‘Not My World’

How often do we hear elite athletes admitting they were hopelessly out of their depth? And how often do we come across one apologising for their success? In the cutthroat world of MotoGP, it goes without saying the answer is somewhere between rarely and never.

But the class’ second first-time winner in four races has done just that – and not only once. On Sunday, after what was undoubtedly the finest performance in his 124 premier class races, Danilo Petrucci repeated a line that he has often delivered as a reminder of how far he has come. “Many times in the past [I nearly] quit my career because I said ‘this is not my world’.”

The 28-year old went on to apologise for triumphing by just 0.043s – the 13th closest finish in premier class history – four times in the press conference that followed. Petrucci was aware he had taken points away from team-mate and team leader Andrea Dovizioso, to whom he dedicated the victory. What’s more he had helped the reigning champion Marc Marquez by forcing the #04 Ducati to lift at turn one on the final lap in what was the race-winning overtake. The Catalan’s title lead increased from eight to twelve points as a result.

But this opportunity had to be grabbed with both hands. Petrucci has been engaged in a very public duel with Jack Miller for the Ducati’s second factory seat in 2020. An early win has emphatically strengthened his case. Then there was the small matter of winning a home grand prix for Italy’s premier marque on Italy’s national day. “He said either I win a race for the factory Ducati team this year or I’ll never win in MotoGP,” said Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti. “And he did it.”

It’s been quite the journey to here. Little wonder Petrucci questioned his suitability to the MotoGP paddock, where the elite is afforded riches, superstar status and the very best of everything from a young age. The son of Danilo Senior, a chef, tyre technician and truck driver that worked for a host of teams including Loris Capirossi’s Pileri Honda squad in the nineties, Petrucci spent his childhood running around the paddock, watching Valentino Rossi, Dovizioso and a host of other Italian heroes. “Everybody knew me in the paddock since I was a child,” he said back in 2016. “I [always] thought, ‘One day I have to be in MotoGP.’”

Not that his status was worth anything when he sought to switch from motocross to road racing. His father funded a route through European Superstock championship then the hopelessly outgunned CRT vessels that contrasted sharply to the Moto3-to-Moto2-to-MotoGP path taken by nearly all of his rivals.

But this has offered real perspective. The stocky Italian remains grounded and self-deprecating. After his first MotoGP podium at Silverstone in 2015 he described catching and passing serial winner Jorge Lorenzo. “I’ve never seen that situation before,” he said before adding, “Only on the Playstation.” When he beat an injured Rossi for a famous home podium at Mugello two years ago, he later quipped: “I think someone will kill me today. I hope for the police.”

And in a sense this has been his undoing in recent times. Petrucci’s relative normalness – sympathising with press conference host and Tottenham Hotspur fanatic Steve Day over his team’s Champions League final defeat on Saturday evening is just one of a host of examples – means he doesn’t have that inherent, steadfast belief that he’s the best on the grid.

Or at least he didn’t, anyway. Finding a way into and successfully unlocking that talent that brought him seven premier class podiums before Sunday has been key to his adaption to the pressures that come with riding for a top factory team. It’s what Dovizioso, who has been on hand to offer up advice, noted when Petrucci first came into the fold at the close of 2018.

“Danilo has more potential than everybody thinks,” Dovizioso said back in January. On Sunday he noted, “I think he’s improved this season because he believed more in himself and he understood his potential. [Whereas] in the past he didn’t really believe in that and really didn’t analyse and realise the good points of him.”

Petrucci moved to Forli, Dovizioso’s hometown, at the start of 2019 to hone his approach. To his surprise, his team-mate presented him with a group of people that had put him on the path to becoming Marquez’s principle rival two years before. ‘If I help you, you’ll eventually help me’ was the reasoning and reflected their roles within Ducati for 2019. Among those introduced were Dovizioso’s doctor and sports psychologist, who allows his subjects to “train your mind like a muscle.”

This can be crucial to maintaining calm and self-belief during moments of hardship, as Dovizioso explained to Spanish daily El Pais last August. “The good thing is that mentally the margin to improve is really big compared to improving physically. It’s important to be able to know yourself well. When you know certain details about yourself, it’s easier to improve … you realise all the cards you can play.” Petrucci has since had a different mental task each month. In March he was told he couldn’t complain. In April he played mind games each morning to improve the part of his brain that deals with logic. “Now I’m very good at Tetris,” he joked in Austin.

There were tweaks to his physical preparation, too. Weighing in at 78 kilos, Petrucci is comfortably MotoGP’s heaviest rider – Andrea Iannone (74kg) and Takaaki Nakagami (70kg) are the only others at 70 or above – a fact that causes him to overload the rear tyre, hampering tyre life. Having attempted slimming in the past with mixed success, there was a change in approach when he came to Forli.

“When I started to work with Dovi he said: ‘what are you going to do, the Olympics or MotoGP?’ For me it was normal to have three hours of training per day. And he said to not focus on the quantity, focus on the quality,” he told us back in January. “[Dovizioso said,] ‘You have to train shorter, but more intense, for what you need.” On Sunday the elder Italian added, “every time we’re [riding] flat track or motocross we push each other. This puts us on the limit [which] can help us both.”

Petrucci had to call upon all of this and more during Sunday’s 23-lap slog. He was heavily sick from Thursday with flu-like symptoms that left him struggling to breathe and “keep my eyes open” before FP2. Yet from lap eleven he was the one leading from the front, dictating the pace. His racing line and regular cut-backs through the final turn saw him gain time where the other Ducatis appeared to lose it and owed to his days as Ducati’s Superbike/stock test rider in 2011 when he “did maybe over 1,000 laps inside here.”

And how he held his nerve in the face of Marquez’s late pressure made a mockery of the fact his last win had come seven years, seven months and 17 days ago in his final Superstock bow. This took guts, belief and sheer talent to outmuscle the reigning champion in this kind of form around the series’ most spectacular venue.

So where does he go from here? Petrucci now sits fourth overall and has promised to devote his attention to aiding Dovizioso’s title charge. And once he analyses and reflects on this latest achievement, the Italian will surely see he has found a place where he truly belongs.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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