While the highs have been tempered by some lows over the years, Marco Melandri remains one of Italy’s foremost two-wheeled racers – one that deserves to stand out of the shadow of a certain Valentino Rossi.
Still, after a career spent pedalling prototype machinery, Melandri has now turned his back on GP racing to pursue a lucrative new path in World Superbikes instead.
The decision to switch to Superbikes closed a chapter that has spanned some 12 years when Melandri first burst onto the world championship stage as a 125cc rider with Honda.
Moving quickly through the ranks, Melandri in 1998 – aged just 15 - won his first 125 grand prix at the imposing Assen track, then finished title runner-up the following season, before graduating to 250 in 2000.
Melandri was a race winner in his second season and, aged 20, became a world champion in his third and final year in the quarter-litre class with Aprilia - prompting a factory Yamaha MotoGP seat for 2003.
Melandri premier-class career began disastrously when he injured his ankle in practice for the Suzuka season opener - then spent the best part of a month recuperating - only to injured again at the end of the year when he dislocated a shoulder at Phillip Island. With the Yamaha lacking the pace of its Honda and Ducati, Melandri ended the season 15th overall with a best finish of fifth at Motegi.
Valentino Rossi's switch to Yamaha saw Melandri transferred to the satellite Yamaha Tech 3 team. With his injuries recovering, Melandri scored his first two MotoGP podiums at rounds five and six, indicating his future stardom, but then came a dramatic decline, attributed to compartment syndrome (arm pump).
That required mid-season surgery, but Marco never regained his early season form and suffered a soul destroying second half of the season - during which he failed to finish five of the seven races.
Those DNFs left Melandri's value at rock bottom, but Fausto Gresini was confident he could extract Marco's talent and signed the #33 to partner double MotoGP title runner-up Sete Gibernau on a satellite spec Honda RC211V for the 2005 season.
It was to prove a dream partnership and, after careful rebuilding Melandri's confidence during pre-season testing, Marco rewarded Gresini by finishing third in his first ever RCV race.
Four more podiums followed before Melandri took a breakthrough debut MotoGP victory at the Turkish Grand Prix, before repeating the feat next time out at the Valencia season finale. Those wins helped Melandri finish a brilliant second in the world championship, behind Rossi, and completed a remarkable career turnaround.
Melandri unsurprisingly stayed with Gresini for the 2006 season - and was in firm title contention when he won two of the first five rounds. However, when Ducati team-mates Gibernau and Loris Capirossi collided spectacularly into turn one at round seven, the Catalan Grand Prix, Melandri became an innocent victim and suffered injuries that would ultimately end his title hopes.
Marco rode through the pain to try and limit the damage, was back on the podium two rounds later - and won a third race later in the year - but the championship was already out of reach by the time he arrived at the Valencia season finale. Nevertheless, Melandri still finished a dramatic season fourth in the points and had won more races than any other Honda rider, including world champion Nicky Hayden.
Ducati came close to signing Melandri at the end of 2006, but Gresini - aided by Honda - was able to retain his star rider for the first year of 800cc competition. Unfortunately, 2007 was a bad year for Honda, and even worse for the satellite riders, although Melandri at least managed three podiums, helped by his new Bridgestone tyres.
But it was soon clear that he was unhappy with the lack of technical support from Honda, given his previous success, and it was no surprise when - just before the summer break - he was confirmed as a factory Ducati rider for 2008.
The former MotoGP World Championship runner-up was expected to enjoy one of his best premier-class seasons after signing for the title-winning Ducati Marlboro Team - Melandri's first factory ride since his 2003 MotoGP debut with Yamaha.
But whilst team-mate and reigning champion Casey Stoner steered the Desmosedici GP8 to six wins, eleven podiums, nine poles and second in the world championship, Melandri never looked comfortable and joined an increasing list of riders baffled by the Italian machine.
The high-point of Melandri's season was fifth position in May's Chinese Grand Prix, but it proved a false dawn and by June Melandri was considering 'throwing it all in'.
The second year of Melandri’s Ducati contract was duly annulled by mutual consent but Melandri ultimately chose to ride on and, despite Sete Gibernau being tipped to take the Italian’s place for the second half of the year, the #33 lasted the entire season.
But that persistence wasn’t rewarded and Marco finished just 17th in the world championship standings with 51 points, compared with 280 for Stoner. Kawasaki's Anthony West - whom Melandri replaced for 2009 - was the only full time rider to score less points.
Kawasaki proudly announced a two year deal with Melandri before the end of the 2008 season, and the Italian impressed during initial post-season tests for team, but his 2009 season was then thrown into turmoil when Kawasaki announced a factory withdraw from MotoGP in early January.
