Consider this column's hands held up.
Towards the end of last season, with Valentino Rossi struggling to get to grips with the Ducati Desmosedici GP11/11.5, Andrea Dovizioso being given the boot by Honda and the Spanish armada continuing to sail to victory in the lower cylinder classes, I questioned when the next Italian starlet was going to appear on the scene.
It appears as though the answer has arrived sooner rather than later, with the arrival of Romano Fenati to Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Like a man in orthopaedic shoes, I stand corrected.
The teenager's second place in the inaugural Moto3 race in Qatar was only slightly hinted at in the final lower cylinder category test of preseason, at which Fenati headed the timesheet at the end of the opening day and concluded the Jerez runout in the top three.
"I was expecting to be one of the ten fastest. I never imagined being one of the top trio," Fenati told me after the test. "Moto3 is proving to be a very competitive class in which everyone is fast and wanting to win. I expect to pick up plenty of experience this year."
As the last person to leave Losail switched the lights off, we had a new talent to talk about, as Fenati claimed a podium finish on his Grand Prix debut. Such a result is certainly not an everyday occurrence, either: the last instance of such a stunning maiden ride was Noriyuki Haga's Suzuka wildcard third place in 1998 (his only 500cc podium). In the lower cylinder category, the gap goes back even further, to Tomomi Mamako's German GP rostrum in the 125cc class back in 1994. Make no bones about it, it's a big deal.
A new class tends to bring with it a slight shake-up in the hierarchy. Racing becomes a case of equality and adaptability, leaving an opening for riders like Fenati to come through. One need only look at the first season of Moto2 racing to see potential for a pattern to emerge: The Qatari round of the intermediate class was won —how could anyone forget?- by the much-missed sophomore Shoya Tomizawa, flanked on the podium by the hitherto inconsistent Jules Cluzel and Alex Debon. Claudio Corti was one of the quickest in testing. Andrea Iannone emerged as an immediate title challenger straight out of 125cc. There were nine different winners over the course of the season —even if Toni Elías' title victory marked a return to some degree of predictability.
The fact that it was only Maverick Viñales and Fenati way out in front at race one indicates that there was more to their performance than mere speedy adjustment. As European Champion, second in the Italian Championship and a podium finisher in the Spanish CEV series, Fenati has the potential to form part of a new generation of riders replacing some of old guard moving their way up the ranks, alongside Viñales, Miguel Oliveira and Danny Kent.
The Italian Motorcycle Federation has bet big on this prospect, putting together an exciting project with the intention of ending Spanish dominance. The man guiding the way is an ex-125cc World Champion who had an amazing debut of his own (pole position at the 1994 Italian GP, still the most recent rider to qualify first for a maiden Grand Prix appearance): Roberto Locatelli.
"Mastropasqua Alfredo and Gianola Ezio from the Italian Federation project told me about a great rider with a strong riding spirit, who they had been mentoring in a very successful 2011 season. That rider was Romano Fenati," Locatelli recalls. "Whilst I am in the driving seat for this project, we have many people from the federation who are the engine room, helping us towards success."
The final 125cc podium for an Italian rider came at Indianapolis in 2009, for Simone Corsi. Andrea Iannone was the last Italian winner in the class that same season. Moto3, a renewed interest from the national federation and the Jerez GP are coming at just the right time for the country's eye-opening rookie. The buzz around Fenati is only just beginning.
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