Franco Morbidelli was the surprise of the 2020 MotoGP season. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider shocked the MotoGP world by finishing second in the championship, and comfortably the best Yamaha rider, on a year-old M1 machine. But Morbidelli went into the 2020 with very little pressure on him. After a mediocre 2019, in which he had been overshadowed by his teammate Fabio Quartararo, expectations for him were low.
That was not how Franco Morbidelli saw it himself. Angry and frustrated at his performance in 2019, he massive stepped up his training and focus for 2020. That effort paid off handsomely, with three race wins and a second place in the MotoGP riders championship.
Morbidelli goes into 2021 in a very different position. Universally acknowledged as one of the favorites for the title, a great deal is expected of the Italian, despite once again being the only Yamaha rider on the older, 2019-spec M1. He has a new teammate, Fabio Quartararo having departed for the factory team, while Morbidelli's long-time friend and mentor Valentino Rossi steps down from the Monster Energy Yamaha squad to join him in the Petronas Yamaha SRT team.
After yesterday's launch of the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, today the media got a chance to speak to Franco Morbidelli. It was a fascinating interview, in which Morbidelli revealed himself to be part athlete, part poet, and part philosopher, and showed a remarkable sense of perspective. Morbidelli spoke of his ambitions for 2021, his relationship and rivalry with Valentino Rossi, and the importance – or lack thereof – of racing.
Q: Last year you beat your teammate and finished 2nd. Can you do the same this year?
FM: I hope so. I will try to do similar results to last year. I have been working exactly as last year, if not better. So I will try to make the same performance on track, I will try to bring the same stuff that I brought last year on track. I have more knowledge in myself, I have more trust in myself, I have more trust in the package and more knowledge of the package, given the fact that the package is going to remain the same. So everything is a little bit more known than last year, so everything has room for development, apart from the package. So I will try to do the same results as last year. I don't know if I will manage, but I will try.
Q: It seemed like you took motivation from being on old bike last year, will you have the same this year?
FM: I am bringing that same motivation. I'm going to be honest with you. 2019 got me pretty frustrated as a rider, and that frustration made me pull something out of me that I wasn't expecting, or at least I wasn't waiting for that. So I'm going to use that kind of feeling at my service also this year. I hope it's going to work out. I don't know. So I will try to do that.
What do I expect from the machine? I don't know what to expect. I know that my bike is going to be the same, and I hope that some small updates that fit both bikes, factory and my one, are going to come on my bike also, because anyway small updates are going to help. So I don't know what to expect from the other machines.
I saw that Ducati was very strong last year, especially at the end of the season with Jack, so I suppose that they are working and trying to improve, and I expect them big time this year. I expect Suzuki. These are the two main strengths, I would say, thinking about it just now. Those are the two main machines that I expect this year.
Q: Other riders say you're one of the favorites? Do you feel you have to fight for title, or are you not thinking about it?
FM: I cannot hide, I don't want to hide behind preset answers. So last year I did a very good season, and toward the end of the season I was able to feel great with the bike, and to be able to attack and squeeze the things and the performance at a level that wasn't expected by anyone. So it's my duty and my job to replicate that feeling and to replicate that performance. If I'm able to replicate that I will be able to fight for the championship and important positions in the championship and not just single races. That's my job, that's my duty, that's what I want to do, and that's what I will try to do.
I know it's not just about human, it's also about machine. But I also know that the gap between my machine and every other factory machine is not as big as it would be if it were two normal seasons. These are two very strange seasons, and the development of the bikes is not going forward very fast, and as fast as it would be in a normal one.
So I hope and I think that the gap, if there is a gap, has remained similar or the same to last year. I hope that it's going to be just about the human side, and I really trust in that side and that matter, so I will really try to make a good job.
Q: Any specific changes in the way you trained? Anything you have specifically worked to improve?
FM: Yes, we are trying to be a little bit more powerful for one single lap. I was able to make two pole positions last year, but I definitely have to improve on that side. So we've been trying to improve on that area. Especially at the gym, but also on track I try to focus a little bit more on being a little bit more powerful in one single lap. So that's a thing we've been trying to improve this winter. Plus trying to make a small step everyone else.
Q: What did you do to improve yourself as well?