Fast forward two months and Melandri was named as the lone rider for the Hayate Racing Team, the unofficial entry which Kawasaki was ‘persuaded’ to back after being reminded that there was still three years to run on its MotoGP contract.
The Hayate team used the 2009 ZX-RR with technical support from Kawasaki, although the machine wasn’t developed and Melandri’s main aim was simply be to remind the MotoGP paddock of his talent and secure a competitive seat for 2010.
In that regard, it was mission accomplished, with Melandri securing his Gresini return with a series of impressive rides, highlighted by a podium finish at Le Mans, on his way to tenth overall in the 2009 championship.
The return to Gresini had been sealed on the promise that he would receive factory support from Honda during 2010, but with the manufacturer seemingly more focused on its protégé Marco Simoncelli, Melandri felt neglected.
Indeed, while a disastrous start to the year at Losail, in which Melandri finished in last position and well off the pace, evoked memories of his Ducati days, the team quickly sorted the bike’s set-up woes to prove far more competitive in the ensuing races.
However, having broken into the top five at Mugello, Melandri suffered a shoulder injury that ruled him out of the Dutch TT and hampered him for the next few races.
Coupled to Simoncelli’s form improving into the second-half, Melandri became increasingly vocal about his lack of ‘feeling’ on the bike, with both rider and team manager Fausto Gresini taking minor pot-shots at one another on the team’s own press releases, the former claiming he wasn’t receiving enough support, the latter suggesting his rider wasn’t trying hard enough.
Despite the bad feeling – which arguably suggested his results were worse than they were -, Melandri still secured a top ten finish in the overall standings. Even so. it was soon clear his Gresini Honda – and MotoGP days – were numbered.
Though retirement was once again mooted, before the season had ended, Melandri had been confirmed as Yamaha’s new rider in World Superbikes.
Following in the footsteps of Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa, Melandri was a welcome addition to the WSBK ranks and he quickly established himself as a fan favourite. Though he kept his rivals guessing as he spent pre-season recovering from a shoulder injury, a podium at the season opener in Australia proved he would be a reckoned force at this level.
A maiden victory – from ninth on the grid – followed at Donington Park, raising expectations to title contender, but while this challenge didn’t manifest over the coming rounds, wins at Motorland Aragon and Brno during the mid-season certainly gave the impression of a seasoned contender. Assured of the runners-up spot after Biaggi cried off with a foot injury, Melandri’s win at the Portimao finale would lift his tally to four wins.
Given his rapid affinity with Yamaha and World Superbikes, it was a shame the manufacturer’s withdrawal would curtail their relationship after just a single season, but Yamaha’s loss would prove BMW’s gain, the German marque snapping up Melandri for 2012.
Though some would question Melandri’s wisdom of joining a relatively unproven team - particularly after some less-than-positive comments pre-season - a podium at the opening round would allay any prior doubts.
Going on to break BMW’s long awaited WSBK victory duck at Donington Park, Melandri proceeded to reel off a stunning mid-season charge, one that would transform him from outside title contender to championship leader with just three rounds remaining.
In the end, Melandri’s error-strewn performances at Nurburgring and Portimao would scupper those hopes, but with six wins to his name (more than any other rider) and Max Biaggi out of the picture, few will be able to look past Melandri as the favourite for the 2013 title.Career Highlights: 2013:
Despite BMW’s decision to switch backing to the ‘Italia’ operation, Melandri’s will remain with the manufacturer for 2013. 2012:
World Superbike Championship, BMW Motorrad, 3rd (6 wins) 2011:
World Superbike Championship, Yamaha, 2nd (4 wins) 2010:
MotoGP World Championship, Gresini Honda, 10th 2009:
MotoGP World Championship, Hayate Kawasaki, 10th 2008:
MotoGP World Championship, Ducati Corse, 17th 2007:
MotoGP World Championship, Gresini Honda, 5th 2006:
MotoGP World Championship, Gresini Honda, 4th (3 wins) 2005:
MotoGP World Championship, Gresini Honda, 2nd (2 wins) 2004:
MotoGP World Championship, Tech 3 Yamaha, 12th 2003:
MotoGP World Championship, Yamaha YMR, 15th 2002:
250cc World Championship, MS Aprilia, Champion (9 wins) 2001:
250cc World Championship, MS Aprilia, 3rd, (1 win) 2000:
250cc World Championship, Aprilia 1999:
250cc World Championship, Benetton-Playlife Honda, 2nd (5 wins) 1998:
250cc World Championship, Honda, 3rd (2 wins) 1997:
125cc European Championship, Honda, 4th