Motorcycling: Pedrosa has lived with the hype, but can he take the heat as the new Rossi?
Saturday 25 March 2006
Dani Pedrosa is living in a world of tension, emotion and wild expectations that would drive most people to lock the door and put their head under a cushion.
Billed as having the potential to be better than five-times world champion Valentino Rossi, the 20-year-old Spaniard gets his first chance to prove it tomorrow and in front of his own countrymen at Jerez to boot
You could excuse the boy - he has the looks and stature of a teenager - for backing out of the frenzy surrounding his debut with the élite in motorcycling and retiring to a bar in his home town of Sabadell, near Barcelona, to watch the race on television over a beer.
But Pedrosa and his mentor, the dour former racer Alberto Puig, remain calm. "Dani doesn't care much about these things," says Puig, who has already nurtured Pedrosa to world championships in the 125 and 250cc classes.
In one respect, Pedrosa and Puig, 39, are identical to the legendary Rossi, 27, and his crew chief Jerry Burgess, a 52-year-old Australian: they crush the opposition. But in personalities the two partnerships are from different planets.
The extrovert Rossi is famous for clowning around; Burgess likes to saunter to the Camel Yamaha hospitality lounge after qualifying sessions to relax with a drink. The pair are the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of the MotoGP world, kicking over tables, shooting out the lights and leaving the opposition in tatters as they ride into the sunset after another victory.
Pedrosa is a veteran of around 80 grands prix, but is an introvert and still looks nervous at functions. Puig - pronounced "Pwitch" - is a deep, intense, hard man: he shattered his left leg and his racing career in a 160mph crash at Le Mans in 1995. He then dedicated himself to developing world champions for motorcycle-mad Spain, and has succeeded brilliantly with Pedrosa.
"Alberto was the man who believed in my ability and taught me to be where I am now," Pedrosa says. "He never gives up even if the situation is very bad."
Pedrosa is conscious of the growing belief that he is the new Rossi. "I hear this 100 times a day," he says. "But I'm not the one to do it right now. I really don't care what they say. In the end, you do things for yourself."
Where does Puig expect Pedrosa to finish in his rookie season? "I will not answer that," he says. "The only thing we plan is to understand the machine and the tyres. When we get this right he will be first."
Pedrosa and Puig's attitude is understandable: winning the MotoGP championship is so hard that only 22 riders have managed it in the series' 54-year history. "All champions have certain characteristics, and at the top of them is ruthlessness," an insider in Pedrosa's Repsol Honda team said. "And Dani's definitely got that."
Pedrosa started racing on minibikes, and in 1998, at the age of 12, won the Spanish championship. But his carpenter father was not earning enough to fund more racing, and his son's career almost foundered.
The family replied to an advertisement seeking contenders for Puig's new 125cc youth series. Dani impressed and became one of Puig's elegidos - chosen ones.
In 2001 he entered his first grand prix, at 15 years of age. Thirteen days after his 18th birthday in 2003, he won his first world title in the 125cc class. He then progressed to the 170mph 250cc bikes, and swept that category in 2005.
So what did Puig see in the boy whose feet could not even touch the ground when he first tried a 125cc bike?
"He was a special kid: his natural talent is very high," Puig says. "He was not fast at that time, but he had nice lines on the bike and he always listened carefully."
Honda had been having problems getting their 215mph RCV211V to handle properly. The 330lb bike weighs three times more than Pedrosa's spindly 8st. But Puig will not use that to justify any lack of results. "Excuses are for mediocrities and losers," he said.
MotoGP's organisers must be marvelling at their luck. If Rossi, who was fastest in practice yesterday, quits at the end of the season for a new challenge on four wheels, they have Pedrosa to replace him. First, though, the boy must become a man, starting tomorrow.
MotoGP race days
Tomorrow Jerez (Sp)
8 April Losail (Qatar) (Sat race)
30 April Istanbul (Tur)
14 May Shanghai (China)
21 May Le Mans (Fr)
4 June Mugello (It)
18 June Barcelona (Sp)
24 June Assen, Neth
2 July Donington (GB)
16 July Sachsenring (Ger)
23 July Laguna Seca (USA)
20 Aug Brno (Cz Rep)
10 Sept Sepang (Malay)
17 Sept Phillip Island (Aus)
24 Sept Motegi (Jap)
15 Oct Estoril (Por)
29 Oct Valencia (Sp)
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