“I was just tired of everything last year and I knew going to [World] Superbike was more or less the same pressure I had in MotoGP,” Petrucci explained, during an exclusive interview with Crash.net.
“I said to myself, ‘I don't want to retire, but I want to enjoy racing without this kind of pressure’.
“For this reason, I tried the Dakar, just as an experience and to see if I'm able to do it.”
Dakar ’something unbelievable’
The 31-year-old Italian stunned the two-wheeled world by becoming the first MotoGP rider to win a Dakar stage, was top three in another and achieved his goal of finishing the gruelling 8,000km event.
“It was really something unbelievable. Unexpected. I still don't have the words to describe it - the Dakar is so difficult that is difficult even to describe!” Petrucci joked.
“Especially because it was my first rally, so I started with the hardest one!”
Illustrating just how much of a rally ‘rookie’ he was, the ten-time MotoGP podium finisher recalled a message he received to attend a KTM photo shoot during testing.
"They sent the location, into a WhatsApp group, which was about 120 kilometres from our hotel in the middle of the desert out of Dubai, at 6:30am.
“I asked, ‘Do I need to bring my riding equipment with me?’ And they answered, ‘yes, you have to go there on the bike!’
“I’m just saying this to explain my knowledge of rally was completely zero!”
Yet, by the end of the event, he had proven he could compete with the world’s fastest rally riders.
“Winning a stage was something I never expected in my life. I just wanted to go there and see if I was able to finish a Dakar. I was for sure not expecting in some stages to be with the fastest guys.”
Going under the radar also allowed Petrucci to escape from the kind of pressure that had sapped his enjoyment of MotoGP.
“I remember well, the feeling when the special stage was about to start. You are in the middle of the desert and, watching the other guys, they were so focussed, so deep in that kind of difficult feeling you get on the starting grid.
“But I was so lucky. No one was expecting any results from me. So I was not really under pressure. And for me it was more easy.
"But one thing is to win a stage, another is to try to win all the Dakar. It's like the difference between winning a race in MotoGP or winning a championship.”
Dakar team tensions: ‘I told you this sport is not for pussies’
Petrucci’s dream Dakar performance captivated two-wheel fans around the world, as well as drawing praise from many former MotoGP rivals.
But there are no fairy tales in motorsport and Petrucci also had to overcome injuries, persistent bike issues (which ruled him out of the overall running) and – most surprisingly – scepticism from a senior member of the KTM team.
“During testing, I was not really let's say treated in a good way by some people in the rally team,” Petrucci said.
“I understood that I was like a problem, because imagine you have a team of seven factory riders and in September your bosses decide to make another bike [for Petrucci].
“It means another bike build, other spare parts, another van, try to look for another mechanic – all for a rider that they don’t know if at the first dune I’ll fall off and get injured.
“So during testing I really felt that I was not really welcome! In a few words.
“Also regarding the bike, the setup and how the race was organised, I was really left alone. For this reason, I really spent a lot of time with my team-mates, who really from the first to the last helped me a lot. All of them really cared about me, and some other team members welcomed me in a good way.
“But everything happened with this other member of the team, one of the bosses, the day I got injured in the middle of the desert and did 160 kilometres with a broken fibula and talus.
“This guy came to me and said, ‘I told you this sport is not for pussies’. I just said, ‘I’ll keep that in mind’.
“Then all the problems I got at the Dakar regarding my bike, because just my bike had the problems, I got really really angry because the last time my bike blew up I almost crashed.”
Petrucci: MotoAmerica 'good mix' between fun and pressure
It was those behind-the-scenes Dakar difficulties that Petrucci says ultimately sold him on his next big challenge, a move to the MotoAmerica Superbike Championship – and return to Ducati.
“I started thinking, ‘okay, maybe going to America is fun, I get to see another continent, another country. For sure the pressure is less.
“But then after the Dakar there was a lot of pressure on me and for sure going to the USA everybody's looking at me, but it's something that I really like, I'm thankful for this.
