The Italian Squeeze Job
by staff
Monday, November 12, 2012

Loris Capirossi, while he did not win the MotoGP title for Ducati, he did score the Italian team their first victory.
image thanks, ducati corse

Boys up and down Italy grow up wishing to race either on four wheels for Ferrari or two wheels for Ducati, the unofficial Italian national teams of Formula One and MotoGP, respectively.

Those kids should be careful what they wish for. There's an eerie similarity between Ferrari and Ducati: Both have been quicksand for racers from the madrepatria, the motherland.

It's been 20 years since an Italian driver raced full time for Ferrari in F1, Ivan Capelli in 1992. And he was fired with two races remaining in the season, replaced by Nicola Larini, who wasn't asked back to the team for 1993.

Ducati has featured only three Italians in its lineup since it joined MotoGP in 2003, Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri and Valentino Rossi.

Capirex enjoyed solid success with Ducati Corse. He earned seven victories and eight poles in five seasons between 2003-07, with a best championship finish of third in 2006.

Melandri? The first big Italian rider failure at Ducati MotoGP. He was groomed by then Ducati MotoGP exec Livio Suppo for a spot on the Ducati MotoGP team. His MotoGP career essentially ended there.

But Rossi's dream pairing with Ducati quickly turned into the Nightmare in Borgo Panigale. Seven-time MotoGP World Champion Rossi has recorded only three podium finishes in two seasons, with both the carbon-fiber and aluminum-framed Ducati bikes proving to be his kryptonite.

Rossi entered his relationship with Ducati filled with confidence, believing that he and crew chief Jerry Burgess could revive the team's moribund bike much like they did at Yamaha in 2004 immediately after moving from Honda.

Two years later, Rossi is a shattered superstar. His eyes have featured the hollow look of a haunted, lost soul almost since his very first test with the team in November 2010 at Valencia. He finally hoisted the white flag this summer and decided to limp back to Yamaha as the admitted No. 2 rider behind reigning World Champion Jorge Lorenzo.

Career destruction is a common thread among Italians at Ferrari and Ducati. The petrol-mad population of Italy reveres competitors for both teams, and that support elevates to worship when an Italian drives or rides for the team.

But there is a big trade-off. Racing for an Italian team brings unrelenting pressure for competitors from any nation. But when that racer is from the homeland, he can whirl in a psychological carnival ride unlike few others in sport.

Ferrari patriarch Enzo Ferrari reportedly swore off placing Italian drivers on his F1 team in the late 1960s due to the pressure from the media and the public. Three Italians also were killed behind the wheel of Ferrari F1 cars from 1957-67, which contributed to Ferrari's decision to bypass Italian drivers.

When an Italian wins for Ferrari or Ducati, he's the second-most popular human being in the land, behind the Pope. When he loses, he is pelted in a public pillory almost daily by a ravenous Italian media corps that feeds the public-interest beast, whether there is legitimate news or not. If there's nothing happening at Maranello or Bologna, members of the Italian media then try to outduel each other in an arms race of speculation, innuendo and opinion about Ferrari and Ducati.

Rossi faced that phenomenon with as much fury as any Italian racer because he stood alone, with little to no cover from any other competitors. An Italian driver hasn't competed in a race for Ferrari since injury substitute Giancarlo Fisichella in 2009, and it's been nearly two years since an Italian driver scored a point in F1 for any team. Rossi's teammate the last two years at Ducati has been American Nick Hayden, and Italy lost its future MotoGP supernova in October 2011 when Marco Simoncelli was killed at Sepang.

So all red, white and green eyes were on The Doctor for most of the last two years. The motorsports fate of a nation sat on his increasingly gaunt, sagging shoulders, even as Spaniard Fernando Alonso put up a good fight for Ferrari against the Red Bull juggernaut in F1.

There's a certain feeling Rossi is shedding two burdens by fleeing Ducati. One is technical, running as far as possible from the diabolical Ducati Desmosedici, a jigsaw puzzle that even his skilled hands couldn't piece together. The other is emotional, after failing to sanctify the racing soul of a nation on the home team.

Ducati welcomes two Italian riders to its lineup next season, Andrea Dovizioso on the factory team and Andrea Iannone on the new junior team. While they won't face anywhere near the suffocating pressure that Rossi did, both will be subject to scrutiny unlike anything they've ever felt before. Pressure will envelop them like a wet washcloth all season.

Good luck, Dovi and Crazy Joe. You're going to need it.


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