There has been a reversal of roles in the Yamaha camp. The youthful Fabio Quartararo has swapped the confines of the Petronas Yamaha SRT team for the Monster Energy Yamaha factory team. In turn, the 42-year-old hoary veteran Valentino Rossi has been demoted from the factory squad into what is supposed to be the junior team, where young talent is nurtured and prepared to move up to the factory team.
Given the relative performance of the two Yamaha teams in 2020, it seems wrong to class Rossi's move as a demotion, or Quartararo's as a promotion. The Petronas Yamaha team finished second in the 2020 team championship, while the Monster Energy Yamaha team finished sixth. Petronas Yamaha's Franco Morbidelli was the best-placed Yamaha rider, ending the season in second, while factory rider Maverick Viñales finished just 5 points ahead of second Petronas man Quartararo.
In that light, the rider reshuffle seems almost irrelevant. All four Yamaha riders will be on more or less the same spec of machines as in 2020, albeit with updates to start the 2021 season. Franco Morbidelli starts on an upgraded A-spec bike based on the 2019 Yamaha M1, while new teammate Valentino Rossi and factory riders Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo will race heavily revised version of the 2020 Yamaha. The engine homologation freeze for 2021 instigated at the start of the 2020 season in light of the Covid-19 pandemic means the difference in engine performance will be negligible.
First mover disadvantage
So why bother? Two factors led directly to Rossi's arrival in the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, where he joins Morbidelli. The first was the MotoGP fad of signing contracts ever earlier, in an attempt to head off rival factories in a fiercely competitive rider market. That trend saw Maverick Viñales sign a contract for 2021 back in January of 2020, and then Fabio Quartararo promoted to the factory team ahead of the Sepang MotoGP test in February 2020. Both riders were signed for 2021 even before testing for the 2020 season had begun.
The second was the Covid-19 pandemic which saw the start of the MotoGP season pushed back all the way to July. With 14 races crammed into an 18-week period, that left little time for careful evaluations of riders over the course of several races. Decisions had to be made early, based on the risk of losing valued riders to other teams, and the relative benefits of signing an experienced rider versus a rookie from Moto2.
After the online launch of the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad, Team Principal Razlan Razali and Team Director Johan Stigefelt explained via the now customary zoom media debrief how they arrived at the line up they have for 2021, and their plans for the coming years. They gave a deep and frank assessment of things that went wrong in 2020, as well as of their major successes. And they shared their expectations of 2021, and their vision of what comes after that.
Both the presentation and the interviews given by Razali and Stigefelt emphasized how much of a Malaysian and Southeast Asian team Petronas is. With Petronas as the title sponsor, and the Sepang Circuit as an important part of the infrastructure, the team is heavily focused on that region and its markets.
The arrival of Valentino Rossi in the team is relevant here. The Italian legend has a massive following throughout the entire region, and his popularity has helped grow the popularity of the sport there.
"Overwhelming for a lot of the fans," is how Razlan Razali described Rossi joining the Petronas team. "In Malaysia and Southeast Asia, there are a lot of Valentino fans. I can remember that when I was managing the Sepang circuit, we had one whole grandstand of just Valentino tribute in the first corner, I think K1. I think we sold 18,000 tickets just on Valentino alone."
That enthusiasm would only increase, Razali predicted. "Before they were supporting him in a factory team, in the Yamaha factory team, in the blue colors. And now Valentino is joining us in a national team, in a Malaysian team. It's something that is quite exciting and overwhelming for the fans. It's important for us to have a Malaysian grand prix in October this year so we can race at home, and with Valentino racing in the team, it will be fantastic for the Malaysian grand prix, and the Malaysian fans and Southeast Asian fans."
The Malaysian grand prix has gone from having a handful of spectators to be completely sold out, and the region's fans are some of the most passionate and dedicated in the world. The Southeast Asian market is now a mature market for MotoGP. That was clear from the fact that the first two questions of Razlan Razali's debrief went to a Malaysian and an Indonesian journalist respectively. Both experienced and knowledgeable regulars in the MotoGP paddock, asking well-informed and hard-hitting questions.
While Valentino Rossi's contract is a factory deal with Yamaha, to ride in the Petronas Yamaha team, Franco Morbidelli is contracted directly with the team. Unlike Ducati and Honda, where the satellite riders all have factory contracts, Morbidelli is paid by and has a deal with the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad.
Razlan Razali explained how that came about. "Well, after our first year, in the second year, the focus was very much on Fabio, and there was less emphasis on Frankie," the Team Principal explained. That was to be expected, given the phenomenal rookie season Quartararo had had in 2019, which was in stark contrast to Morbidelli's modest first year on a Yamaha.
But the Italian turned that around over the winter of 2020. "He had a good off season to prepare himself for 2020, and he came strong and we know the results," Razali said. "But when we started the championship in July, it's also the time we have to look to the future. And at that time, we had the two Jerez races, and that's where the problems started with Frankie's bike, mechanical problems. And though he was more consistent than Fabio, he only started to shine in Brno, to get his first podium."
Despite being just three races into the season, Petronas was forced to make a quick decision on Morbidelli. "At that time we could not wait and risk other teams talking to Frankie, and we are in a pandemic year where we don't want to take any risks looking at other riders. So continuity was important, so that's why we decided to sign Frankie directly for the next two years until 2022."
That early decision is why Morbidelli has ended up with a 2019 A-spec Yamaha for 2021. Given that Morbidelli finished second in the championship in 2020, that is not necessarily a disadvantage. Yamaha had explained their strategy to the Petronas team in 2019, Razali said, Morbidelli's 2019-spec M1 both a benchmark and a fallback position should development of the 2020 machine take a wrong turn.
"With Frankie's bike, this is what Yamaha have told us as well during the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2019, it's that the 2020 bike is a totally new bike," Razali explained. "If they develop it better, it can be great, if not, they have the risk of problems. So they wanted us to have two kind of specs so that the 2019 bike is like a fallback if anything untoward happens with the new bike."
To some extent, that is the scenario which played out, with the 2020 M1 dominant at some races and nowhere at others, while Morbidelli climbed to second in the championship thanks to consistently challenging for wins and podiums. "That's not to say that the 2020 bike is completely not very good, because the 2020 bike won 4 races collectively with Fabio and Maverick," Razali insisted. "It's just that the lack of testing by the test teams, no testing during the year, so they couldn't develop the bike any further, any more than they can. And it is a bike in its first year. So I believe they have already identified all these problems, and it will be better this year."
To read the remaining 3923 words of this article, you need to sign up to become a MotoMatters.com site supporter by taking out a subscription. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here. If you are already a subscriber, log in to read the full text.
This is part of a regular series of unique insights into the world of motorcycle racing, exclusive for MotoMatters.com site supporters. The series includes interviews, background information, in-depth analysis, and opinion, and is available to everyone supporting the site by taking out a subscription.
If you would like to read more of our exclusive content you can join the growing band of site supporters, by taking out a subscription here. If you prefer, you can also support us on our Patreon page and get access to the same exclusive material there.