MotoGP Mutterings, 2019 Italian Grand Prix, part one: Danilo Petrucci finally climbed MotoGP’s top step on Sunday, but it was so nearly very different…
Petrucci stands out with his “LOVE” hat in the 2014 MotoGP group shot Images: MotoGP
Five years ago on the eve of the 2014 MotoGP season all the riders did what they always do: line up on the start/finish line at Losail for the annual preseason ‘school photo’.
As usual, the top riders sat in the front row, while the others stood behind, everyone wearing leather suits and baseball caps promoting all kinds of stuff, from mobile phones to generators, but most of all, fizzy drinks. Then right there, stood in the middle of the back row, was a rider whose baseball hat was selling nothing, but instead promoting an emotion rarely felt in any MotoGP race: “LOVE”.
The man’s name was Danilo Petrucci and he was in a deeply depressed state. He was about to commence his third season of racing in MotoGP after being plucked from Superstock obscurity at the end of 2011. Except that he wasn’t really racing in MotoGP, he was riding what was basically a pimped-up superbike against the 250 horsepower MotoGP prototypes of Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi and the rest.
Through the Losail speed trap on his IodaRacing Aprilia he was 12mph down on the fastest bikes, but at least that was slightly better than in 2013 when he was 14mph down and in 2012 when he was a mind-boggling 25mph down. The gap may have been closing somewhat, but Petrucci had decided he had enough of bringing a knife to a gunfight and getting slaughtered every weekend.
“That was a strange period of my life, like you see in the career of an artist!” says the swarthy Italian, who on Sunday took a 0.040sec victory in one of the all-time greatest MotoGP races. “Five days before the first preseason tests of 2014 Giampiero Sacchi [owner of the Ioda MotoGP team] called me and said we can’t go testing, we have no money. I was completely destroyed, so I said to myself I must quit racing. I wore the LOVE cap at the first few races because I didn’t want to be angry with anyone in the paddock. The cap said peace and love to everyone.
“I came into MotoGP in 2012 from nowhere, with one of the new CRT bikes, with a completely standard Aprilia RSV4 engine, which Sacchi’s team bought from a shop. I didn’t know the tracks, the tyres or the carbon brakes, plus our bike was incredibly slow. During that period I was very angry with everyone because I was usually last on the grid and last in the race.”
Petrucci is a special character in the MotoGP paddock. The 28-year-old wears his heart on his sleeve, whereas most other people are too busy hiding their cards up their sleeves. And he’s unlike most of the grid because he wasn’t one of those child prodigies whose talent was spotted by a racing Svengali who made him sign on the dotted line and then guided along a gilded path to the top of the sport. Petrucci took an unusual and rocky road, which nearly defeated him on many occasions.
When he was a kid he did trials and he never raced on asphalt until he was 16 years old: Honda CBR600 Cup, then Superstock 600 and 1000.
“All my life, I thought one day I’ll be in MotoGP, but I started doing trials, which is very far from MotoGP. It’s like wanting to play in the football World Cup when you are a basketball player. I had some very tough days, months and years but I never thought of anything else, I never lost my passion. My number-one dream was to be a professional rider; the other was never to have a proper job!”
Petrucci’s proper MotoGP career began in 2015, when Pramac Ducati gave him a ride on a second-hand Desmosedici. He scored his first podium in the soaking 2015 Silverstone GP, where he chased winner Rossi. Two years later he came within 0.063sec of beating Rossi to win his first GP, at Assen, again in the rain. He’s a bear of a man and more weight means grip in the wet.
This year the Ducati factory finally gave him a deal promoting him to latest-spec machinery alongside Andrea Dovizioso, but it was only a one-year deal, to experiment with a new strategy: running two riders who will work together for the factory, rather than having Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo working against each other, taking points from each other and generally confusing the development process.
It’s unusual for a factory to sign someone for one season. Most riders and teams do two-year deals, to prevent the riders from panicking about results and crashing their brains out. Petrucci’s one-year deal suggested that Ducati didn’t have much faith in him, and after the first few races people were already saying he would be out of the job at the end of the year, replaced by Jack Miller.
Sunday changed everything. At Le Mans, Ducati announced that it would decide its 2020 factory line-up after the Catalan GP later this month. Petrucci’s next deal isn’t signed, sealed and delivered, but if he doesn’t get the 2020 ride there will surely be riots on the streets of Bologna.
Petrucci was full of cold all weekend at Mugello – most people in his state would’ve pulled a sickie – but adrenaline is the greatest drug known to mankind.
And it worked. There was a real sense of righteousness about his victory. It was like the whole of pit lane was cheering him on. I’ve rarely seen such delight throughout the paddock when someone wins a MotoGP race. And then there were the victory celebrations. Any Italian who climbs to the top step of the Mugello podium while several thousand fans belt out the words of the Italian national anthem will carry that memory to their deathbed.
