After two often frustrating seasons in MotoGP with Yamaha - the highlight of which was a pair of podiums early in 2004, before a sudden and drastic decline that saw him fail to score points in seven of the last nine races - Marco Melandri appeared almost a broken man at the end of last season.

With confidence in his team and machinery at an all time low, the former 250cc world champion clearly wanted out of the Tech 3 outfit - and was offered a career saving lifeline by one of the most respected teams in the paddock, Movistar Honda, headed by double 125cc world champion Fausto Gresini.

The resulting 'marriage' has seen Melandri reborn, the Italian shedding his previous frequent faller image and replacing it with a level of pace and consistency hat at times ahs been a match for team-mate, and double MotoGP runner-up, Sete Gibernau.

The result has been a third and fourth from the opening two events of 2005 - placing Marco third, behind only Valentino Rossi and Alex Barros, in the early riders' world championship.

But how did it happen?

It was obvious to Gresini and his massively experienced crew chief Fabrizio Cecchini, that Melandri's talents would only flourish in the correct environment. So they adopted a carefully considered plan to build confidence and calmness in equal parts, and curb the 22-year-old's natural urge to go as fast as possible all of the time.

Gresini is no stranger to helping riders progress their careers. He was a prime mover in the transition of Loris Capirossi from enfant-terrible to double 125-title winner, after Fausto broke his leg and ended his own chance of yet another crown.

Before joining Team Gresini, the already experienced Gibernau was far from the force he is now and Gresini hopes that Melandri can also benefit from the team's family environment and proven technical skills.

"In my opinion Marco has a chance to enjoy a good experience with us in MotoGP," he said. "At 22 he is a very young rider, and with one 250cc title to his credit, he obviously has a lot of potential. But right now what is most important is that he can have a team which is like a family for him. In my team, it is like family."

The family feeling is due to the long relationships enjoyed by some members of staff, who have been an integral part of the outfit since day one.

"The keys to Marco's development are many," explained Fausto, "Fabrizio Cecchini, who worked at the top level with Daijiro Kato, for example. He is a very good chief mechanic and controls everything for Marco. I have known Fabrizio for 20 years, he has been with me since the very beginning."

"When Marco arrived in our team he had two difficult years in MotoGP, losing confidence in himself and his team," confirmed Cecchini himself. "Our plan was to put him under no pressure, to explain everything I know about the bike to him step-by-step. Engine, electronics, tyres.

"Then we got him to evaluate just one thing at a time, concentrated only on that. We wanted to understand what he said. Marco appreciated our approach and he grew in confidence. We needed to get him to trust us when he was out on the track," he added.

Melandri willingly acknowledges what the team were doing for him, and realized early on that it was just what he needed.

"When I arrived in the Gresini team it was just after what had probably been the worst period of my career and my life. I was very sad inside because nothing was good last year," he confessed. "Thinking about racing, I had completely lost confidence and everything was so difficult for me.

"For me it was important to have good relationship with the team. They understood my situation and really it was like I was a very young baby. The first things they did were to give me confidence and try to make me smile. When I started to smile, to understand, we talked together about the plan for the tests through the whole winter.

"At that time it was impossible for me to think that I could be on the podium at the first race in Jerez. But even after the first test I was very happy because when I stopped at the garage I saw on people's faces that they were smiling, happy to work with me. This gave me a lot of confidence.

"The 2004 season was difficult to forget, but the new team helped me to enjoy myself again. When you forget what you did before, only then can you start again to rebuild something new and better," he said.

Marco, having now ridden 125 and 250cc two-strokes and with two years on the YZR-M1, now knows a good bike when he sees it, and pays homage to the part the proven RC211V has played in his recent turnaround.

"The balance of the Honda is simpler and it is good because you cannot move so many things," he commented. "You cannot change a lot of geometry on the bike. Sometimes you have some problems but you see some of the other Honda riders are fast. And you think inside yourself 'they can go fast with the same bike that you have.'

"I think this gives you a big motivation. My Yamaha last year was very different from Valentino's bike. You could change every kind of geometry of the bike. When you lost your way, it was so difficult to come back," he added.

"In the winter Marco worked more for mileage and feeling," detailed Gresini. "On two occasions he had crashes in off-season testing, and after that he felt like he was finished. So we had to explain to him in details why he crashed, what his main target was, not just the lap time.

"All we asked him about was the balance of the bike, how the tyres felt. We were not worried about the gap to other riders; we wanted him to think about the more important things, like how the bike feels. The bike did not need developing, Marco needed to develop," he stated.

Marco's headstrong approach to riding when he joined the team at first may have been a necessary evil for any rider intent on beating the best in the world, but Cecchini took some radical steps to protect his new charge from himself.

"The mistake that all riders make first time out is to push to the limit before they know the bike," revealed Cecchini. "The first things that Marco wanted to see were the times, so one of the first things I did was to cover the display on the bike and the displays on the computers in the pit box, with sheets of paper. Marco could not see any times.

"He asked about them and I said, 'don't worry about that, how do you feel.' There was an immediate change when he covered the times up. He was only three tenths slower than Sete, without realizing what times he did, just by not pushing to match a certain lap time.

"Before covering the times Marco had said "tomorrow I will go faster, definitely faster" - and he went half a second slower. He was only obsessed with pushing, not working with the bike. The other thing I realized was that if there was another rider in front of Marco, then he would try to catch him. Even if Marco did not have a good feeling with the bike, he was just thinking about catching the rider in front.

"So he made a lot of mistakes, and when he came back into the pits he would complain about the bike in certain sections. But it was only so that he could go faster than the other rider through that section. So every time he came up behind another rider we put out his pitboard and brought him into the pits!

"At the first few winter tests he was lapping always alone! All we wanted to do was to get him used to the bike. Only when we felt he was prepared, did we let him lap quickly on the bike with other riders," added Cecchini.

Gresini takes up the story: "If Marco is practicing on track and it is no good we will stop him in the box. He sometimes says, 'Ah, I am bad and many riders are stronger.' Then we sit him down, keep him talking, talking about the bike, what is good and bad about the set-up, where it works, what he prefers.

"Then only then send him back out. After we have finished his mentality and ready to restart, he is changed and he can go back out. If he had just continued on as he was, he would have gone down," stated Fausto.

Meanwhile, Cecchini acknowledges that in a team with Sete Gibernau and a sorted machine and tyre package, there was only one variable left; Marco. Which made the task clearer, if still a challenge.

"The bike is already so balanced and together, running good tyres, that all we had to work on was Marco. We worked only on the mentality of the rider," he said.

"The mind is more important than ever before," underlined Gresini. "Starting on a Yamaha was a complicated way for Marco in MotoGP. I spoke to Michelin and last year they were not that happy when they worked with him. But this year they are much happier. Now it is a complete change. It is important to have the correct willpower to work and win. And we are helping Marco with that more than anything."

For Cecchini, Melandri has been a willing and able pupil, who has passed all the important first hurdles with room to spare. Even Marco's podium placing in round one came not through aggression but a cool head and attention to the job in hand.

"The first race is like an examination of all the winter tests, so it is important not to try and exceed the limit," said Fabrizio. "Otherwise you crash - and destroy all the work you have done over the winter.

"At Jerez, when we saw Marco was at the limit, we put out the board to say 'OK, slow down', because he had a good gap to fifth. Marco listened to us, responded by slowing down just a little and that was a victory for us.

"So when the rider in front crashed, and Marco got the podium well, that was just the final prize to cap it all," he smiled.

Melandri will attempt to claim his second podium of the season at round three of the world championship, at Shanghai, this weekend.



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