With four of the top seven from last year's Moto2 championship moving up to MotoGP, the intermediate class is wide open for 2017. There are riders like Lorenzo Baldassarri, Tom Luthi, Franco Morbidelli, and Taka Nakagami who start the season hotly tipped for success. There are dark horses like Miguel Oliveira on the KTM, Domi Aegerter and Danny Kent on the Suters, Alex Márquez on the Kalex. And to top it all, there is an exciting crop of rookies entering the class, headed by reigning Moto3 champion Brad Binder, with Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia to watch as well.
What surprises is the depth of Italian talent in the class, a product of leading Italian teams in Moto2, and the conveyor belt of talent emanating from the VR46 Academy backed by Valentino Rossi's mighty commercial empire. The combination of those two forces was present at the launch of Forward Racing's Moto2 campaign for 2017 in Milan. The team, owned by Giovanni Cuzari and now run by Milena Koerner, sees their two riders from last year return, with Lorenzo Baldassarri expected to challenge for the title, and Luca Marini aiming to regularly challenge the top five, and start knocking on the door of the podium.
But Lorenzo Baldassarri is clearly the main focus for Forward in 2017. During the presentation, both team owner Cuzari and VR46 principal Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci anointed the 20-year-old Italian as the favorite for the title. A small group of journalists attending the launch gave Baldassarri a grilling on how he felt about the upcoming season. Starting with whether he felt any pressure after hearing Cuzari and Uccio tell the crowd they expected him to win the title this year.
"Sure," Baldassarri said. "I'm a rider, so all the riders have pressure. In the first year we are competing for the title, because you give always your 100%, without making mistakes. So it's normal for us, and we are able manage this pressure."
Did Baldassarri see himself as the favorite for the title? "For sure there are many riders this year competing for the championship, but I can do it, so one of my aims is to try to achieve the championship. But I know that many riders went up to MotoGP, so there are three or four riders who are very fast, but I will do my best to give my 100% every race, and most of all to be constant compared to this year."
"The past year was a little bit up and down, especially the first part of the season was very tough. And then to stay as much as possible in the first three positions." Baldassarri had a clear idea of who he expected to be his main rivals. "There's Tom Luthi who is an experienced rider in Moto2. And there is Franco Morbidelli and Taka Nakagami. Also, we will see the new manufacturer KTM, and Suter who are coming back."
Baldassarri is renowned for his attention to detail. He explained some of his approach to each season. "I try to prepare all of the details. For example, watching old races, and this winter, I watched all the races and also qualifying practice. I tried to study my riding style from the videos and photos. And also try to compare my riding style to the riding style of the other riders. And try to learn a lot from Vale [Rossi], absorb all I can from the teacher."
Rossi isn't the only person Baldassarri turns to for guidance. The VR46 Academy has a full-time riding coach, the Spaniard Idalio Gavira, who watches all of its riders. "He's very important, because he is the man that goes to the track and sees all the riders in one corner or another corner, see which gear they are using. So he can explain how to ride better, where to improve, like a coach. He is for all the VR46 riders." Rossi helps when he can, but on race weekends, the Italian legend has to focus on his own race. "Vale also helps us at the track, when we are able to organize a meeting at the track. But he's very busy, so we organize at home or in the gym."
The VR46 Academy
Baldassarri explained just how important the VR46 Academy has been in reviving the fortunes of Italian motorcycle racing. Previously, riders came from Spain, getting their racing education through the Spanish CEV championship before entering Grand Prix. The VR46 Academy has changed much of that.
"For sure VR46 was very important for us," Baldassarri told us. "Before, the Spanish riders had a school that we didn't have. So the team managers were helping Spanish riders to progress very fast. And the Italians didn't have the same school to help them. Nobody believed in them. So now, with the VR46 Academy, this school with Vale, we are growing up very fast. That's one of the reasons Italians are coming back."
What's the most important thing you learn at the Academy? "For sure, there are many aspects. About training, it was new for me. Especially the riding. But also riding style, because I was working on details, and I learned from Vale. Speaking with Vale at the Moto Ranch also helps us, because of the control of the bikes. And also the competition, because every time we are at the ranch, we have a competition. It's like we are in the tension of a real race. The motivation to improve every day."
The VR46 dirt track ranch – the Moto Ranch – was helping Baldassarri address what he saw as his biggest weakness in his riding. "In the winter, especially after the surgery in my shoulders, I have worked a lot on the Moto Ranch and in the gym, for my riding style I was having difficulty riding in mixed conditions, dry and wet, I don't like those conditions. But a rider has to be complete, so I tried to do my best, also in Valencia when the track was strange, dry and wet. So I improved some parts there, and the Moto Ranch is also very useful there. I think also in the winter test I will be riding in cold conditions to improve that point."
Is Baldassarri thinking beyond Moto2 to MotoGP? "Yes, sure. I'm thinking about it since I was a child, because it's one of my dreams to go to MotoGP. So I will do my best for this, but the important thing is to not be in too much of a hurry to make this jump. I think it's right to do it when I'm ready, and there's a good team to go with."
MotoGP would make life easier for Baldassarri, because of his height. "Much more power, for sure it would be good, because I'm tall and heavy. So it will be very nice, and I want to try it. Tomorrow!" He had talked to his friend and housemate Pecco Bagnaia about it after the Aspar rider was given a chance to test the Ducati GP14.2 ridden by Eugene Laverty in 2016. "He was in Moto3 and tried the MotoGP before me, so I asked him his impressions. He said it's very impressive. The jump is bigger than mine [to Moto2]."
With Bagnaia now also moving up to Moto2, sharing a house with a rival could place strain on their relationship. "It will be strange! Different!" Baldassarri told us. "We were speaking about this, but I think nothing will change. Before, it was different, because he was in Moto3, but now that he is in Moto2, we were saying we will be throwing plates at each other in the house! But it will be for me, we have respect for each other, and I think, like with Luca, in the track we are enemies, but also in the house or with Luca in the box, we are very friendly. And maybe we can help each other. Also in the practices, or for example with some advice."
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