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Danilo Petrucci enjoyed a unique journey in MotoGP, from late starter to Mugello winner. And now he’s made the switch to the gruelling Dakar Rally

Danilo Petrucci has done something that’s never been done before – eight weeks after ending his MotoGP career at the 2021 Valencia GP, riding a 360km/h KTM RC16 on slicks, he commenced his Dakar Rally career on 2 January, riding a 170km/h KTM 450 Rally on knobbies through the Saudi Arabian desert.

Danilo Petrucci

The 31-year-old Italian raced MotoGP for a full decade, from 2012 to 2021, working his way up from the absolute bottom (his first MotoGP bike was 37km/h slower than his fastest) to win two GP victories with Ducati.

What’s most remarkable about Petrucci’s MotoGP career is that he didn’t start road racing until he was 16, while most of his rivals had raced all their lives making the switch to the world championship paddock at that age.

Danilo Petrucci

Danilo Petrucci was seen at the Bike City at the MotoGP at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria on August 10th, 2018 

What’s also remarkable about Petrucci is his size. He weighs 82 kilograms, which brings all kinds of problems in motorcycle racing. This is why most top bike racers are built like jockeys, not boxers.

Petrucci’s largeness demanded different geometry and suspension settings, which compromised handling and turning. It also made him slower down the straights and destroyed tyres quicker.

“Now I have to quit MotoGP because of my body, not because of my talent,” he says with a shrug. 

Danilo Petrucci

Petrucci’s not crying though, at least not about that. In October 2021 he flew to Dubai to start training for the Dakar with KTM’s factory rally team. It was an overwhelming experience for someone who had spent the last 10 years of his life in the MotoGP pressure-cooker.

“It’s completely another world,” he said. 

“The good thing is you don’t have the same pressure you have in MotoGP. All the riders are good friends because they share emotions in this big adventure.”

Danilo Petrucci

During his first two days in the desert, KTM management gave him a full tank of fuel and told him to go wherever he liked and learn how to ride the dunes. 

“This is a feeling I suggest to everybody who rides bikes because when you go into the dunes you can really go anywhere. You have all this land with nothing around, so you can go wherever you want.

“One morning I stopped and started to cry, just thinking about where my life had brought me. I thought, ‘F*** – think where you are!’ I was in the middle of the desert, with no civilisation for hundreds of kilometres. I cried because the emotion was unbelievable.

“But it’s really dangerous – you must never trust the dunes or the desert. 

“KTM told me I can do the Dakar if I promise to enjoy the panorama and the landscape because they thought it would be dangerous to try for a result first time. Then I can do some more rallies in 2022 and be more competitive in 2023.

“Ten years ago I knew nothing about MotoGP, I just knew how to ride a bike, so maybe now I’m in the same situation. I know how to ride an off-road bike but I don’t even know how to leave a Dakar bivouac, so I’m starting a completely different challenge. The good thing is that my body is perfect for rallies, because I’m strong.”

Danilo Petrucci

Petrucci isn’t only looking forward to the adventure of Dakar, he’s also looking forward to eating more cake. He has spent the last 10 years dieting like a ballerina, trying to shed weight in search of vital tenths and hundredths of a second.

“Last year we went really crazy. I weighed myself when I woke up, before the first practice session, after the session, before the second session and after that session. Five times a day!

“If I am really, really, really slim, which I have been, I can lose four kilos from where I am now, but I had no energy. And even at 78 kilos I still weighed 10 kilos more than [Fabio] Quartararo and [Marc] Marquez, so it was a nightmare. One day my crew chief said to me, ‘it’s better you weigh two kilos more than we see a ghost walking around the garage’.”

Danilo Petrucci of Italy seen during the MotoGP World Championship in Spielberg, Austria on August 13, 2021

Although there’s never been a good time to be a tall, heavy road racer, there’s never been a worse time than now. MotoGP is closer than it’s ever been, with the top 10 often separated by only tenths of a second per lap. In these circumstances, the tiniest difference makes a huge difference.

Of course, the ultra-close competition makes life difficult for the whole MotoGP grid – chasing hundredths and thousandths of a second demand that all the riders spend more time in the garage looking for an advantage than they do on the track.

“You spend a lot of time with the computer, looking at data. Your chief mechanic says, ‘your teammate is faster in this corner because he brakes earlier than you but he brakes less and on the exit of the corner he’s giving less throttle, so he spins less’. So braking hard and opening the throttle a lot isn’t always the way, so sometimes you go crazy!

“You say, ‘how is it possible this guy is braking earlier and giving less throttle than me and he’s faster?’And your chief mechanic says, ‘ah, because he’s braking with one bar less [of pressure] here and he’s using two degrees less lean when he opens the throttle there’.

“And because I always lost time on the straights I tried to brake later to make up time, but because I braked later it was harder to turn the bike as quickly as I wanted, so it’s like a dog chasing its tail.

