With just seven points from the opening five rounds, Cal Crutchlow had little reward for racing throughout his recovery from a fractured left wrist at the MotoGP season opener.

The Englishman broke his scaphoid during warm-up at Jerez, underwent surgery a few days later and was back in action the following weekend. With four races in the five weeks since his accident, the wrist injury would seem an obvious cause for his struggles this year.

But by the recent Styrian weekend at least, the wrist issues had been overshadowed by ongoing difficulties with the 2020 Honda.

"My injured wrist? I feel 100% with it. No problem," Crutchlow said. "I have no pain, essentially, when bending my wrist on the bike. I wish I could use that as a massive excuse as to what is going on but I can't! Don't get me wrong, in Jerez it was painful. But now my wrist is fine. I'm not going to lie and tell you otherwise."

With world champion Marc Marquez sidelined by injury, Crutchlow is the only other full-time Honda rider that has stood on a MotoGP podium (ten times), not to mention three race victories.

But instead it's been LCR team-mate Takaaki Nakagami, riding the 2019 bike, who has emerged as the leading Honda rider in the absence of Marquez. The Japanese is sixth in the world championship (46 points) with rookie Alex Marquez 15th (15 points) and Crutchlow 21st.

'Use the rear brake more? It's nearly on fire!'

Much interest has been generated by Nakagami crediting a large part of his recent leap in performance to studying Marc Marquez's data and trying to ride like the eight-time world champion, who has proven able to overcome almost any performance issue.

"If everybody is going to ride like Marc Marquez we'll all finish next to each other, four bikes in a row over the finish line!" Crutchlow said. "I think Taka is in a great moment. Which he should be, he's in his third year in MotoGP and it's time for him to get the results and I think he's doing a great job.

"He is on a bike that has a year's development. He's also on a package that is a little different to what we used last year and he's taking advantage of that and it's working very well.

"What he's able to do with the bike - his confidence is good and feeling with the bike is good and we can see it on the data.

"Is he trying to ride like Marc Marquez? Yes he's using the rear brake a little bit more, but in the end you want me to use the rear brake even more? The thing is nearly on fire I use it that much!

"So in the end we all try and ride in the best way possible to go fast, you as a rider with your bike."

In a nutshell, Crutchlow feels that the early progress made with last year's bike just hasn't been replicated with the 2020 model.

"To me, yes," he replied, when asked if he thought the 2019 bike was currently better. "We struggled with it at the start of last year in a couple of tests, then I went to the first race and finished on the podium.

"The second race in Argentina I would have finished second I believe with my pace after the ride through [for a jump start]. Third race, Marc was away but I was battling Valentino for second and I crashed.

"But we found a good feeling and that stayed most of the year. There were only a couple of races where I didn't feel fantastic, but this year at the moment I don't feel that we've made that progress that we made last year, with this year's bike.

"I think Alex is riding well, Stefan [Bradl, replacing Marc Marquez] is doing a good job testing the [2020] bike and I'm giving information as well and hopefully we can make a step. But I don't know where that step is going to come from."

Inertia, deceleration, rear grip...

The main changes made to the RCV for 2020 are thought to involve the engine and electronics.

"The engine is different this year, we have again more inertia into the corner, and we are struggling to stop the bike, and we're struggling to match the rear tyre to the power and the feeling of the bike as well," Crutchlow explained at the first Austrian round.

"With the inertia of the bike, we don't decelerate well. We sort of solved that a lot last year with the 2019 bike, so maybe Taka is not having the same problem as we are having this year.

"But it's the deceleration and then when you evidently turn the bike and open the throttle, a lot of the time you are on the wrong piece of tarmac because you haven't stopped well enough and made the corner in a good way.

"So it's just like a vicious circle to be honest, with braking, turning and exiting the corner. I still think in a lot of places we gain a lot of time in the braking, but if you brake earlier on our bike you lose one second a lap."

Crutchlow added: "At the moment, there's no point to compare to Taka because he's on a different bike. I have to look at the other guys as well, what Alex and Bradl are saying and doing, and it seems a very similar thing there.

"Alex can go just as fast with a used tyre as he can with a new tyre, and that's probably because when he gets the new tyre, it pushes even more, and when he comes out of the corner, he can't use the grip of these new tyres either."

Crutchlow, a rider with four MotoGP pole positions and 23 front row starts, has qualified 6th, 13th, 12th, 15th and 17th so far this season.

"In the fast laps we can't generate the heat, we can't push the tyre into the ground to get the grip that we need," he said at the second Red Bull Ring event.

'Bike does exactly the same thing'

"We can try the bike in 15 different positions and we can see on the data the bike does exactly the same thing. The feeling, the sliding with the tyres, the braking deceleration, the acceleration. It makes no difference," Crutchlow said.

"That has always been a problem that a lot of the riders have found with the Honda in the past but, when you more manually ride the bike and control the bike a lot more, then you bring the best out of the bike.