In the endless post-race interviews Petrucci dedicated his win to team-mate Dovizioso, who helped him train his body and mind for the 2019 season. Petrucci was obsessed with performing well enough to keep his ride for 2020 and that wasn’t helping his results.
“At the first three races the situation became very, very hard and the challenge became very, very hard. I told myself that if I could not win a race this year, then I will have to change my job. Andrea helped me a lot – he told me not to think about the future and to only think about now.”
Petrucci led much of the race but all his effort seemed for nothing when Márquez and Dovizioso drafted past at the start of the final lap. But while they disputed the lead at Turn One Petrucci saw a chance to sneak through on the inside, sitting up his team-mate in the process. “I saw a window and I jumped through it!”
“Exiting the last corner I thought if this follows the path of my life I will leave the last corner in first place and cross the line in third. I changed into fourth… fifth… sixth… waiting for the others to come past. Then I crossed the line and started to scream!”
In the media conference he offered an apology to Dovizioso. “I’m so sorry for that pass.” And then he offered his condolences to Dorna TV commentator Steve Day, an avid Tottenham Hotspur supporter, who was still hurting from his team’s defeat in Saturday’s Champions League final. “I’m so sorry for Tottenham last night,” he said.
In other words, he’s still a normal bloke, even though he has entered the pantheon of premier-class grand prix winners. No doubt at this moment he is still celebrating (you only win your first GP victory once), while commiserating with Rossi, who had one of the worst weekends of his career.
Petrucci and Rossi have been friends for a while. They first met at Mugello in 2011 when Petrucci was Ducati’s superbike tester. Rossi and sidekick Alessio ‘Uccio’ Salucci were stunned by Petrucci’s speed through Casanova/Savelli, so they got chatting. On Sunday Petrucci attributed his victory to the thousands of Mugello laps he rode during that time.
“One of the coolest things about Valentino is that although he loves racing he knows when to stop,” says the 28-year-old. “If we are at dinner and we drink two or three or four bottles of wine, then the day after we go to the seaside and we don’t train.
“After Barcelona 2016 [where Moto2 rider Luis Salom lost his life] he did two days testing at the track afterwards and arrived in Ibiza for dinner at midnight on the Tuesday. We had dinner and then we stayed up all night. For him that’s normal. He said, Danilo, we have two weeks instead of one before the next race… We spoke a lot about what happened at Barcelona. But mostly we talked about motorcycles, about how our passion is… bikes!”
Petrucci’s main goal for 2019 was to win a race. “Now we think of the team target – to win the title.” But will he be able to resist beating Dovizioso again, given the chance? Only time will tell…
Márquez’s poetic pole position
Sunday belonged to Ducati, but Saturday belonged to Márquez, whose 56th MotoGP pole position was pure poetry.
Poetry isn’t a much-discussed subject in the MotoGP paddock. In fact I don’t think I’ve heard the word spoken for a couple of decades, since Rossi’s days in the 500cc class, when he declared, “I’ve always had a big passion for the racing line, for me the line is like a poem”.
Márquez’s Mugello pole was 100 per cent poetic justice. Ducati tried to hinder the world champion, but the team’s efforts blew up in its face, with Márquez turning the tables and using Dovizioso’s draft to take pole. It was as if Ducati had lobbed a grenade into Honda’s trench, only for a brave, quick-thinking soul to grab the fizzing bomb and lob it back into Ducati’s trench, where it went off.
The second qualifying session at Mugello may well have been the most fascinating MotoGP qualifying session in history. In the early part of the 15-minute outing Márquez found himself surrounded by Desmosedicis: Dovizioso, Francesco Bagnaia and Michele Pirro. He got ahead by putting a hard pass on Dovizioso, who was off the pace because he was running a medium-compound rear tyre, saving his last soft rear for his final run.
Halfway through the session everyone entered the pits to change tyres for their final time-attacks. But Márquez was in no hurry to get back on track. He asked his mechanics to fit tyre warmers to his RC213V and he sat there waiting for almost three minutes, looking up pit lane, waiting for the Ducatis to leave. But of course they were waiting for him.
When Márquez did finally return to the track he had Dovizioso just ahead and Pirro just behind. He slowed down to try and get rid of them, but they also slowed down. At one point they were all going so slowly it’s amazing they didn’t overbalance.
In the end, however, Márquez had it all worked out. He knew Dovizioso was only 12th fastest at that point, so the Italian had to get his head down at the end of the session and wouldn’t be able to roll out of the lap, whoever was following him. As Dovizioso started his final lap Márquez was 100 metres behind him. He had judged the gap perfectly, leaving just the right amount of room to make time on the Italian during the lap and then use the Ducati’s draft as they raced towards the chequered flag.
Sure enough, Márquez got closer and closer, triggering red lights through every sector. At the final turn, his best corner at Mugello, he got right onto Dovizioso’s rear wheel, so he was inside the GP19’s vacuum and accelerating faster than ever.
