has done much to quiet any rumblings about the class. Moto2 has routinely been the best race of the weekend and whereas MotoGP struggled to produce a racing spectacle in the 800cc era Moto2 thrived.
The talent level in the series has been as good as the 250cc class and to see the adaptation of rides such as Stefan Bradl and Marc Marquez to the premier class shows just how successful Moto2 has been.
As head of IRTA, the International Racing Teams Association, as well as a Moto2 team and chassis constructor, Poncharal has been closely involved with the class.
"Some of my old friends told me Moto2 would destroy grand prix racing because outside of 250cc racing there was no way to prepare riders for the top class. The production engine was crazy, so was not being able to work on the gearbox and the lack of power, simple electronics and other things but we brought a really incredible show so it has fulfilled its promise.
"When you look at what Bradl did as a rookie last season, Marquez and Bradley Smith this season, I don't think anyone could say Moto2 is not preparing riders well. Those three guys have all done well from round one so I think Moto2 is a great preparation for MotoGP. The style of riding the bike prepares you well - the power, the electronics - so I have no doubt that Pol can be instantly fast as the other guys coming from Moto2 have done."
Alongside Espargaro will be Smith, who will want to maintain the momentum of his rookie season and hit the ground running against Espargaro. Having joined the team under immense pressure to justify his selection after two tough seasons in Moto2, when hampered with poor machinery, the opening races of the season were clearly pressure filled for Smith.
Even so he gave a good account of himself and adapted well to the class even though some heavy crashes, including Mugello where he badly damaged his left little finger and wrist. Once he asserted his ability once again the former 125cc race winner relaxed into his role as the team's junior rider and with the light firmly focussed on his team-mate Smith has been able to quietly go about his job and develop towards getting the most from the bike.
When asked how he felt he would need to change ahead of next season, and whether he could enjoy a similar relationship with his future team-mate as Crutchlow, it was clear that Smith sees Espargaro as a threat and rival:
"Pol is just another rider and we certainly won't have the same relationship that I have with Cal," admitted Smith. "It's going to be nice because Pol is someone that I've raced against since 2005 so for our career paths to go side-by-side like they have with relatively similar results is something that excites me.
“Knowing what I know from 125s and Moto2 there's no reason that I can't beat Pol and there's also no reason for me to help him. I just have to make sure that I do my job and give myself as much of a headstart as I can before Pol comes here. It's nice to have two young riders in Tech 3 which is always something that Herve has said is something that he wants to do."
Developing riders has always been a strong suit for Poncharal and it is clear that he has taken huge pride in the progress that Crutchlow has made since joining the elite class. Being able to replicate that experience will clearly be difficult, but in Espargaro he has a Yamaha protégé that the Japanese factory are clearly looking to ride for their factory squad once Valentino Rossi hangs up his leathers.
With Marquez having adapted to MotoGP so easily there will clearly be huge pressure on Espargaro but it is hard to imagine having a better team around a rider than the atmosphere at Tech 3. Even so Poncharal warned there is no secret to a rider's development.
"There is no magic to develop a rider; there is hard work and passion. At Yamaha we have four riders, with the factory team having the mission to win races and win the championship. Our position is more as a rookie team to prepare the riders and work with Yamaha to see how they perform and see if they are good enough to work with the factory team. We have seen that with Ben Spies in 2011 and we could have seen it with Cal too.
"I think the target for Yamaha is the same for Pol as for Ben; in year one he will be with Tech 3 and then they can see if he is ready and if there is room at the factory team than he might be in the factory team. There is no magic [formula] just like in every job if you work hard and you work well and support your riders there is no reason not to achieve and the best example is Bradley.
“We don't talk too much and we don't make the front pages of the papers but in the end we trust each other and we make progress. I hope it will be the same with Pol."
This season has seen Tech 3 run bikes of different specifications, with Crutchlow racing an updated bike that has been very close to full factory spec whereas Smith raced with an older 2012 specification.
With one rider capable of winning races and the other simply looking to learn about the class, it created a unique situation for Tech 3 but one that will not be repeated next season even though Espargaro will join as a factory contracted rider.
"I don't know the level of bike we will have next year but I remember when Colin was with us and Ben signed as factory rider that Ben never had any advantage. Yamaha always gave equal treatment.
“This year is a little different because Cal is doing so well and Bradley doesn't have the same spec as Cal but next year with Pol and Bradley, and I've already discussed this with Lin [Jarvis, head of Yamaha Racing] at Brno, that both riders will have exactly the same spec."
Crutchlow is fifth in the world championship standings, 23 points clear of the next best satellite team rider Stefan Bradl, with Smith ranked eleventh out of the 26 riders to have scored points this year.Tech 3 has today (Thursday) confirmed an extension of its contract with Yamaha, until the end of 2015.