Danilo Petrucci: Grin it to win it

Published: 16 August 2016

From Superstock Cup obscurity, Danilo Petrucci has taken MotoGP podiums and become best mates with Rossi, no wonder he’s the grid’s happiest rider

Danilo Petrucci isn’t your average MotoGP rider. In fact, he’s unique. Whereas every MotoGP rider comes from 250s or Moto2, like Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez, or from winning in World Superbike, like Cal Crutchlow, Eugene Laverty and Loris Baz – Petrucci comes from somewhere completely different. He didn’t even graduate to MotoGP from a world championship, but instead from the Europe-only Superstock 1000 series. So he’s a bit like a Second Division footballer who finds himself living the Premiership dream.

And how. A podium finish in last year’s rain-lashed British GP and a potential winner at Assen, then again at Sachsenring just a few weeks ago, Petrucci has gained a reputation for shaking up the status quo, especially when it’s raining.

And even when it’s not. A couple of years ago at the season-opening Qatar GP, Petrucci stood out from the crowd in the class-of-2014 photoshoot. Amongst all the riders’ baseball caps selling everything from fizzy energy drink to, er, fizzy energy drink, was a cap bearing the word LOVE. It was sat atop Petrucci’s frizzy mop of black hair.

The significance of that sentiment in a sport that is all about fighting, battling and stitching each other up had half the paddock wondering what Petrucci had been smoking. What they didn’t know was that the cap was telling us that he was ready to quit the cruel world of racing.

“That was a strange period of my life, like you see in the career of an artist!” says the 25-year-old, his bushy black eyebrows arching above his smile. “Five days before the first pre-season tests Giampierro Sacchi [owner of the Ioda MotoGP team] calls me and says we can’t go testing, we have no money. I was completely destroyed, so I say 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.”

Petrucci didn’t quit and eventually his persistence aboard Sacchi’s horribly slow Aprilia CRT bike paid off. His talent for embarrassing factory riders in the rain convinced Pramac Ducati team manager Francesco Guidotti to give him a go on a Desmosedici last season. Since then he’s been a regular top 10 finisher, but it’s been a long road.

“I didn’t start road racing until I was 18, when Valentino had already won five or six world titles,” he adds. “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.”

No wonder: Petrucci’s 2012 Ioda Aprilia did 192mph at Mugello, 23mph slower than the fastest bike, Rossi’s Ducati.

The Italian from Terni, an hour’s drive north of Rome, is a bear of a man, unlike your average lean, mean MotoGP whippet. He weighs 80kg – 29 more than Dani Pedrosa – which certainly can’t help his straight-line speed. Perhaps that’s why he has the air of a gentleman racer, who’s racing for the adventure, fully aware that he will never scale the loftiest heights. But nothing could be further from the truth; Petrucci lives and breathes to win, just like Rossi.

“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! OK, so this is a job but it’s not proper work because I really enjoy what I do. I’m very lucky to be a professional rider. It’s not my dream to finish seventh or eighth, but I need more time!”

During the past couple of years Petrucci has become best mates with Rossi – they live a couple of miles apart near the Adriatic town of Pesaro.

“The first time I met Valentino was when I was a Ducati test rider in 2011. We were both testing at Mugello: me on the Panigale Superbike, Vale on the Desmosedici. Uccio [Salucci, Rossi’s right-hand man] had been watching out on track and came to my box with Vale to have a look. He said, so you are the crazy guy who rides Casanova Savelli in that way; how can you ride through there so fast? Then Valentino recognised my father, who has always worked with me and also worked with Loris Capirossi many years ago. From then we became friends.”

Petrucci’s friendship with Rossi has helped him in many ways and given him a unique insight into what makes the world’s greatest bike racer tick.

“First of all, Valentino enjoys a lot what he does; this is the key to everything. Quite often I go to his house and he’s watching a Moto2 race from two years ago. I say, why? The answer is that he truly loves racing.

“His secret at home is that he’s very protected. Everybody works for him like a team and there’s no schedule, so he can choose every hour of the day to do what he wants to do. For sure this is a big power for him. If he wants to go training at 10pm, then he goes training, because he trains lots and lots. Or if he wants to wake up at 7am and start riding at the ranch at 8am, everything is set.

“It can be quite strange for the people near to him, because sometimes we are all sitting around his pool and he gets up and goes; he leaves everyone at his home to go training. For him this isn’t a problem but it’s strange because you are at his house and he isn’t there. 

“One of the coolest things about Valentino is that although he loves racing he knows when to stop. 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 [where Moto2 rider Luis Salom lost his life] he did two days testing at the track 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 nearly didn’t go to Ibiza, because we thought it wasn’t the right moment because of what had happened at Barcelona, but the night after the race we both said there’s nothing we can do. And after a week at 350kph [215mph] we decided we deserved a few days of calm. We spoke a lot about what happened at Barcelona. But mostly we talked about motorcycles, about how our passion is not beautiful women but beautiful bikes!

“I’ve learned a lot from him. He doesn’t know it but he’s helped me a lot with my behaviour in the paddock and on the track. It’s funny because he’s very curious: you would think that you’d ask him the questions and he would answer, but the strange thing is, it’s always him asking the questions.

“In MotoGP there is so much stress and so much pressure because you are racing the fastest bikes in the world against the fastest riders in the world, so everything is at the maximum. But for Valentino it’s like he’s going out to ride just like a normal person goes out for a Sunday ride. He just thinks, I enjoy riding my bike as fast as possible. I don’t know many riders who have this way of thinking.”

Petrucci’s greatest moment so far was chasing down Rossi at Silverstone last August and then sharing the podium with his two best racing friends: Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso. The three spend a lot of time racing dirt track in Italy, where sometimes Petrucci is the fastest of them all. He attributes his wet-weather speed to a childhood spent doing trials and motocross, though his weight may also have something to do with it. Extra load can deliver extra grip in the wet, although it can mean less grip in the dry, when lean angles are more extreme.

If Petrucci doesn’t make it as a MotoGP superstar he’s already got other ambitions. “My dream is to race the Dakar,” he says. And if the Dakar, then why not the TT? “No!” he grins. “I’m quite scared of the TT – I will have to become a little madder to do that!”

Meanwhile Petrucci will continue to stand out on the MotoGP grid; not merely as the burliest member of the Grand Prix elite but also as the most laid back.