Fausto Gresini has been an owner in the most difficult of spots for most of his 27 years at the helm of grand prix motorcycle racing teams, generally burning his own money or money he has personally raised from sponsors. As a rider himself in the 80′s, he won world titles in the 125cc class. His teams have included a kaleidoscope of title sponsors and have won titles in the 250cc, Moto2 and MotoGP classes. Heading into 2015, he has a right to feel jinxed.
We assume Mr. Gresini to be self-aware, able to acknowledge that his efforts to create championship racing teams over three decades has been a constant struggle against a number of tides. A strong nationalist, Gresini has always wanted to run a purely Italian team, riding Italian machines with Italian riders and joyful Italian sponsors. However, as a satellite team owner, what we in youth soccer used to manage and refer to as a “B Team,” Gresini has experienced few highs and numerous lows, watching his teams compete for titles in the premier class of MotoGP.
Fausto Gresini, the owner of a satellite team, needs to divide his time between driving the techs and riders, and charming sponsors to sign on the dotted line. Over the years, these have included names such as Elf, Avo, Telefonica, Fortuna, Movistar (in 2005), and, recently, San Carlo, the big Italian chip manufacturer–snacks, not integrated circuits–from 2008 through 2012. It is impolitic to observe that during the period 2001 to 2014 his teams have experienced two world champions–Daijiro Kato in the 250 class in 2001 and Toni Elias, the winner of the intial year of Moto2 bikes in 2009–and the loss of their two top riders, Kato in 2003 and Marco Simoncelli in 2011.
Despite Fausto Gresini’s best efforts, success, or budding success, has been followed twice by tragedy that has set his program, such as it is, into the state in which it now exists, one of tarnished former greatness.
Gresini Racing, including the label of the sponsor of the season, has always had to work harder than his factory counterparts, most recently the factory Yamaha and Honda teams. Gresini was a Honda man for decades, through the years 2003-2005. Sete Gibernau finished second for the year in 2003 and 2004, with then youngster boy toy Marco Melandri taking 2nd in 2005, 4th in 2006, and 5th in 2007.
Gresini Roars Back after Kato Death
Gresini had overcome the racing death of Kato in 2003 and had come back strong with Gibernau and Melandri in 2003 and beyond, San Carlo by his side from 2008-2012. His fortunes turned south during 2007 with Melandri in MotoGP but turned north again in 2009 as journeyman Toni Elias won the Moto2 title.
Suddenly, in 2010 along comes Marco Simoncelli, the tall, gangly goofy-looking Italian free spirit who had managed to wrap his 6′something frame around the 250 cc bike in 2008 tightly enough to take the championship, followed by a third place finish in 2009. Gresini had signed the loose charismatic cannon to a two year contract in 2010 while the full-grown Melandri finished 10th and left for greener pastures. Simoncelli himself managed 8th place in 2010, getting joined by Hiro Ayoyama on the #2 bike who would take 10th the following year; the Italian spent most of the off season testing sessions near the top of the Alien rankings.
As the 2011 season approached, life was looking up for Fausto Gresini. In addition to a for-real competitive MotoGP team of Somencelli on the #1 bike and Aoyama on the #2, he was looking at a promising Moto2 team featuring Michele Pirro, who can ride, and Yuki Takahashi, the great Japanese hope. (Both would disappoint, with Pirro finishing ninth for the season and Takahashi 11th.)
Simoncelli, ruling the headlines but a hazard to himself and those around him, began the 2011 season showing promise on the factory-supported RC213V, but crashing out of three of the first six races, ruining the season of Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans, getting chippy with Lorenzo at a press conference, and slugging it out in the media with Albert Puig, Pedrosa’s Svengali, who seemingly had enough at that point to later re-define his job away from both Pedrosa and Simoncelli.
A disruptive force was Gresini Racing’s Marco Simoncelli in early 2011.
Lightning Strikes Again
Simoncelli, as we all now know, got things turned around in the second half of the 2011 season, with 4th place finishes at San Marino, Aragon and Motegi. His second place finish at Phillip Island showed him capable of taking podia on a regular basis, all things being equal, which they never are. Along came Sepang, along came the unthinkable, and Simoncelli was, instantly, snatched from the board. The personal tragedy was accompanied by a corporate disaster, as the rug had suddenly been violently pulled out from under the Italian sponsors. San Carlo would stick around for another year, a year in which they were left with Spanish underachiever Alvaro Bautista who was the only credible rider available late in the 2011 season, when they were suddenly bereft looking ahead to 2012.
Bautista who, one suspects, was never Gresini’s first choice on any count–ethnic, performance history–never did much with the Italian’s beloved factory-supported Honda (5th in 2012, falling to 11th in 2014) leading, ultimately, to Honda making it, um, unfeasible for Gresini to field a Honda-affiliated team in 2015. This coincided with Aprilia’s decision to enter the MotoGP fray a year earlier than had been previously announced, intending to field a two-man factory team in 2015 under the expert direction of, guess who, Fausto Gresini, and giving themselves a year to adjust to the program before Michelin enters in 2016 with the new line of MotoGP tires.
