Last week, famed Italian motorcycle racer Danilo Petrucci confirmed that he would race on the Motul World Superbike tour for the first-time next season, aboard a satellite Barni Ducati. Many fans were expecting Petrucci to compete for a second straight season in the MotoAmerica series, also on a works-supported Panigale V-4 Desmo.
It says much about Petrucci that he made his final decision, guided by Ducati, so late in the season – really, in the off season. While younger, up-and-coming racers typically know their fate mid-season, established 32-year-old ace Petrucci was willing to wait and see what was possible for 2023.
Petrucci has a remarkable resume, including winning the Italian National Superbike Championship (CIV) back in 2011. He made it to MotoGP the next season, but on a Claiming Rules Teams (CRT) Ioda machine with an Aprilia RSV4 engine.
CRT was a budget-oriented means to try to straighten the thin MotoGP grid of the era, and (more likely) place pressure on the factories to support satellite efforts on hand-me-down factory equipment. The ploy worked, and lead to rules concessions that make MotoGP the so-competitive series it is today.
The Ioda team moved to a Suter/BMW in the same division the next year, but in 2014 went back to Aprilia street-bike power. Petrucci missed some races due to injury and wound-up 20th overall and fifth in the CRT category.
The big move came in 2015, when he signed a two-year deal with Pramac, returning to Ducati. He earned his first career primer class podium in the rain in England, starting 18th and winding up 2nd behind Valentino Rossi. His “rainmeister” credentials were thus established.
In 2016 he was upgraded to a works bike, scoring two podiums, and ending the season eighth overall. In 2018, now teamed with Jack Miller, he got another second in France, and again placed 8th overall.
In 2019 and 2020, Petrucci joined the factory Ducati team, winning in Italy and placing 6th in points. In 2020, his season was less impressive, but he earned a flag-to-flag victory, again in the wet, at Lemans.
With KTM’s Grand Prix influence expanding, Petrucci jumped to the satellite Tech 3 squad, where he earned a best result of fifth on the sometimes-difficult Austrian entry. By August of last year Petrucci knew he would not have a Grand Prix seat in 2022.
Very popular in the paddock, Petrucci was outspoken about the pressure of chasing “one or two tenths for a whole weekend” in the pressure cooker of the modern GP. He told me that in 2021 he was frequently racing on track with Rossi, who was also attracting attention with his career struggles. This put things in perspective for Petrucci.
Petrucci’s short term goal at the end of 2021 was to take advantage of his unwanted MotoGP break to take part in the Dakar Rally. KTM were glad to help and showed his Raid machine at Petrucci’s farewell GP at Valencia in November. But Petrucci got hurt training, and his broken leg wasn’t fully healed when the South American event began.
23rd in the Prologue event, Petrucci had an impressive debut, netting 13th in the first stage. Then he had mechanical issues in part two and was rescued by helicopter. Taking a twelve-hour penalty (!), Petrucci rejoined the event and won the fifth stage.
Petrucci then made the jump to MotoAmerica, with a multiple-dealer backed works Ducati effort organized by famed tuner Eraldo Ferracci, now retired from his Pittsburgh-area Ducati shop. His debut at the Circuit of the Americas was quite a big deal, since the Superbike race was in support of MotoGP, and no one in the main paddock had seen Petrucci since his impressive Dakar debut.
There was lots of attention and support for Petrucci in Texas, and a weird set of circumstances lead to an impressive double win debut. In the post-race interviews, Petrucci seemed unsure of how it had all worked out and had concerns about the behavior of his spec Dunlop tires, issues that the other racers said were normal with the Buffalo-built rubber.
This much-debated issue is a key factor to Ducati’s efforts in the U.S.A., since the MotoAmerica series run on Dunlops, and World Superbike uses Pirelli slicks. Development is centred on the Pirelli tires, much different in construction when compared to the Dunlops.
In 2021, former MotoGP racer and World Superbike winner Loris Baz rode in the U.S. on a similar Ducati effort, and his season was plagued by inconsistencies and falls. When Baz returned to World Superbike in late 2021, he was immediately fast at Portugal – back on Pirellis. Petrucci had checked in with Baz, pre-season.
2022 was different. Reigning MotoAmerica Champ Jake Gagne struggled to find the consistent effort that he used to dominate 2021, and Petrucci hung on to the Championship lead for much of the season. The two were never together on-track, and by mid-season Petrucci’s best chance to run up front was on a wet track.
As well, it seemed that Petrucci became disillusioned with the series, looking glum and struggling to find a tome with interviewers that actually reflected his views. Ducati were willing to help, and a trip back to Italy for World Ducati Week might have confirmed his doubts and pointed the way for 2023.
Petrucci tried eventual World Champ Alvaro Bautista’s Pirelli shod Panigale points leading machine and was immediately on the pace.
Petrucci has often commented on the importance of height and weight at the top level, and while he is no giant, he is bigger that most elite racers. Some in World Superbike complain about the advantage the diminutive Bautista offers, and that factor was also an influence on Petrucci’s 2023 decision – he was fast on the same bike, even though he’s bigger.
“I have the opportunity with a very competitive team,” confirmed Petrucci. “I used a bike like this in 2022, but on other tracks with other tires. I was excited with the idea of riding the Ducati where it is at it’s best because it’s the bike that won the Championship this year. “I like riding, and if I can choose, I choose the most competitive bike. I did a lot of thinking; it took me a long time to come to this decision. I also want to race where I haven’t raced yet.”
Insiders suggest that Petrucci was open to Ducati’s direction and felt some loyalty to Ferracci’s team. As well, he apparently turned down a pay increase to stay in MotoAmerica next year.
It will be intriguing to see where Petrucci can fit in at the front of the incredibly competitive World Superbike field, facing the “holy trio” of Champ Bautista (Ducati), last year’s titlist Toprak Razgatlioglu (Yamaha) and six-time WSBK Champion Jonny Rea (Kawasaki).
- From Colin Fraser