FM: Well, I have got to say, I got more serious about my job from 2019 to 2020. I got more serious, I started to train more, I started to train better, I started to focus more on motorcycles, and I like that, I like that quite a lot. Because the serious behavior that I had to maintain was reflected in results, and I liked that quite a lot. So I kept doing this and I kept having that behavior also this winter. OK I was forced to, but I enjoyed more going through the misery, and going through the training this year because of what I felt last year, because of what it gave me back last year.
Q: Were there any moments you would have done different last year, things you learned you can use in 2021?
FM: Well, there are some technical details that we can improve for the race this year. I think last year we threw away some races because of some small technical details that we needed to care about a little bit more than we did. So I think that caring a little bit more about these small details this year will allow us to not throw away any important points. We will focus more on the details this year.
Q: Are you worried about how your relationship with Valentino Rossi will change now he is your teammate? Any decisions you have made with yourself about how to handle this?
FM: With Vale, I make to myself the same wish that I make to myself towards all my friends. I hope to be fair, just, and right, with all my friends, not just with Vale. Vale is a big friend of mine, and his figure is maybe even bigger than a friend, and I hope to be fair, just, and right towards him in every aspect of life. We race against each other, and to be fair, right, and just with him and with me, I need to race against him, and I will race against him in the same way that I have been racing against him all my life.
Nothing is going to change. Of course we are fighting for something big, but we need to remember that nothing is as big as friendship, love.
The human side is more important than games. This is just a game. A pretty important one, a game we have been doing since we were a little kid, but it's still a game. So it's important to remember this when we are fighting, and I hope we will be fighting for top spots and important things.
Q: Valentino Rossi has seen many of the riders he has mentored do very well, riders such as yourself, Luca Marini, Pecco Bagnaia. It seems like he feels a father's pride when his pupils succeed?
FM: I don't know what goes through his mind when he sees his pupils doing so well. Trying to understand him, I think he's filled with pride, that's for sure. That's one of the main things that is going through his mind when he sees me, Luca [Marini], Bezze [Marco Bezzecchi], but also the other riders going well, I think he is more filled with pride and he's more happy about his job and his work and his legacy.
Q: Rossi always believed in you from the beginning. Does this come from him training with you at the Ranch? And who is the fastest in training there now?
FM: We all train together, and I think that in training, you can see, you can taste and understand the matter of a character. And you can understand some sides and some faces of someone's way of thinking and someone's behavior. So we know this is what we mean when we say, we know each other well. This is not just Vale, this is all the guys of the academy. We know each other well because we train together and we see how we behave in certain situations.
But I also believe that racing with real bikes, Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP, it's a little bit different, it's a different matter, it's a different world, it's something a little bit more serious, and mostly everybody of us brings something else, something extra – sometimes something less, but mostly something more – in the real racing.
So I think Vale had an idea of myself, knowing me from our training, and he brought that image and idea also to the real racing. That's for sure. And that's why he was believing in me when I had no one behind me in 2012, and that's why he was believing in me when I was struggling in MotoGP in 2018. so that's why we all have this kind of thinking about one another.
Q: When you see Rossi in the garage opposite you, will you see Valentino or the first rival to beat?
FM: I will see both. It's difficult to split. Our thoughts never go in one direction. Our thoughts always go in different directions, and it's difficult to pinpoint one. Maybe in one moment and in one situation, I will see him as the first guy to beat. And then five minutes later I will see him as one of my best friends. So it's difficult to pinpoint one of the two. I think that for sure when I will be in the pitbox, I will feel more that sporting feeling. So the first rider to beat, for sure. I will have that feeling more. But it's difficult to split the rider from the friend.
Q: What do you think about Marc Márquez?
FM: I think he had a huge injury. He had one of the worst injuries that we have ever seen from a top sportsman. I don't remember seeing a rider and a guy that's at his pinnacle losing one year of his job, of his sport. I don't remember. So it's going to be difficult to come back in the same shape and in the same way he has always been. But not impossible.
Q: Will it be impossible mentally or physically for Márquez to come back?
FM: If I put myself in his shoes, I don't know the extent of his injury, but it's a pretty big one, I don't know the pain he is going through right now, so I cannot judge about that, I can't judge about physical struggles. But I can judge about mental struggles. And I know that such a big injury for sure has repercussions in your head. Because we are humans, and we remember bad stuff. That's what brought us ahead in evolution. So we remember back stuff, and to fight against something a big bad thing is going to be tough. But he's a tough guy, he's a tough athlete, and he's a tough person, so I don't see why he won't be able to fight back and come back as he was.
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