“I understood the tracks are really different from what I am used to [in MotoGP]. It's like going to be British Superbike, where you need really to know the tracks, because they are very bumpy, with many different types of tarmac and corners I’ve never seen before.
“But it's a good mix because it's in the middle, between fun and pressure/performance!
“My MotoAmerica bike is similar to the World Superbike spec Ducati, the main difference is the Dunlop tyres, which I’d never tried before."
A direct MotoGP-to-US Superbike switch hadn’t been attempted since Neil Hodgson in 2005. For Petrucci, it meant not only learning a new bike and tyres, but some very different tracks, far removed from the standard seen at grand prix circuits.
“In MotoAmerica, sometimes you have to take corners slower than you could, just because maybe there are two or three types of tarmac and the wall is so close. You think, ‘I cannot push in this corner, where I could gain maybe one or two tenths, because if I crash I can get very badly injured'," he said.
“You cannot go as fast as possible in a place where it's so risky. So it's quite a different approach and quite a different level of danger, but after MotoGP I care a lot about the safety of the riders and the people.
“Of course, the Dakar is really, really dangerous and when I complain about the safety standard in MotoAmerica everybody says, ‘Ah, come on, you won a stage of the Dakar and now you complain about this?’,” Petrucci added.
“But that's completely different because at the Dakar when something is not clear, if you don’t know what’s over the cliff, you can brake and look around. The danger comes if you think you have the situation under control and crash at such high speed.”
Petrucci’s American adventure began perfectly with two wins on familiar territory in Austin, Texas, before making it three in a row in Atlanta.
Five podiums in the next six races followed, but victory momentum has swung in favour of Jake Gagne, who is just 11 points behind Petrucci as the second half of the MotoAmerica season begins this weekend at Laguna Seca. Another Yamaha rider, Mathew Scholz, is just 17 from the top.
While Petrucci has been able to adapt seamlessly in sporting terms, he fired the first of several public salvos at the MotoAmerica series when his machine overheated on the grid for race two in Atlanta.
He tweeted: “Just embarrassing what happened today. 25 years of racing I’ve never seen that they stop the race because the circuit have no power. Our engine blew off because the water was boiling because we stand more than 5 minutes standings on the multiple grids.”
More controversy followed at the following VIR round, when Petrucci suffered a high-speed accident after the chequered flag and was left to make his own way to the medical centre.
This is my point of view about my accidents happened Sunday in Race2.— Danilo Petrucci (@Petrux9) May 26, 2022
Questo è il mio punto di vista riguardo l’incidente occorso domenica in gara2. pic.twitter.com/hU56o91Fu2
‘I’m happy MotoAmerica are listening’
While quick to highlight the shortcomings of the MotoAmerica series, Petrucci credits grand prix legend and MotoAmerica president Wayne Rainey, plus Chief Operating Officer Chuck Aksland, for their efforts to improve the championship.
“I had a lot of talks with Wayne and Chuck Aksland,” Petrucci said. “They are listening and working a lot.
“I'm disappointed for what happened to me, first in Road Atlanta, when they had no power for the safety cameras. I was so angry because we did three restart procedures and then my bike [overheated and] blew up, like many others on the grid.
“And then the crash I had in VIR after the chequered flag.
“But I am happy that at the last race they took me to race direction, showed me the safety cameras, and how the race direction is working.
"We are trying to exchange information. We had a lot of talks and for sure they are growing up, but they're still facing some problems like the tracks. Because in the USA, not a lot of people ride bikes on tracks, so the tracks are mostly for cars, which don't need good tarmac or good run-off areas or safety standards.”
‘Road America one of the best tracks I’ve been to, but...’
“For example, Road America is one of the best tracks I’ve ever been to. The layout is absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, the asphalt is 25 years old. And it's really broken. It's full of bumps, there really are holes in the tarmac! Something that I have never seen before. Sometimes it's like racing on the same tarmac as the roads.
