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Danilo Petrucci: from MotoGP to Dakar and beyond

Danilo Petrucci: from MotoGP to Dakar and beyond
No Matter WhatDanilo Petrucci’s career has been quite the rollercoaster. The 31-year-old Italian and long-time #revitrider went from bidding an emotional farewell to his time in MotoGP to making a bizarre racing debut in the Dakar Rally in a matter of just 47 days. This mindboggling turn of events calls for an in-depth interview with Danilo. We sat down with him when he came to visit the new REV’IT! headquarters for the first time.
REV’IT!: Gone are the one-piece racing leathers, switching to off-road gear instead. And in just a few weeks’ time, you had immersed yourself in a completely new world. How did you come up with the idea of racing the Dakar Rally, especially considering you had only just finished the season in MotoGP?

Danilo: “The plans were finalized only last August, after I had mentioned to KTM I wanted to race in the Dakar someday. It was something I had always dreamed of doing, but frankly, I could’ve never imagined taking part in it that quickly. Looking back, I think the timing could not have been any better."

“I had gotten tired of the constant pressure you face in MotoGP. I didn’t get the feeling of having fun riding bikes anymore, and I believed I could get that back in the Dakar. But of course, I knew it was going to be a challenge with so little time between the end of the MotoGP season and the start of the Dakar Rally.”

You said you had always dreamed of doing the Dakar, where did that dream originate?

“I have my father to thank for that. He used to work in the Grand Prix paddock as a truck driver for Team Pileri – the team Loris Capirossi used to race for. He would always bring home VHS tapes when he got back from race weekends. Nowadays, parents give their kids a mobile phone to use, but I got a video cassette recorder to watch those tapes! By the time I was four years old, I had figured out how to work the VCR and I watched Grand Prix racing tapes a lot. Occasionally, there would be bits of Dakar footage in there too, which piqued my interest. Later my father went to work for KTM when they started out in the road racing world championships."

“KTM was already a really big name in motocross, and in the Dakar Rally, of course. It was around that time I got a new hero. After Loris Capirossi, I really looked up to Fabrizio Meoni. I still have a poster of him on my wall back home. He was a top-level rider in the Dakar Rally. He even managed to win it – twice! My father knew him quite well and they went off-road riding together a few times. Though I did get to meet Meoni once, unfortunately I never got the chance to ride with him myself. I was only twelve at the time and didn’t have my license yet, so I just stuck to motocross.”

You had some previous off-road experience under your belt, but surely you were surprised with your own performance in the Dakar Rally, too.

“It was very difficult for me to judge just how tough the Dakar Rally would actually be. I had heard the stories, of course, but those stories don’t even tell half the tale. After experiencing it myself, I now know just how grueling it really is. To be honest, I did not expect it to be that extreme. Doing three or four days of riding off-road is okay, but two full weeks… It’s absolutely crushing."

“Compared to the Dakar Rally, a MotoGP race is more like a sprint. In terms of results, I didn’t know what to expect either. I mean, I had only raced in one rally event before the Dakar. So, I sat down with the team to try and set a reasonable goal for the event. We decided that we would be perfectly happy to finish in the top thirty. I never imagined making it into the top-ten. Let alone win a stage.”

"We decided that we would be perfectly happy to finish in the top thirty. I never imagined making it into the top-ten. Let alone win a stage."

At what point did you start to realize you might actually get some really good results after all?

“On the second day, when I finished in 13th place, I knew it was because a lot of top riders had made a big mistake navigating – something like eight of them. So, I was well aware it would be difficult to make it into the top-ten regularly, because under normal circumstances, I would’ve finished behind those guys, too. And then the next day, my KTM broke down with an electrical issue. It felt like I lost whatever chance I had of getting a strong result. It was such a massive disappointment. That completely changed when I heard I had actually been fighting for the podium until then. It boosted my confidence a lot."

“In the first stages, I had already noticed that I could excel on certain terrains. Like for instance, on the fast, rocky plains. On those sections, you’re almost constantly in fourth, fifth, and sixth gear. The stage was like that on the day I eventually came in third. Starting from around twentieth place, I overtook so many riders. It almost felt like a MotoGP race. Because of the high-speed nature of the rally stage, we had our first fuel stop relatively early on. One of the officials came up to me. ‘Number 1,’ he said. I was like, no, my racing number is 90. But he meant I was in first place. I could not believe it. Not until he showed me the classification at least. It’s a shame I got a time penalty in the end, but for me it was just really cool to be able to run at the front like that.”

Until the next day, when you became the first rider in history to secure a race win in both MotoGP and in the Dakar.

“Exactly. That was crazy! In only my first year competing in Dakar, with hardly any real rally racing experience, without any serious preparations, and I just managed to get a stage victory."

“Lots of riders compete in the Dakar Rally for years and never even win a single stage. What happened after that, was just insane. Everyone wanted to talk to me after I won, so I was in the picture a lot. It was so nice to feel positive energy like that again.”

Though, for a moment, it looked like you wouldn’t be able take part in this year’s Dakar at all.

“That was a close one, indeed. It started when I broke my ankle, even though I didn’t have much preparation time to begin with. With twenty days to go before the start, I could barely stand on it, let alone ride a bike. I wanted to try and see how the ankle would hold up in the shake down, just before the actual start of the Dakar. I had to be careful with it, but I knew then - the injury at least - wouldn’t keep me sidelined for the rally. A few minutes later, everything completely changed again."

“When I got back to our truck, the team told me I had tested positive for Corona. I could not believe it. But I also knew I had to keep calm – it wasn’t game over right away. I went to the bivouac as fast as I could to get another test done. Then, I had to isolate myself, and of course, that’s when you start to think. It really felt like a nightmare, but fortunately, I got the good news soon enough.”