At the line he snatched pole from Fabio Quartararo by two-tenths of a second. The reaction in the Repsol Honda garage proved this was no normal pole position. Márquez’s crew chief Santi Hernández and his mechanics danced around the garage like their rider had won the race, while Ducati bosses glowered. They had been played.
“When I stopped in the box halfway through the session I said to Santi, okay, now we will change our strategy and that’s what I did,” he said. “I knew Dovi was 12th so I followed because I knew he needed to push to improve his lap time. We played our cards and our strategy was good, but this strategy was created by them [Ducati], not by me.”
Márquez may have lost the race but he was perfectly happy with second place at a track that’s never worked for him or the Honda.
Dovizioso to Ducati: fix our mid-corner problem
Ducati had another aerodynamic gizmo at Mugello – a carbon-fibre rear-wheel fairing – which may have given test rider and wild card Pirro a fraction more straight-line speed but certainly didn’t solve the Desmosedici’s same-old, age-old problem: mid-corner turning.
Dovizioso is becoming increasingly vocal in his criticism of Ducati’s failure to fix the Desmosedici’s greatest weakness, suggesting that the factory should stop fiddling about with aero and focus on what’s really hurting its championship chances.
“Speed in the middle of the corner is our problem, like always,” said the world number two after finishing third at Mugello, three-tenths behind rival Márquez and losing a further four title points to the Spaniard. “Márquez was able to stay with us because of his speed in the middle of the corner. Our bike accelerates and brakes better but we lose in the middle of the corner.”
Obviously this isn’t an easy problem to fix. Ducati reduced its mid-corner disadvantage by a fraction this year, but not by enough, especially since Honda has increased the RC213V’s horsepower to reduce Ducati’s straight-line advantage.
Most likely Ducati Corse needs to experiment with different frame stiffness to help the bike ‘self-turn’ through the corners.
Ducati quickest, but Honda closes the gap
Many years ago Honda always had the fastest bikes in grand prix racing. Then along came Ducati’s with its desmodromic-valve MotoGP bike. Top-speed and acceleration don’t win races on their own, but they’re a big help.
Over the past two seasons Honda has focused on extracting more horsepower from the RC213V, after making major changes to the engine configuration during the previous two seasons: reversing crankshaft rotation and using a big-bang firing configuration.
Before the start of the 2019 season HRC engineer Shinichi Kokubu told me this. “I dream of seeing this happen,” he said, miming with his hands a RC213V drafting past a Ducati. “From Honda’s first TT, Soichiro Honda always said that his engineers must make more power to give our riders a better chance.”
At Mugello on Sunday Kokubu’s dream came true: Márquez drafted past Dovizioso and Petrucci on several occasions. This is why: in 2018 Ducati was the fastest bike on MotoGP’s fastest straight, at a record-breaking 221.5mph/356.5kmh, a crucial 3.5mph/5.6kmh faster than the best Honda. This year Dovizioso once again became the fastest Grand Prix rider in history, at 221.6mph/356.7kmh, but the best Honda was only 1.2mph/1.8kmh slower, which is why Márquez could use the Ducati’s draft and slingshot past.
Fastest Suzuki was Álex Rins, at 219.5mph/353.5kmh, achieved during the race, most likely while drafting the leading Ducatis and Honda. The next fastest bike was Aprilia’s RS-GP at 218.4mph/351.6kmh, then KTM’s RC16 at 216.4mph/348.4kmh. Slowest was Yamaha’s YZR-M1 at 216.1kmh/348kmh.
Rossi: ‘we won’t give up’
Rossi had a truly horrible weekend in front his hordes of fans: his lowest grid slot from a dry qualifying session in more than a decade and then crashing out of last place, after running off the track in the early stages.
But you have to hand it to the 40-year-old. On his last lap before he went flying at the second Arrabbiata he was lapping faster than race leader Dovizioso: on lap seven the seven-time MotoGP champion rode a 1min 48.379sec, against Dovizioso’s 1min 48.383sec. Which just goes to show the man doesn’t know how to give up.
And he’s not about to hang up his leathers before his current contract expires at the end of 2021.
“At Austin, only one or two months ago I was very, very close to winning and I was very happy. Now it’s more difficult, but we won’t give up and we will try our maximum, so no one has to worry about me stopping.”
Last year at Mugello, Rossi started from pole, and two years before that he led the race until his engine blew, so Mugello 2019 was a horrible shock.
“In 2016 I felt desperate because I could’ve won the race until my engine broke. But I was optimistic because I was fast. This year I am desperate and a lot sadder because I’m slow.”
Rossi isn’t just struggling with straight-line speed. At Mugello he didn’t have good front-tyre contact, so he didn’t have the confidence to attack the corners and utilise the M1’s cornering speed.
“We suffer everywhere. Right from the start – when I changed from third to fourth to fifth everyone overtook me, even the other Yamahas. This is the big difference. We also suffer in acceleration from one corner to another; it’s not just top speed.”