“But this doesn't allow you to get the right speeds in the corner. I mean, if you have good asphalt, you can ride faster. And especially what they are missing the most is the layout of some tracks, it's really different to what we are using in Europe, in the World Championship.
“They are racing on tracks that are really small, really narrow, where it's difficult to make the difference as a rider. Because there are few corners and you just don't have the space to make the difference.
“For me, I think that they need to understand that maybe it's a good idea to race a pair of times at the same track and not go to some other tracks.
“But then they have a problem with tickets, because maybe not going in Virginia for example means they leave empty a complete area of the USA, with no racing.”
Petrucci, runner-up in the 2011 FIM Superstock Cup before joining MotoGP, also felt the bike specification could be lowered to give more riders a chance of victory:
“Another thing we were talking is about is the level of the bikes. They are racing with Superbikes, our bike is a World Superbike machine, like the Yamahas. Then there are the BMWs that are also a good level. But the other bikes are just Superstock.
“So maybe a rider is good, but they don't have the same bike. So we talked and I said, ‘why don't we have like a Stock 1000 championship’ but they want to prepare the riders for racing with a World Superbike machine.
“But going lower with the level of the bikes makes the rider more important.
“I also like in MotoAmerica that they have the Hooligans class, with the naked bikes, and the Baggers, with the Harleys, the Indians.
“Bikes you see on the road but, for example the Baggers, you could never think about putting on a racetrack. The races are so fun to watch because the bike is so wide, every straight they change the position.
“The Hooligans with the street fighter, the naked bikes, are the same, always a lot of overtaking.
“Especially for the people that ride these bikes on the road, and are maybe are not so passionate about racing, it's a good way to get them to watch races.
“So MotoAmerica has some really good ideas. They are making a big, big effort and I will be happy to see more riders going in MotoAmerica and, especially, from MotoAmerica to the World Championship.”
Finding America’s next MotoGP star
American riders once dominated the 500cc world championship, but the USA hasn’t won a MotoGP world championship since Nicky Hayden in 2006, and a MotoGP race since Ben Spies in 2011.
Although there are three Americans - Joe Roberts, Cameron Beaubier and Sean Dylan Kelly - currently competing in Moto2, the US hasn’t had a full-time premier-class rider since the late Nicky Hayden made a switch to WorldSBK for 2016.
Petrucci may be European, but as one of the few to succeed in MotoGP from a Superbike background, he is fully aware of the challenges facing young Americans hoping to move across from MotoAmerica to MotoGP.
“We need to tell the truth that now all the riders came [to MotoGP] from the smaller World Championship classes. Very few riders - like me Cal, Nicky, or maybe Toprak [in the future] - have gone from Superstock/Superbike to MotoGP.
“Because now you have to follow: Moto3, Moto2 and then MotoGP.
“For a GP team it’s difficult. Gagne is really fast, Scholtz is fast, Petersen is fast. But the team needs to take a gamble to pick a rider that doesn’t know the tracks. Even in World Superbike, Gerloff is such a big talent but he's struggling a lot now.”
2023? ‘I don't want to leave Ducati again’
After rising from Pramac to the factory Ducati MotoGP team over six seasons in MotoGP, Petrucci lost his seat and switched to KTM for what proved a disappointing final premier-class campaign in 2021.
So what’s next for Petrucci?
His priority is to remain with Ducati, which in turn rules out a return to the Dakar for 2023.
“I don't want to leave Ducati again and Ducati at the moment doesn't have a Dakar bike!” he said.
There have been rumours of a move to WorldSBK, where former MotoGP rider Alvaro Bautista is currently leading the title chase for Ducati.
But that would mean a U-turn on his previous desire to escape the pressure of world championship competition and, while an end-of-season wild-card seems possible, Petrucci then looks to be leaning towards spending a second year in MotoAmerica.
“We'll see, I need to understand what makes me happy,” Petrucci said.
And he’s also not ruling out another big surprise at some stage.
“I would like to try and win the 200 miles of Daytona, or 24 hours of Le Mans, maybe in the future I will try some of these great races!” he said.