Marco on the Moviestar factory Honda RC211 at LeMans.

Who is this new MotoGP star Marco Melandri?
After a difficult couple of years in MotoGP, following on from a championship win in the 250 class, Marco Melandri's world changed after he got the call from his native Italy. Now in a team run by Fausto Gresini, Melandri has been reprogrammed and re-engineered inside, pointed in the right direction by a group of people with a proven track record at building bikes, riders and points tallies. Gordon Ritchie describes how Gresini and co changed the trajectory of one of MotoGP's most promising upwardly mobile riding talents.

The latest product of race-mad Italy to take on the world in MotoGP is Marco Melandri. World Champ in 250s in 2002, his promotion into MotoGP in 2003 was a torrid affair. Crashes, injuries, inconsistency and an overriding desire to win, so strong it ultimately became his undoing, dropped Melandri off the radar as the next big thing in MotoGP. A lifeline was offered in the off-season by one of the most respected teams in the entire MotoGP paddock, the Gresini squad, headed up by the diminutively proportioned giant of a personality that is double 125 champion, Fausto Gresini. So since he joined the close-knit squad in the winter, Marco has - by turns- been cosseted, cajoled, hoodwinked and cuddled into a rider who has finished the first two races of his new career in third and fourth places.

How on earth did that happen? Defined intervention, with a distinctly family flavour.

It was obvious to Gresini, and to his massively experienced crew chief
Fabrizio Cecchini, that Marco's talents would only flourish in the correct growing conditions. So they adopted a carefully considered plan to build confidence and calmness in equal parts, and curb Melandri's natural racer's urge to go as fast as possible, absolutely all the time. He is, after all, only 22-years old.

Fausto Gresini is no stranger to helping Honda riders progress their
careers. He was a prime mover in the transition of Loris Capirossi from enfant-terrible to double 125-title winner, after Fausto broke his leg and ended his own chance of yet another crown. Before joining Fausto, Sete Gibernau was also not quite the force he is now, thanks in part to the all-conquering RC211V, and the efforts of the Gresini team. For Fausto, signing a rider like Marco fulfills two key roles. One is bringing a young rider of talent into the fold for the future, and the other is the sheer challenge of getting talent to shine through in an increasingly consistent fashion.

As Fausto himself stated, "In my opinion Marco has a chance to enjoy a good experience with us in MotoGP. At 22 he is a very young rider, and with one 250cc title to his credit, he obviously has a lot of potential. But right now what is most important is that he can have a team which is like a family for him. In my team, it is like family."

The family feeling is due to the long relationships enjoyed by some members of staff, who have been an integral part of the teams ops since day one. 'The keys to Marco's development are many," says Fausto, "Fabrizio Cecchini, who worked at the top level with Daijiro Kato, for example. He is a very good chief mechanic and controls everything for Marco. I have known Fabrizio for 20 years, he has been with me since the very beginning." Fabrizio takes up the story himself, of how they started turning a talented but troubled rider into a thinking, believing, focused MotoGP competitor.

"When Marco arrived in our team he had two difficult years in MotoGP, losing confidence in himself and his team," said Cecchini. "Our plan was to put him under no pressure, to explain everything I know about the bike to him step-by-step. Engine, electronics, tyres. Then we got him to evaluate just one thing at a time, concentrated only on that. We wanted to understand what he said. Marco appreciated our approach and he grew in confidence. We needed to get him to trust us when he was out on the track."

Melandri willingly acknowledges what the team were doing for him, and realized early on that it was just what he needed. "When I arrived in the Gresini team it was just after what had probably been the worst period of my career and my life. I was very sad inside because nothing was good last year. Thinking about racing, I had completely lost confidence and everything was so difficult for me. For me it was important to have good relationship with the team. They understood my situation and really it was like I was a very young baby. The first things they did were to give me confidence and try to make me smile. When I started to smile, to understand, we talked together about the plan for the tests through the whole winter. At that time it was impossible for me to think that I could be on the podium at the first race in Jerez. But even after the first test I was very happy because when I stopped at the garage I saw on people's faces that they were smiling, happy to work with me. This gave me a lot of confidence. The 2004 season was difficult to forget but the new team helped me to enjoy myself again. When you forget what you did before, only then can you start again to rebuild something new and better."

