The first thing you notice is his size. He is small in a delicate way. His press material says he weighs 105 pounds-if he's heavier than that, it's not by much. Now 20 years old, he is 5 feet 2 inches tall, which is about average for a 13-year-old. His public face is a mostly blank slate that projects a dour personality. He seems to get little joy from racing and only some from winning.
Dani Pedrosa is the exact opposite of Valentino Rossi, the rubbery-faced World Champion, the court jester who seems unable to restrain his own enjoyment of racing and life. This will not be the first time Pedrosa is compared to Rossi, nor will it be the last. Like Rossi, he won world titles in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Unlike Rossi, he immediately followed his 125 title with a 250 championship (Rossi needed a one-year interval), then added a second 250 crown in 2005. Some believe Pedrosa can dominate the sport for years to come, and some even believe he may eclipse Rossi's seven titles.
Pedrosa became the second-youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix (Freddie Spencer still holds the title of youngest ever) when he held off Repsol Honda teammate Nicky Hayden in the Chinese Grand Prix. The track was perfect for the young Spaniard: two long straightaways, where his aerodynamic efficiency was put to good use, and several flowing corners with lots of lean angle. He had qualified on the pole with a new lap record-his first ever-and led more than half the race.
China was his fourth MotoGP race. He nearly won his first, in his home country at the Circuito de Jerez, where the season opened, and was challenging for the victory two races later in Turkey when he lost the front end and crashed.
How is this possible? How can a slender 250cc rider humble the greatest riders in the world on a motorcycle with 250 horsepower?
"At the end, it's a bike. At the end, the talent is there or not," said former 500cc rider Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's mentor. Puig has nurtured Pedrosa since the too-young, very-diminutive pupil showed up for Puig's first MoviStar Activa Cup in Jarama. "I think he has the talent and also he has this [points to his forehead], the brains. If he cannot do one thing, he thinks, Why? And he tries to find a way." And usually he does.
Pedrosa represents the best of the new breed of MotoGP riders. Australian Casey Stoner, Italian Marco Melandri and Pedrosa all came up through 250s, not Superbike, not dirt track. Success in MotoGP 2006 is determined by corner entry. The 990cc four-strokes carry massive amounts of corner speed, with the overabundant power governed by sophisticated engine-management systems and tires that allow flag-to-flag racing. Smoothness is paramount, aggression is punished.
These new young guns could not have done this on 500cc two-strokes, especially the most vicious examples of the breed. Now all they need is some upper-body strength and endurance. High sides are no longer a worry-although when one strikes, as it did to John Hopkins in Germany last year, it's spectacular, and not in a good way. Now a rider is more likely to lose the front end from either too much lean angle or too much corner speed. The skill set has changed, and Pedrosa has the tools to be the master for a long time.
Pedrosa caught the eye of Puig for a number of reasons. "He was very, very small and that was...very atypical," Puig said. "So small and so much desire for racing. I could not understand, because he was like this," described Puig, putting his hand about mid-thigh.
Six thousand riders applied for the first MoviStar Activa Cup, which ran in 1999. Of those 6000, 400 were invited to ride Honda RS125 streetbikes at Jarama, the former Grand Prix track on the outskirts of Madrid. It rained on five of the six days. To this day, Pedrosa struggles in the wet. And even when it didn't rain, he wasn't very fast. "He kept on trying, and he showed some interest," Puig said. When Pedrosa wasn't riding, he was studying racing, not playing soccer, like the other students in the Cup. Pedrosa ended up eighth in the MoviStar Activa Cup, yet Puig included him on the team contesting the Spanish national 125 series in 2000, over the objections of many.
"He was not supposed to be there because normally we're supposed to put in the team the first three, and he finished eighth," Puig said. But Puig saw something the others didn't. In Pedrosa's first year in the Spanish Championship, he finished fourth, but frequently crashed. At the end of the year, Puig had to decide whether to include him in the 125cc World Championship team, "And normally I should not include him because he was fourth, but I did."
Pedrosa scored two podiums in 2001, his first World Championship year. But according to Puig, "2002 was the year that he started to become serious. He finished third in the championship, but he could have won that year. But he had some problems.
"He learned a lot in 2002. Before he was racing, he was a kid, he went out to race, but he didn't know what he was doing. In 2002, he started to understand what he was doing. The racing mentality, the setting of the machine. All the rivalries at the track among the riders, who is good, who is bad. What is good for me, what's not." Pedrosa has won every championship he's contested since then.
He became the 125cc World Champion in 2003 and overcame injury to win his first 250cc title in 2004. Pedrosa, then 18, broke both ankles during practice in Phillip Island, Australia. That hardly slowed him down on his march to his first 250cc title, and last year he won eight times en route to his second 250cc title.
Like Rossi, Pedrosa is shadowed by a large national press corps. The Spanish motorcycle press is rabid and represents a broad spectrum of opinions and methods. This harsh media spotlight causes Pedrosa to be withdrawn, almost morose in public. He has a dry sense of humor, but it rarely surfaces, and he projects an unnatural weariness for such a young man. Maybe it's a defense mechanism, according to Puig. But his answers are stripped to the bone; rarely does he elaborate.
"My feeling is this class is difficult, not only for the riders, but also to set up the machine for the race is difficult," Pedrosa said, regarding MotoGP. "You don't have always dry practice. Friday you have to learn the track with this machine, so very difficult. You have to set up your machine, your chassis, testing many different tires. So at the end you have to choose the tire with the setup you did during the whole practice, between Friday and Saturday or maybe only Friday, because Saturday it rained or something. So it's not that easy."