Pier Francesco ‘Frankie’ Chili knew from an early age that he wanted to be a motorcycle road racer. His uncle Pierluigi Aldrovandi was European 125cc Road Racing Champion in 1981 and also raced GPs, scoring podiums in the 125cc GP class three times in the early 1980s. As a kid Chili worked in his uncle’s race shop. Sometimes young Chili would ’borrow’ his uncle’s race bike and ride it on the roads on the outskirts of Bologna.
With his uncle’s help Chili began racing in Italy’s Junior 125cc road racing series and earned that championship. He then followed in his uncle’s footsteps to win the European 125cc Championship in 1985, just four years after his uncle accomplished the feat.
Chili emerged from the Italian and European road racing championships in the mid-1980s and without ever going through a full season of GP support class racing went directly into the 500cc Grand Prix Championships in 1986 riding for Team Gallina Suzuki on an aging RG500. He was 21.
Talk about being dropped into the deep end!
All things considered Chili didn’t do badly in his rookie GP season. He scored three top-10 finishes including a season-best sixth at Spa. He finished 10th in the final series standings in spite of missing the final three rounds.
In ’87 Team HB Gallina switched to Hondas and in his sophomore GP campaign Chili’s results improved. In the rain at Le Mans Chili charged up from 12th on the grid and scored his first-ever GP podium, finishing second to Randy Mamola. Chili credited the tractability of his three-cylinder Honda for helping him score his result in France.
He finished 1987 ranked eighth in the final 500cc Grand Prix standings.
Then Chili seemed to hit a plateau. In 1988, riding the HB Honda Gallina Team NSR he scored consistently, but slipped a position in the final standings that season finishing the year ranked ninth. And this time there were no podiums – his best result was a fourth at the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix in Brno towards the end of the 1988 championship.
In 1989 Chili earned his first Grand Prix win – but it was loaded with controversy to say the least.
It happened in the fifth round of the ’89 season in the Nations Grand Prix at Misano. Riders had been complaining about the slippery racing surface all weekend and there were serious concerns if it should rain. Sure enough on race day ominous dark clouds hung above as the green flag was dropped to start the race. Kevin Schwantz was leading when the rain began and he put up his hand to stop the race.
Riders requested several warm-up laps on the wet track before resuming the race but were denied. The top riders then decided to not race, but a few, mostly non-factory riders were vocal in wanting to go on in spite of the treacherous conditions. Chili was one of them.
The race restarted with only about a dozen of the original 33 riders. Chili managed to stay upright in a downpour and won the race over Simon Buckmaster and Michael Rudroff. Instead of being a joyous occasion for Chili, on the podium he endured jeers from some of his fellow riders and video shows a somber looking Chili with the winner’s wreath around his shoulders.
For the rest of his career Chili rarely mentioned the ’89 Misano victory when reviewing his accomplishments. It was almost as if he was ashamed of winning the race.
Bolstered by that contentious Misano win, Chili finished ’89 with his career-best 500cc GP ranking, sixth at the end of that season.
In 1990 Chili landed with ROC/Elf Honda and managed to score a podium (third behind Wayne Rainey and Mick Doohan) at Laguna Seca, but he crashed at in qualifying at Spa at the unforgiving Blanchimont pegged at 12,500 rpm in sixth gear. The injuries forced him to miss most of the rest of the season.
For 1991 Chili signed to race 250cc Grand Prix. At first glance it seemed like a downgrade, but in fact Chili went from a small-budget privateer 500cc GP squad to a works Aprilia ride. The question remained how Chili would fair on the smaller machines after spending most of his career on the big bikes.
It started out rough. In the first round at Suzuka, Chili crashed three times in one day! But then he began getting the feel for the Aprilia RSV 250. He scored a sixth in the Australian round in Eastern Creek and then a fifth at Jerez. Then he scored a podium in his home GP at Misano.
Chili had indeed dialed in Aprilia, but then came his breakthrough in the Dutch TT at Assen.
Chili started off by winning his first ever GP pole. From there the Italian got a great start and led the field in the early laps. The Assen crowd roared when home hero Wilco Zeelenberg took over the lead on his Honda six laps in. Cadalora was in his draft and also moved past Chili. It came down to the last lap. Cadalora was now leading but ran just a bit wide Stekkenwal and that was all the opening Chili needed. He blasted his Aprilia into the lead and then held off Cadalora by 7-10ths of a second at the flag.
You could tell on the podium that the win meant a lot to Chili. He had finally gotten a win against the best and this time the victory came with no asterisk. The crowd warmly cheered him and his fellow racers even seemed happy that the long-suffering veteran had finally done it. A weight was lifted from Chili’s shoulders. It seemed that all was forgiven for racing at Misano two years before.
His Assen victory ultimately was a turning point for Chili. He became a fan favorite. He would go on to win more GPs the next year and then moved on to a very successful career in World Superbike where he was also beloved.