The return of Marco Melandri to WorldSBK in 2017 has been one of the biggest talking points in the series over the last few months. The Italian has won 19 races from 100 starts in the championship, and as a former 250GP world champion and 22 times Grand Prix winner his credentials are highly impressive.
The last two years have been a blot on his copybook however. Having enjoyed an exceptionally strong finish to the 2014 WorldSBK season Melandri looked well placed to finally win a second world title. Winning six races and finishing fourth in the standings looked to be a perfect springboard for a title run the following year.
Aprilia had other ideas, however, and with Melandri forced to race in MotoGP the relationship turned sour. The then 32 year old walked out of MotoGP and out of racing mid-season. In a forced retirement Melandri has had to keep busy and while he felt that he could still race at the front he sought other challenges including opening a shop with his sister.
Getting back to racing and putting the Aprilia debacle behind is clearly a key motivator for Melandri. “This year I want to fight for wins,” said Melandri during this week's Jerez test. “I didn’t want to come back to just be a number. I know it will be not easy, but I trust a lot in what I have. I think that this has never happened to me before to have this kind of good package, so I’m feeling really good.
“For me my feeling is I’m that starting from the last race in 2014. 2015 was just a year to forget, like a nightmare. Not real life. I think that in my career I won a lot of races but I have won just one championship. I lost maybe three or four. So I think I now have the opportunity to finish my career in a good way.”
Having been using a Panigale R road bike in recent months in Italy and having some test days on the WorldSBK machine Melandri feels that the package underneath him is very strong. There is still plenty of work to do on the electronics but the basic package of the twin cylinder bike is clearly very strong. Last year Chaz Davies won seven of the last eight races on the bike and for Melandri it's clear that the Italian squad can hit the ground running in 2017.
“I really like the bike. For my riding style, and for my character, it’s very good. The feeling that you get from the bike is very important and I’m feeling comfortable on this bike and I can have fun with it. I’m not fighting the bike, so this makes me think very positive on the new season.
“For me, the engine character is very good. I really like it, so it makes my life easier. The guys around me, they work very professionally. I like the torque, it’s very nice. In very low revs you can find a good torque. For sure if you come from four cylinders it’s difficult because you expect a lot of revs, but this engine is like a diesel so you have to change gears very quickly.”
Having ridden for Yamaha, BMW, Aprilia and now Ducati in WorldSBK - not to mention Yamaha, Honda, Ducati and Aprilia in MotoGP - Melandri has plenty of variety with which to base his comparisons with other machinery. On initial impressions he said that the differences between different bikes can be exaggerated. For him it's about searching for certain characteristics that give him a positive feeling rather than inherit contrasts with the machinery.
“The Ducati is not much different to other bikes I have ridden. It’s about the same difference you can find between Yamaha to BMW to Aprilia. It’s not very far from the others. It’s two cylinders but when you ride you don’t count the cylinders! Going from one bike to another depends always on the feeling you have with the bike and the people you have around you.
“I think Ducati has the most complete electronics in the field. It’s difficult to set up though. For me and my electronics guy, he started with Ducati in Aragon, he has to learn the system. It will take a little bit of time but for sure I think the bike, the potential is very high.”
Performance from a modern WorldSBK machine is very much dependent on the electronics and getting the most from that package will be key for Melandri. With a new engineer working on the Ducati for the first time it will certainly take time to get the right base setting. In 2014 it was a similar story for Melandri as he adapted to the Aprilia but once he won one race he ran out the string with a series of superb performances. Taking six wins in the second half of the campaign he was the man to beat more often than not. It could be a similar story in 2017 once he has the bike to his liking, but Melandri is keen to downplay expectations and is realistic about his chances against the leading contenders.
“Kawasaki guys are much faster for sure than me in the lap times. But race distance I think Chaz was very strong. I don’t really know about Johnny's pace at the end of last year because for me he was racing for a championship and not for winning races. Only Qatar at the end he was pretty strong. But in braking Chaz is unbelievable! I think the strongest I’ve ever seen in braking. But they only have two arms and two legs, same as me. So I can be the same!”
In testing Melandri has been pleased with his pace and consistency but knows that making a step forward with fresh rubber is the key target ahead of the season opener in Australia. The extra grip from a new tire has been a struggle for him to fully understand how to set up the bike. Working with an electronics engineer new to the Ducati is also exacerbating this issue because “when you go out with new tires you have to change something with the traction control or something like that. So we still have to find the right pace to give me the same feeling on the throttle with the used tire and the new tire.”
Improving that feeling will be key but the most important feeling for Melandri will be one deep inside him. The burning desire to race and win is back in the Italian. It's easy to write him off following his disastrous MotoGP return but from the outset it was clear that he didn't have a desire to be on a MotoGP bike. He clearly has a desire to be in WorldSBK once again.
“I think when you miss something you like you understand even better what you really like. I have an even higher motivation than before and I missed racing and that adrenaline is something that I really need. So it was missing, and for that I was not seeing every race. When I was off I just tried to see what the life can offer me outside of the motorcycles. As a rider I know that the end of my career will arrive sooner but for me I still believe I can get good results.”
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