If the first step to becoming a sporting icon is a distinctive moniker, rising MotoGP star Francesco ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia got a helping hand from birth.
“My sister is only 20 months older than me,” the Italian tells CNN from the media center at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas. “When we were young, calling me ‘Francesco’ was difficult for her, so she was calling me ‘Pecco, Pecco, Pecco!’ every morning, like this, and I liked it.”
It is a name that is becoming ever more familiar in his home country, not least because one of Italy’s most lauded and cherished stars is about to take his final bow on the MotoGP stage.
On November 14, Valentino Rossi will draw the curtain on a career that has redefined the sport. Rossi may be as inimitable as he is irreplaceable, but there are signs that Italy may have stumbled on his successor.
Last month at the Aragon MotoGP, Bagnaia blasted his Ducati into an imperious lead from pole position, before Repsol Honda’s indomitable Marc Marquez began to haul him in.
Three laps from the end, the Catalan dived in front of the young Italian, but Bagnaia immediately took back the lead. A heart-in-mouth dogfight ensued before the Ducati rider seared across the line, just 0.673 seconds ahead of Marquez, to score his first ever premier class win.
Marquez assessed Bagnaia’s performance after the race. “I tried to analyse where he was fast, where his weak points [were]”, he told reporters. “But there weren’t any weak points. In all the race track he was fast.”
A week later in front of a packed Marco Simoncelli Circuit at Misano, Italy, Bagnaia led for the entire 27-lap race, crossing the line to win in front of a rapturously partisan home crowd and consolidate second in the championship.
‘People screaming for me’
For an Italian rider, winning a race in Italy on a Ducati is a moment to be cherished.
“A win is always a win, and it’s special. The first win, in Aragon, was a big moment for me, very emotional, but doing it in front of our fans was a dream for me,” say a smiling Bagnaia.
“When I looked at the Ducati crowd in the grandstand, I was very emotional. Because I was seeing that also my mom, my brother, my friends were there, and looking, all these people screaming for me, was amazing.”
Praise for Bagnaia’s double success came from Rossi himself, who called the Aragon win an “A-plus race” and remarked that the future of MotoGP in Italy was “in good hands” with Bagnaia and compatriot Franco Morbidelli.
The 24-year-old Bagnaia is a graduate of Rossi’s VR46 Academy and the Ducati rider has got to know his idol over many years.
“I remember very well the first time I met him,” Bagnaia recalls. “We were having dinner … and Vale with our trainer came in the restaurant. I was very nervous to meet my idol. It was strange to have my idol in front of me and shaking hands.”
In recent months that relationship has become closer.
“I think now we are good friends, and we are speaking a lot about my championship,” Bagnaia tells CNN. “In the last month he has always been speaking to me about being always the best, and to be better every time.”
This summer Bagnaia featured in a pop video for the song “Allegria,” with legendary Italian crooner Gianni Morandi alongside singer-songwriter and rapper, Jovanotti.
Filmed at Rossi’s famous VR46 ranch, Bagnaia is seen in the video on a motocross bike, tearing around a group of dancers in 1960s costumes. It was a surreal experience for the young rider.
“I’m a great fan of Gianni Morandi and Jovanotti. Jovannotti is my idol from this world, and when they asked us to make the video, I was very emotional because my favorite song is one of Jovanotti’s, so it was strange that he was asking us to make a video like this.”
Bagnaia beams as he recalls the day.
“We started riding the bike, we were dancing, it was a really great day, I enjoyed a lot. Gianni Morandi and Jovanotti are two incredible guys, so it was very, very, very nice to do it.”
Bagnaia was even inspired to create a special helmet to commemorate the song, which he wore for the Misano race.
“I was thinking, what does Misano give to you? And I say that it’s like home, and home is fun, and is ‘allegria’ (cheerfulness),” he explains. “Racing at home is always a nice feeling, and all the days you have a smile on your face because you know that all the people who will arrive will scream for you, and it’s something that you feel, so I say that ‘allegria’ is the best thing to dedicate it.”