Gresini, still today stuck with the increasingly dysfunctional Bautista, finally signed the aging, microscopic Melandri in early November to ride the second glued-together Aprilia factory entry in 2015 , as Melandri was going to be a victim of corporate Aprilia’s decision to support MotoGP at the apparent expense of a highly successful World Super Bikes program that had produced titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
There’s just something about running with the big dogs…
A Look Ahead
Gresini, for all his efforts, despite brutal events which disrupted the fabric of two separate teams, and through a financial crisis that continues in Italy, finds himself today heading up a factory Aprilia team that plans to enter two glued-together prototypes while they develop a new from-the-bottom-up prototype for 2016, complete with Michelin tires, for their amico, although they were, through financial worry and corporate dithering, unable to prevent chief engineer Gigi Dall’Igna’s discouraging defection to Ducati Corse.
Despite his best efforts, Gresini is still stuck with Bautista and, now, with an aging Melandri, kind of an Italian Colin Edwards, whose grizzled features and extensive tenure are promoted as being directly helpful to Bautista, who has proven himself mostly un-coachable since winning the 2006 championship in the 125 cc class. Bautista, always super-concerned with his appearance and less with his performance, has managed to finish twice in 13th place for the struggling factory Suzuki program in 2010 and 2011, and as a seriously underachieving factory spec Honda rider for Gresini in 2012 through 2014, able to deliver only 5th, 6th and 11th place finishes for the name sponsors in those years.
Honda said sayonara to Gresini at the same moment Aprilia decided to compress their timeline to enter MotoGP in 2015, putting Gresini in charge of two riders, lending to the belief that Gresini had been looking. The program will be a bottom third team in the grand scheme of things, its riders likely to get lapped during a race or two. Whether the underfunded Italian group can produce a competitive MotoGP setup for 2016 remains to be seen.
If Fausto Gresini has anything to say about it, Aprilia will come out in 2016 with an Italian name sponsor, factory support, a brand new bike and a new Italian rider to replace Bautista, with Melandri either hanging around or not, depending upon the availability of a stud Moto3 rider, such as Romano Fenati or Enea Bastianni, who could fill the vacuum at the top of the 2015 Moto3 class left by the graduation of Marquez, Miller, and Rins. Such could presage the assumption of the #1 Aprilia bike in 2016 by an aggressive young Italian stud able to compete with a grid, all of whom are going to be adjusting to new controls and new tires. A world full of Marquezes and Espargaros. Rossis and Lorenzos. Vinales and Smiths.
It could happen. One never knows. Tires change everything. Electronics and data have taken over.
At Least For Now
At least for now, Fausto Gresini will have some help from Aprilia keeping things together while life at the top of MotoGP prepares to adjust to common ECU hardware and new rubber in 2016. Though there is less to do on the money side, there is much to do on the high octane side, which is where he’s probably most comfortable anyway.
Fausto Gresini’s MotoGP team will not challenge for a world championship in 2015. He will probably be around, perhaps in a good way, in 2016, when things change for everyone. He’s survived the loss of two riders and more sponsors than most people can name. But there he is, riding herd on a group of paisano gearheads, still with that damned Spanish guy, and now with the old Italian guy, trying to glue together a credible effort for the home team in 2015 and beyond.
Are Fausto Gresini’s salad days behind him? Probably. Is he still in position to enjoy himself and get some visceral return on the investment of his time and effort as a year-round owner and operator? Seems that way.
Perhaps he’s developed the perspective, after 27 years in the business, and with the passing of two riders, to be able to live life in the moment, to not obsess on what might have been, to accept his position in the corporate superstructure of a team as well as his prospects for achieving his goals, which haven’t changed in 27 years. Perhaps he’s had to, in the words of Stonewall Jackson, “elevate them gun sights just a little lower, boys,” understanding where he currently stands in the scheme of GP racing, where there are the haves and the have nots.
Gresini is a poster child for an athlete incapable of generating consistent winning results as a coach, owner or engineer after a sparkling career behind the handlebars. He could never coax performance at a level he could himself achieve from the bulk of the riders with whom he worked. Kato and Simoncelli were exceptions, in more ways than one.
We return to the original question. Questions, actually.
Does Fausto Gresini have a right to feel jinxed? Most definitely. Does Fausto Gresini have a realistic chance of coming back in 2016 with a competitive Aprilia factory team? Depends on how you define realistic. Is Fausto Gresini fully engaged in making things happen with his new team? Undoubtedly. Is Gresini, like Melandri, on the back end of his career? Probably. Would he do it all over again in much the same way? Probably. Would he give anything to have Kato and Simoncelli back?
You’re kidding, right?