You’re used to high speeds from your time in MotoGP. Do you reckon you had an edge because of your experience racing in MotoGP in other ways, too?

“That’s right, speed wasn’t an issue. Other riders mentioned to me they had noticed my outright speed, too. My balance on the bike and my quick reflexes were also of good use. Those are all skills and qualities, I built up in MotoGP.”

And what are the things you could still definitely improve on?

“That’s a no-brainer. That would be navigating, for sure. I remember when we went training in the desert in Dubai. That was my first time using a roadbook and it was a total disaster. I got completely lost, the sun had already started to set, and it turned out I was still over 100 kilometers from Dubai. I really was close to tears. That’s when I knew I was clearly doing something wrong, but I was fortunate enough to have incredibly helpful teammates."

“Sam Sunderland and Toby Price answered all my questions – and I had so, so many questions for them. They helped me get to grips with the whole navigation thing. So, in the end, I understood what it takes to navigate in the Dakar Rally, but there’s obviously still so much left to learn in that area.”

MotoGP and the Dakar Rally are two totally different types of motorsports. How would you compare the two?

“It’s an entirely different world in Dakar. You can’t really compare the atmosphere in the bivouac to the GP paddock. I do genuinely love the MotoGP paddock, but there’s just such a strong sense of togetherness in the Dakar Rally. It’s like you’re all experiencing the same adventure together. Building up your race is another major difference, too. It’s so difficult to judge. In MotoGP you’re always running at 100 percent, but in the Dakar that’s simply not possible."

“Not just because you’re on the bike for days on end, but also because of the constant danger. Having a crash at only 20 kph can already have big implications here. There is no margin for error, none at all. But then there’s no such thing as a perfect day in the Dakar either. When you’re riding for several hundred kilometers, you’re bound to make a mistake somewhere. With that in mind, it’s quite the struggle to suppress the feeling of fear. So much so, I’m not so sure about a full-time switch to rally raids just yet.”

"It’s quite the struggle to suppress the feeling of fear. So much so, I’m not so sure about a full-time switch to rally raids just yet."

Photo by @mcavadini
You mentioned you got tired of the pressure of racing in MotoGP, and now you’ve signed with Warhorse HSBK Racing Ducati to race in the MotoAmerica Superbike Championship. Is getting away from the pressure you mentioned what drives you to go racing in the US?

“I have had a long and very nice career in MotoGP, but lately, I hadn’t been enjoying it as much as I used to. MotoGP is really only fun when you’re able to fight for the podium. This new move came at just right time. I needed something different altogether to try and find a nice balance between performance and pleasure."

 

“With the Dakar Rally, I felt like I had made the right decision and hopefully it will be the same for racing in MotoAmerica. It’s hard to say right now, but I am feeling happy to take on this challenge. I really wanted to discover what America is like – I’ve always had a soft spot for that country.”

Looking back at a successful Dakar Rally, you’re now shifting focus to racing in MotoAmerica Superbike Championship. Do you think you will be able to combine the two in the future?

“I’m not sure, to be honest. There’s the issue of working with two different manufacturers, KTM and Ducati. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to take, because of course, KTM wasn’t happy about me racing in America with Ducati. When I first joined KTM, I told them I had no intention of ever leaving the brand. But then we didn’t really see eye-to-eye and communication didn’t go the way I would’ve liked."

“I did not want to end up without a ride, so in the end, I chose what’s best for me. It was mostly just miscommunication, we’re still very much on good terms. For now, it’s all about figuring out where to go from here. I’m taking it one step at a time, but I’m not making a secret of wanting to go race the Dakar again. Preferably with better preparations this time, like for instance, doing the Rallye du Maroc ahead of time.”

Photo by @mcavadini
Lastly, you’ve shown promise as a multi-disciplinary talent, moving to the US… So, when can we expect the announcement of your debut in Flat Track or Supercross?

“Hahaha. I actually already asked my new team if I could do an off-road event in America sometime. Cross-country is very popular there, so who knows? I would love to give it a go, but of course, it all depends on my racing schedule."

“And I do have a flat track bike back home, but I haven’t touched that in quite a while. That said, I would like to try that in America. There’s just so much I want to do and I’m already looking forward to doing all sorts of riding.”

The Human Side of REV’IT!

After years of putting his trust in REV’IT! gear to protect him, Danilo Petrucci (31) has formed a strong bond with the brand. Now we’re heading into yet another season together, kicking things off successfully already, with his amazing debut in the Dakar Rally. “REV’IT! was the first brand to truly believe in me when I made the move to Ducati in 2015. Our bond has only strengthened since then, but there are two things that stand out about our relationship. For one, a rider needs to feel both safe and secure, and that’s exactly how I feel with REV’IT!."

“But to me, the human side of things is also an incredibly important part of it. It’s something REV’IT! really excels at. The general consumer only gets to see and feel the quality of their products, but I also get to work with the people that make up REV’IT! and experience first-hand just how much passion goes into their work. There’s a strong sense of mutual respect – you really feel it. That, to me, makes all the difference in the world. It was the same when I entered in the Dakar Rally. They got right to work to help make it happen. I’m very happy and I am truly proud to have been the first REV’IT! rider to take part in the Dakar Rally.”

More Danilo?

We’ll see Danilo once again in bright red REV’IT! racing leathers as he heads on his American adventure in MotoAmerica Superbike Championship with Ducati. Find out more about Danilo and his days racing for the famous Italian brand that brought him his biggest successes in racing.