Danilo Petrucci

Danilo Petrucci (Tech 3) races during the MotoGP World Championship in Spielberg, Austria on August 13, 2021 

“MotoGP is the most challenging championship, but the best rider isn’t always the most talented. The best rider is the guy who can be so conscious on the bike that he understands what he needs from the bike to go faster, then he has a conversation with his chief mechanic and adapts himself to the changes they make to the bike. There are a lot of really talented riders who lose their way because they don’t understand what’s going on.

“For sure when I remember my best races and my best qualifying laps I was only thinking about riding, just doing what I was born for.”

Danilo Petrucci (ITA, Tech3 KTM Facory Racing) MotoGP World Championship in Spielberg, Austria on August 7, 2021

Against all the odds Petrucci won two MotoGP races, beating Marquez, Quartararo, Valentino Rossi and the rest of them. His first victory was so huge that he will remember it to his dying day.

In 2019 he rode his first season as a factory Ducati rider, after three years with the Pramac Ducati outfit, during which he showed his potential by scoring a handful of podiums.

In June 2019 he arrived at Mugello – MotoGP’s Holy of Holies for Italian riders, especially Italian factory Ducati riders – two weeks after he had taken his first podium for the factory team at Le Mans, behind teammate Andrea Dovizioso and Marquez.

At Mugello the trio went at it again, fighting an unforgettable battle all the way to the chequered flag. All three led the race, Petrucci often in front, but only by a metre or two.

Sure enough, as he sped down the 362km/h start/finish straight to start the last lap his smaller, lighter rivals came past, screwed into a tighter racing crouch than Petrucci could manage. At the very next corner, they were side by side, Petrucci somehow finding room to sneak through on the inside. He held on to beat Marquez by 0.04sec, with Dovizioso a further 0.3sec back.

“After the finish line, I started to scream. Really scream! And from that moment I’ve got really, really few memories. When you are on the podium at Mugello all you can see is people – thousands and thousands of them – and I said, ‘f***, I won at Mugello!’. 

Danilo Petrucci

“I remember stopping on the highway on the way home to get a McDonalds. But there were so many people wanting to say ‘ciao’ that it was impossible for me to go in, so the staff brought me a bag with a McDonalds inside and we went back home.”

Petrucci won his second MotoGP race at Le Mans the following year and once again the Italian fans were all over him.

“We drove home that night to my home in Terni. Where we came off the highway into the city there’s a steel factory and I said, ‘f***, the workers are on strike – they are protesting even on a Sunday night!’. Then we got closer and I saw them holding Petrucci flags! But I just wanted to get home and have dinner with my mum and dad…”

That victory meant just as much to Petrucci as his mind-blowing Mugello success. “One of my nightmares was that I would never win another race and I wanted to show, especially to myself, that I could do it again.”

During his time in the MotoGP paddock Petrucci forged a close friendship with Rossi.

“The first time I really 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. Vale came to my box 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?’.

“One of the coolest things about Valentino is that although he loves racing, he knows when to stop thinking about racing. 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 was killed], Valentino did two days of testing at the track and arrived in Ibiza for dinner at midnight on 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’.

“I’ve learned a lot from him. He doesn’t know it but he 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 give the answers, but the strange thing is that it’s always him asking the questions.”

It’s perhaps fitting that the pair left MotoGP at the same time – Petrucci to race Dakar, Rossi to race a Ferrari in GT car racing – even though Rossi left of his own accord, while Petrucci was sacked by KTM, who just days later offered him a Dakar contract.

Petrucci is still trying to get his head around this overnight transformation.

“At Mugello you’re doing 350 kays at the end of the kilometre of straight, then you try to brake 10 metres later than usual, but at 350 it’s difficult to understand where these 10 metres are that you need to gain maybe one-tenth.

Jack Miller (AUS/ Mission Winnow Ducati Team), Iker Lecuona (ESP/ Tech 3 KTM Factory Racing), Danilo Petrucci (ITA/ Tech 3 KTM Factory Racing) and Luca Marini (ITA/ Esponsorama Racing).

“In the desert maybe you can’t see where you need to go because the route is over a dune, 200 metres away, so you stop at the top to see and you say, ‘ah, that’s the route I have to follow’. The Dakar isn’t just about speed, it’s about mixing everything – maybe you take a hundred kilometres to gain one minute on another rider but then you miss the route and lose 10 minutes.”

Petrucci’s first attempt at desert navigation – on his last day of training with KTM’s Dakar team in October – didn’t go well.

“That day they left me alone to do the roadbook.”

Danilo Petrucci

The roadbook is the Dakar rider’s most important navigation tool. It’s a long scroll of paper, marked up by the rider and loaded into an aluminium holder on the dash. An electric motor scrolls forward or back, so the rider can find his way. At least, that’s the theory.

“I got a bit lost and nearly reached the border with Oman! Fortunately, I always had a phone signal, so I used the map on my phone to get back. I didn’t reach the hotel until the night and I was absolutely disappointed but the others said that’s normal at the beginning.

“I’m always looking for new experiences, so I’m accepting this new challenge to do a completely different kind of race and I want to prove to myself that I’m able to do that.”

   Interview Mat Oxley 

   Photography Ducati, KTM, Red Bull and Gold&Goose