Such trappings of fame are still new to the unassuming Bagnaia. MotoGP is a religion in much of Italy, but growing up in the small town of Chivasso, close to Turin, he was not in one of the sport’s heartlands.
“In Turin, the only sports that you can have an ambition in are either skiing or football,” he explains. “It was not easy at school to have support because I was always going away for a race, and they would always call my mom and say, ‘ah your son is not at school, what is he doing?’”
Now, however, things are changing. “If I think, three years ago, two years ago, I was walking easily in my town, but now it’s becoming more difficult,” he smiles. “Now everyone knows about MotoGP, and it’s very nice to see.”
Bagnaia was recently handed a special award in Chivasso, given to its most significant residents. He now has an official fan club, too, which has just hoisted a giant banner in his name over the town’s main square.
‘I was always crashing’
His first two seasons in MotoGP were painfully punctuated with crashes and severely disrupted by injury when he broke his leg during practice at the 2020 Czech MotoGP.
“I was struggling a lot with the feeling at the front of the bike. I was always crashing, but without knowing why. So, it was difficult to correlate the crash with something, and when that’s the case you just lose confidence,” he explains.
But this season things have clicked. “This year when I started, I just decided to make this year to learn, to improve myself. From the start I just learned a lot about how to manage the tires, to be always constant and faster, and not go over the limit,” he tells CNN.
Softly spoken and thoughtful, Bagnaia has also been pondering the tragedies that have hit motorcycle racing this year, with three teenage racers losing their lives, most recently Dean Berta Viñales, cousin of MotoGP star Maverick Viñales, in similar accidents.
“We already lost three young riders this year. The last one was the same age as my brother, so if I’m thinking about it, it’s something very incredible,” Bagnaia tells CNN.
“When you decide to race with a motorbike you also accept the fact that you are taking a risk. Now the run-off areas are very big and there are no walls on the track, so for us it is safer. But the problem remains when you crash, and you [remain] on track. It’s something that you can’t manage.”
Bagnaia believes the sport’s administrators must act.
“In this category, where Viñales lost his life, there are 40 riders, with bikes that are not so fast. When you are like this, this type of accident can happen more … in these other categories when you are growing, before riding in the world championship, (having fewer riders on track) is an opportunity and a possibility.”
MotoGP and World Superbike administrator, Dorna, would not comment on the recent incidents, but CNN has learnt that new safety measures, already being planned before these latest tragedies, will soon be announced by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme and Dorna
The Italian followed up his wins in Aragon and Misano with a third consecutive pole position in Austin, but could only manage third place in the race, behind championship leader Fabio Quartararo in second and a resurgent Marc Marquez.
With only three races remaining, Bagnaia knows his chances of overhauling Quartararo are hanging by a thread.
With winter closing in, MotoGP now returns to Misano before races in Portimao, Portugal, and Valencia, Spain.
“For sure it will not be easy to repeat the victory (in Misano), because the conditions will be so different,” he tells CNN.
“October 24 in Italy is very cold, so let’s see what will happen. I think with the step forward we did this year, with my feeling with the front, the cold will not be a problem.”
“Portimao is another track that I like, I have had a podium there and I was very competitive; but in Valencia I was never competitive, I always struggled a lot, it’s a track where I’m not feeling great, so this year is the year where everything has to change, because I really want to stay in front.”
One thing Bagnaia is resigned to losing is his retiring idol, Rossi.
“It will not be easy to accept the fact that he will not race next year,” he says, wistfully. “From the first year I arrived in Moto3, he was there, and from 2014 we started sharing our day also at home. I can’t think of next year because it’s very difficult to accept. It will be very strange.”
As Italian MotoGP fans turn the page on the Valentino Rossi chapter, there is a growing sense that the Pecco Bagnaia story has only just begun.