Motorcycling: Melandri, the prodigy of speed, ready for psychological war against Rossi

Young Italian faces challenge of a legendary compatriot in tomorrow's British Grand Prix at Donington. By Gary James
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The Independent Online

The 22-year-old Italian shuns the favoured hangouts of most racers and lives in a converted barn in a village in Derbyshire.

"Life is easier here, because nobody knows me," Melandri said yesterday. "I can live quietly. And nobody here speaks Italian. That's important to me because in this sport you have to learn English."

Melandri has emerged as the closest challenger to Valentino Rossi in this year's MotoGP championship. He holds second place in the table to his fellow Italian, and has scored four podium places in seven races.

But the contrast between the two prodigies of speed, who grew up racing minibikes together, could not be greater.

For his British retreat from the Italian media, Rossi, 26, has selected a plush apartment in London's Belgravia. "I like the shopping, and the restaurants in London are very good," he says.

But Melandri prefers the calm of the sofa and an Italian DVD in his rural retreat. He does not have a girlfriend in his life at the moment - just the solace of 35-mile training rides on a bicycle with his neighbour Jamie Dobb, the former world motocross champion.

"All Marco really does is train," Dobb confirms. "He's very shy, but he's also very focused and motivated. He's going to be world champion in MotoGP."

Melandri has already achieved that honour in the 250cc class, when he became the category's youngest world champion, at 20 in 2002.

To win motorcycle racing's ultimate prize he will have to beat Rossi, one of the most ferocious competitors in the history of the sport. When the six-times world champion is threatened, he wages psychological warfare until the new rival is destroyed.

So how does Melandri plan to overwhelm Rossi? So far this season he has overtaken the king, and even led races. But he has never led Rossi past the chequered flag.

"I have to improve almost everywhere," he admits. "In qualifying I have to find the right settings for the bike [to go] faster, and I have to ride faster."

Ask him if he can actually beat Rossi in tomorrow's British Grand Prix at Donington, he does not become involved in the usual ritual of self-hype: he just says what he feels.

"I hope I will win a race this year, but I can't really say," he responds. "I am working very hard for this, but I can't tell you when it will be possible.

"For sure, Valentino will try to give me pressure and destroy me, because I am a new rival for him. Maybe the older riders already believe that he will always win, so it's difficult for them to beat him in the championship.

"But you have to believe you can beat him. If you don't believe it in your head, you can never beat him."

Melandri has already proved that he has the courage and intelligence to survive at the highest level. He was promoted to MotoGP in 2003 after his sweep of 250cc racing, but his life collapsed in a welter of crashes, surgery and poor results.

"Every three or four months I would have an injury," he recalled. "I was always trying to recover, and I had to start the season behind all the other riders." He also had problems fitting into the Fortuna Yamaha team, a satellite to Rossi's Gauloises Yamaha squad.

"If you don't trust the people who are working on your bike, it's difficult when you are riding at 300kph [186mph]," he said. "In my head everything was bad. I didn't have confidence in the bike.

"At one point I started to lose confidence in myself as well. This is the worst thing that can happen to a rider. Inside, I am older than 22."

Last winter he joined the Movistar Honda team run by Italy's former 125cc world champion Fausto Gresini. They deconstructed and rebuilt Melandri's racing personality.

"The mistake that riders make is to push to the limit before they know the bike," said Fabrizio Cecchini, Melandri's crew chief.

"Marco was obsessed with pushing, not working with the bike. If there was another rider in front, Marco would try to catch him. Even if he didn't have a good feeling with the bike, he only thought about catching the rider in front.

"We covered the display on the bike and on the computers in the pit box, so that Marco could not see any times. And every time he came up behind another rider in practice we put out his pitboard and brought him in. The bike did not need developing; Marco needed developing."

"They understood my situation," Melandri said. "It was like I was like a very young baby. Now I'm smiling again, and I feel 100 per cent safe."

Against all odds: The two British riders flying the flag at Donington

Shane Byrne: The 2003 British Superbike champion is developing the V4 Proton KTM for team owner Kenny Roberts, America's three-times world champion. Scored the bike's first championship point in California, and hopes to claim more at Donington.

James Ellison: The 2002 World Endurance champion's WCM is the slowest bike in MotoGP, but it is due a six-cylinder engine from the Czech manufacturer Blata in August. Ellison will be happy with a solitary point for 15th place in tomorrow's race.