Fausto Gresini has been in a difficult spot for most of his 28 years in command of grand prix motorcycle racing teams, generally burning breathtaking sums of his own money and money he has personally raised from sponsors. As a rider himself in the 1980s, Gresini won two world titles in the 125cc class. As an owner, his teams have included a kaleidoscope of title sponsors and have won titles in the 250cc and Moto2 classes. In 2015, the Italian helms Aprilia’s re-entry into the MotoGP class with riders Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri.
Fausto Gresini will acknowledge that his efforts to create non-factory 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, with Italian riders and joyful Italian sponsors. However, as a satellite team owner, Gresini has experienced few highs and numerous lows watching his teams compete for titles in the various classes of grand prix racing.
Being the owner of a second-tier team, Gresini has always had to divide his time between overseeing his techs and riders while charming sponsors to sign on the dotted line. Over the years, these sponsors 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. From 2001 to 2014, his teams produced two world champions: Daijiro Kato in the 250cc class in 2001 and Toni Elias, the winner of the initial year of Moto2, in 2010 – and the tragic loss of their two top riders: Kato in 2003 and Marco Simoncelli in 2011.
Despite Fausto Gresini’s best efforts, his team’s success, or budding success, has been followed twice by tragedy that has put his program into the state in which it now exists, one of tarnished former greatness.
Gresini’s career as a grand prix rider spanned 12 years, beginning as a 22 year-old rookie in 1983 aboard a 125cc Morbidelli. His team switched to Garelli machinery midway through the 1984 season, continuing his affiliation with the Italian manufacturer through 1988, and winning world championships in 1985 and 1987. He rode for Aprilia in 1989 before switching, for good, to Honda in 1990, finishing second in the 125ccc class to Loris Capirossi in 1991, with another frustrating second-place finish the following year to Alessandro Gramigni, before hanging up his leathers for good after the 1994 season.
During his riding career he accumulated 47 podia, including 21 wins. His 1987 season was Agostini-like, as he won the first 10 races of the year before crashing out at Estoril on his way to the championship. By any measure, he was a successful rider.
Movin’ On Up
As a world champion with business sense, Gresini fully understood what it would take to put together his own championship-caliber team. After three years of planning and sponsor-hunting, the Honda Gresini Racing Team made its 500cc debut in 1997 with veteran journeyman Alex Barros onboard the NSR500V. The team was competitive if not compelling, and after two years, jettisoned Barros and dropped down to the 250cc class.
Success in 250cc Followed by Tragedy
With Loris Capirossi onboard, the team experienced some success in 1999, as Capirossi, on a one-year contract, ended the season in third position after having posted the team’s first three wins. The hiring of young hotshot Japanese rider Daijiro Kato in 2000 led to an encouraging third-place finish in 2000 followed by Kato’s dominating performance in 2001, winning the 250cc world championship running away.
With things seemingly going his way, Gresini took the leap in 2002 and formed a second team to compete in the premier class, which at the time ran 500cc two-strokes. Kato was promoted to the MotoGP team, where he had a reasonably successful rookie year in 2002, finishing in 7th place and setting the stage for what was expected to be an exciting 2003 MotoGP campaign. Gresini folded up his 250cc team in order to focus on winning a premier-class title, which seemed within his grasp.
The collective optimism never got out of the gate. Kato suffered a high-speed crash during the first race of the 2003 MotoGP season at the Japanese Grand Prix held at Suzuka, spending two weeks in a coma before succumbing to his injuries. As a result, the Suzuka Circuit no longer hosts Grand Prix racing.
Despite Kato’s death, Gresini continued racing. Sete Gibernau finished second for the year in 2003 and 2004, with boy toy Marco Melandri taking second in 2005 before fading to 4th in 2006 and 5th in 2007.
Three Years of Struggle
Despite getting creamed by Valentino Rossi by 147 points, Melandri’s flirtation with the premier-class title in 2005 had whetted Fausto’s appetite for more. Gibernau left for the factory Ducati team, and Gresini hired journeyman Toni Elias as his #2. Unsatisfied with the team’s performance in 2006 and 2007, Gresini cleaned house, firing Melandri and Elias and bringing in Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis for an even more frustrating 2008 campaign. In 2009, de Angelis teamed with Elias and delivered 7th- and 8th-place finishes. Not bad, but not great.
A Second World Champion in 2010
With San Carlo paying most of the bills, Gresini doubled down again entering 2010 with Melandri and former 250cc world champion Marco Simoncelli running in the premier class, and demoting Elias to the new Moto2 team alongside that rarest of MotoGP items, a Russian rider by the name of Vladimir Ivanov. Against all odds, Elias won the Moto2 title that year, a fluke if ever there was one. LCR Honda didn’t see it that way, and hired Elias away for 2011 where he returned to form, finishing 15th for the year.