"But at the moment that's not possible because we're not stopping the bike, we're not turning the bike in the right way because we're not stopping. And then we don't finish the corner."

While braking has traditionally been where Honda makes up much of its lap time on the competition, maximising rear grip on corner exit has also been a key ingredient of Crutchlow's past success.

"Even with the deceleration and turning problems, if you have rear grip you can make up some time," he explained. "That's always been an area where I've been strong to pick up the bike, to understand the rear tyre and push in a good way.

"But we literally cannot open the throttle with the bike. It just spins.

"I think that our bike is not working with this tyre for some reason and we can't understand why [because] Taka's bike is.

"But we're working hard, with my team. I'm still giving the information to Honda, I'm still trying to get better and make the bike and the feeling better. But at the moment this year I haven't found that feeling."

'If I didn't love it, I wouldn't still be here'

While Crutchlow may have little to show for his efforts so far this season, and has already been told he is out of a ride at LCR for 2021, he is continuing to "give 100%" and insists he has not been worn down by the current woes.

"If I didn't love it and want to do it, I wouldn't still be here," he said. "I wouldn't want to ride a bike next year. And I do.

"I can guarantee you I'm still fast. This is not about where I can finish because at the moment, I can't get the feeling with the bike. And it's never really happened to me that bad, in such a long space of time. But we've understood the bikes better in other years, I feel.

"Every single time I get on the bike I think we can do a good session. So my motivation is high. My positivity is always good. After the session when you've had not the greatest result you become disappointed, but disappointment is also a good sign you still want to do well, instead of being not bothered.

"I will still push the boundaries as much as possible. But one thing I've found that's also clear this year is I don’t want to keep crashing because I'm overriding the package underneath me. Because it wastes my time in the session, it wastes the team's time to be able to get me on track to do laps. It's information we need.

"I'm missing four tenths a lap. In motorcycle terms it's a big amount. But it's one tenth per sector [in Austria]. But I could lose two tenths in one corner. We just need to understand and keep working hard. I'm determined and motivated to keep doing that."

Nakagami was the only Honda rider to finish in the points last time out, but Crutchlow was at least able to spot some further clues after following the Repsol machine of Alex Marquez home in 17th.

"[Race] day was the same as the last six days riding here [in Austria]. I tried my best. I gave 100% and that’s the outcome," Crutchlow began. "I followed Alex for a long time in the race. I can see where his bike seems to be working better than our bike.

"I gave the information to Honda, but I also saw it in the practices over the weekend whenever I was with another Honda. It seems they’re working a little bit better in a couple of areas than my bike and we need to work on that."

'My electronics engineer is four-races old'

Pressed on the areas he had identified, Crutchlow said that while the reigning Moto2 champion was also having similar issues during braking and corner entry, making overtaking difficult, Alex was stronger on corner exit.

"For a rookie on the Honda, and the 2020 Honda, I think Alex’s riding well. He battles, which is great," Crutchlow said. "We know he’s a world champion, so he’s going to be fast. He did a good race.

"Essentially into the corner, his bike looks the same as mine. He’s struggling to stop… and it’s really difficult for him to pass as well. But maybe it’s also in the nature of this track."

But on corner exit, "[Alex] has more grip than me. The traction out of the corner, the grip, and the acceleration. I don’t know why, honestly speaking. We need to continue to look at this and study it and get Honda’s help with it.

"Although Beefy is a great crew chief - he’s been working with me for a long, long time and he’s been working with Honda a long, long time - he knows the bikes and stuff like that, but he’s not an electronics engineer.

"My electronic engineer is four races old. He’s doing a very, very, very good job because he had never touched the electronics before essentially the first race," Crutchlow added, explaining: "After the test, we took our data guy as our electronics engineer and he’s never looked at electronics before that in his life, essentially.

"So we need to understand. We need to continue to get some help with Honda about that. As I said, he’s doing a very good job but we need to understand it more and why, and we will. So let’s continue to work. I look forward to Misano. I hopefully look forward to trying something essentially different with the bike, if we can. It’s not up to me. But I have some ideas."

Is HRC as close to Crutchlow as in the past?

Nakagami has been justifying his recent boost in HRC support by delivering career-best performances and leading the Honda challenge. Meanwhile Crutchlow, having not finished higher than 13th this season, feels HRC is probably not as close as in the past.

"But that's the reality… If I was leading every session etc, I think they would be there more," said the Englishman. "But don’t get me wrong, HRC are helping our guys. And the information I give to Beefy still goes to HRC. We have the HRC technicians in the garage.

"Whether the support is as much as before or not, I don't really think it makes a difference to me going any faster or my feeling with the bike. They're doing a good job. They are listening. They are trying hard. But I think it seems difficult at the moment for us to improve."

The first of the two Misano rounds, also the home Italian races for LCR, will take place on September 11-13.

Crutchlow's six-year Honda MotoGP career will then come to an end at the Portimao season finale on November 22.

 

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