Marco, having now ridden a large variety of two-stroke and with two years on four-strokes, now knows a good bike when he sees it, and pays homage to the part the proved RC211V has played in his recent turnaround. "The balance of the Honda is simpler and it is good because you cannot move so many things. You cannot change a lot of geometry on the bike. Sometimes you
have some problems but you see some of the other Honda riders are fast. And you think inside yourself 'they can go fast with the same bike that you have.' I think this gives you a big motivation. My Yamaha last year was very different from Valentino's bike. You could change every kind of geometry of the bike. When you lost your way, it was so difficult to come

Gresini adds more detail on how to re-educate, "In the winter Marco worked more for mileage and feeling. On two occasions he had crashes in off-season testing, and after that he felt like he was finished. So we had to explain to him in details why he crashed, what his main target was, not just the lap time. All we asked him about was the balance of the bike, how the tyres felt. We were not worried about the gap to other riders; we wanted him to think about the more important things, like how the bike feels. The bike did not need developing, Marco needed to develop." Marco's headstrong approach to riding when he joined the team at first may

have been a necessary evil for any rider intent on beating the best in the world, but Cecchini took some radical steps to protect his new charge from himself.

"The mistake that all riders make first time out is to push to the limit before they know the bike," affirms Cecchini. "The first things that Marco wanted to see were the times, so one of the first things I did was to cover the display on the bike and the displays on the computers in the pit box, with sheets of paper. Marco could not see any times. He asked about them and I said, 'don't worry about that, how do you feel.' There was an immediate change when he covered the times up. He was only three tenths slower than Sete, without realizing what times he did, just by not pushing to match a certain lap time."

Cecchini continues, "Before covering the times Marco had said "tomorrow I will go faster, definitely faster" - and he went half a second slower. He was only obsessed with pushing, not working with the bike. The other thing I realized was that if there was another rider in front of Marco, then he would try to catch him. Even if Marco did not have a good feeling with the bike, he was just thinking about catching the rider in front. So he made alot of mistakes, and when he came back into the pits he would complain about the bike in certain sections. But it was only so that he could go faster than the other rider through that section. So every time he came up behind another rider we put out his pitboard and brought him into the pits! At the first few winter tests he was lapping always alone! All we wanted to do was to get him used to the bike. Only when we felt he was prepared, did we let him lap quickly on the bike with other riders."

Gresini takes up the story, "If Marco is practicing on track and it is no good we will stop him in the box. He sometimes says, 'Ah, I am bad and many riders are stronger.' Then we sit him down, keep him talking, talking about the bike, what is good and bad about the set-up, where it works, what he prefers. Then only then send him back out. After we have finished his mentality and ready to restart, he is changed and he can go back out. If he had just continued on as he was, he would have gone down."

In summation of his new work in progress, Cecchini acknowledges that in a team with Sete Gibernau and with a sorted machine and tyre package there was only one variable left. Marco. Which made the task clearer, if still a challenge for all. "The bike is already so balanced and together, running good tyres, that all we had to work on was Marco. We worked only on the mentality of the rider." And it has certainly worked out so far. Two top four finishes, in as many MotoGP races, are the proof of that, with more promised when Marco is ready to make the next upward move.

For Gresini, it is all about mentality, and he knows it has already paid off. "The mind is more important than ever before. Starting on a Yamaha was a complicated way for Marco in MotoGP. I spoke to Michelin and last year they were not that happy when they worked with him. But this year they are much happier. Now it is a complete change. It is important to have the correct willpower to work and win. And we are helping Marco with that more than anything."

For Cecchini, Melandri has been a willing and able pupil, who has passed all the important first hurdles with room to spare. Even Marco's podium placing in round one came not through aggression but a cool head and attention to the job in hand. "The first race is like an examination of all the winter tests, so it is important not to try and exceed the limit," said Fabrizio. "Otherwise you crash - and destroy all the work you have done over the winter. At Jerez, when we saw Marco was at the limit, we put out the board to say 'OK, slow down', because he had a good gap to fifth. Marco listened to us, responded by slowing down just a little and that was a victory for us. So when the rider in front crashed, and Marco got the podium well, that was just the final prize to cap it all." After the job they have done in turning Marco, the lost talent, into Marco, the MotoGP racer, it seems everyone in the Gresini team deserves a prize of some sort.

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