Enter Sideshow Bob
Marco Simoncelli was one of four former 250cc world champions who gained promotions to MotoGP in 2010, along with Hiro Aoyama, Hector Barbera and Alvaro Bautista. Most intriguing was Simoncelli, the tall, gangly goofy-looking Italian free spirit who in 2008 had managed to wrap his 6-foot frame around the 250cc Gilera tightly enough to take the championship, followed by a third-place finish in 2009. Gresini signed the charismatic loose cannon to a two-year premier class contract in 2010 during which Simoncelli finished in 8th place.
The Italian spent most of the 2010-2011 off-season testing sessions near the top of the charts. As the 2011 season approached, life was looking up for Fausto Gresini. In addition to a for-real competitive MotoGP team of Simoncelli on the #1 bike and Aoyama on the #2, he was looking at a promising Moto2 team featuring Michele Pirro and Yuki Takahashi.
Simoncelli, ruling the headlines but occasionally 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 in Italy, and slugging it out in the media with Albert Puig, Pedrosa’s svengali.
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. Along came Sepang and the unthinkable, the routine-looking lowside crash that ended with Rossi and/or Colin Edwards running over the prostrate Italian, and Simoncelli was, instantly, snatched from the board. The personal tragedy was accompanied by a corporate disaster, as the rug had suddenly and violently been pulled out from under the Gresini team and its Italian sponsors. San Carlo would stick around for another year in which the team was 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, anxious to field a two-man factory team in 2015 under the direction of Gresini and giving themselves a year to adjust to the program before Michelin enters in 2016 with the new line of MotoGP tires.
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini
Gresini, 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 appeared ready to be a victim of corporate Aprilia’s decision to support MotoGP at the expense of a highly successful World Superbike program that had produced titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
The MotoGP team has struggled mightily early in 2015. Bautista retired with mechanical issues courtesy of a rough pass by Marc Marquez on the first lap of the season-opening round in Qatar, and Melandri finished almost two minutes behind race winner Valentino Rossi in 21st place. Bautista bettered his results at the next round, finishing 15th at the Grand Prix of The Americas in Texas while it was Melandri’s turn to not score any points. At round three in Argentina the Aprilia duo finished 19th and 20th, Bautista, Melandri, respectively. Bautista scored two more 15th place finishes at the last two rounds in Spain and France, while Melandri finished in 19th and 15th, respectively.
The hypercompetitive Fausto Gresini is surely frustrated with his team’s lack of pace thus far, but a new seamless gearbox slated to debut this weekend at Mugello might be an upgrade that helps change the Aprilia RS-GP’s fortunes.
A Look Ahead
Gresini, for all his efforts, despite brutal events which trashed the fabric of two separate teams, and through a financial crisis that continues in Italy, finds himself today heading up a factory Aprilia team fronting two glued-together bikes while it develops a new from-the-bottom-up prototype for 2016, complete with Michelin tires. Losing chief engineer Gigi Dall’Igna to Ducati Corse seems in retrospect to have been pennywise and pound foolish.
Despite his best efforts, Gresini is still stuck with Bautista and an aging and reluctant Melandri, whose grizzled features and extensive tenure are being jocked as helpful to Bautista, who has proven himself mostly un-coachable since winning the 2006 championship in the 125cc class. Bautista, always super-concerned with his appearance and less with his performance, had managed to finish twice in 13th place for the factory Suzuki program in 2010 and 2011, and as a seriously underachieving factory-spec Honda rider for Gresini in 2012 through 2014, was able to deliver 5th, 6th and 11th place finishes for the name sponsors in those years.
If Fausto Gresini has anything to say about it, Aprilia will come out in 2016 with an Italian name sponsor, factory support, a totally new bike and a new Italian rider to replace Bautista. Melandri’s future is uncertain, depending upon the availability, perhaps, of a stud Moto3 rider, such as Romano Fenati or Enea Bastianni. Gresini would love to have an aggressive young Italian willing and able to compete with a grid adjusting to new electronics and new tires in 2016.
Gresini’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 rider, 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 28 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 those 28 years. Perhaps he’s had to, in the words of Stonewall Jackson, “elevate them gunsights a little lower, boys,” understanding where he currently stands in the scheme of GP racing, a world in which there are the haves and the havenots.
Does Fausto Gresini have a right to feel jinxed? Most definitely. Does Gresini have a realistic chance of coming back in 2016 with a competitive Aprilia factory team? Depends on how you define realistic. Is 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. And he surely would give anything to have Kato and Simoncelli back.