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Lewis Duncan

Yamaha’s once leading light fighting for his MotoGP future

I wouldn’t say there are any rude riders in the MotoGP paddock. But there are definitely those who treat media duties as part of the job description. Franco Morbidelli is always the opposite. As he rocks up to the Yamaha hospitality at Le Mans, Morbidelli is keen to chat about life and his time off between the Spanish and French GPs.

He mentions how time off is necessary for all in the paddock and, unprompted, derides the current schedule and the fact nobody is getting paid enough to be doing so many races in such a tightly packed calendar.

Morbidelli is all too aware of the hard work and sacrifice that goes into racing, especially when it comes to those using their time to help your career. Taken under Valentino Rossi’s wing in 2014 through the VR46 Academy, it has helped mould Morbidelli into the Moto2 world champion he became in 2017, and then the MotoGP title runner-up in 2020.

Now, more than ever, Rossi’s help is proving vital.

“The best thing that the Academy, Vale and all the guys can do is give me battle,” Morbidelli tells Autosport. “You really grow up by the adversities that you find. The more adversities that you find, you are able to overcome them and you are a better person, and a better rider in this case.

“So, what Vale does in a great way is giving me battle in every training. Even though he has stopped, he is always so competitive with go-karts and at the ranch and with the R1 bikes, with everything he jumps on the competition is as high as in racing. So, that’s the thing that really kept me alive last year because in the difficult moments I was having here, when I was training back at the ranch and everything we did I was seeing my potential was there.”

Adversity is something Morbidelli knows about all too well, having had to deal with the sudden death of his father when he was a teenager. This threatened to derail his motorcycle racing ambitions as times became financially tough. But the Italian Federation stepped in to help, before Morbidelli ended up on Rossi’s radar.

Morbidelli came just 13 points shy of the MotoGP title in 2020. It's gone wrong ever since (Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images)

This life experience and the growth he has been able to make through Rossi’s mentorship has kept his chin up when times got tough in 2019 at Petronas SRT when rookie team-mate Fabio Quartararo – as he put it in an interview we did in Autumn of 2020 – kicked his butt. Then at the start of 2020, Yamaha made an eleventh-hour decision to strip Morbidelli of the factory-speed bike he was meant to run at SRT for the 2019-spec M1.

That he went on to win three races in the COVID-affected 2020 season and miss the championship by just 13 points, while Fabio Quartararo – who was already factory Yamaha-bound for 2021 – faded to eighth in the standings, showed just how mentally resilient Morbidelli is.

Now he is having to call on this again as he faces arguably the toughest moment of his MotoGP career. Since stepping into the factory Yamaha team in place of the ousted Maverick Vinales in September of 2021, Morbidelli has been a shadow of his former self. Yamaha’s lack of improvements on its M1 have hindered all, with even Quartararo struggling in 2023 on the bike. Thus, the woes for Morbidelli have been magnified.

Analysing why it’s gone so wrong over the last two years, Morbidelli said: “I think I had many changes between 2021 and 2022. The second half of the championship that I did in 2021 was a good adaptation, or a good taste, of what I would have faced in 2022. But then, in 2022 the crew chief changed again. So, we had one other change and I was getting back to my top shape [after injury in 2021]. So, the first half of the season in 2022 took time to really get to the best shape.”

“If I look at my team-mate, I see that the performances – especially in the important sessions, which are races and qualifying – are not that different” Franco Morbidelli

Morbidelli suffered a knee injury midway through 2021 which forced him onto the sidelines for five rounds. When he came back at the San Marino GP as a factory Yamaha rider, he was still well below 100% fitness while also trying to learn a bike that was a step of two years – and a big one, at that. To boot, he started 2021 with Ramon Forcada at SRT. He then worked with Silvano Galbusera at the factory squad before being partnered with Patrick Primmer for 2022 onwards.

“My feeling is that our opponents have improved more than what we did,” he says of Yamaha’s lack of progress. “They were able to make greater steps. That’s just how it looks, how it feels when you’re on track. That’s the situation we need to flip over. I don’t think we got worse. I mean, I’m sure we changed a lot and some big things got worse between the 19 bike and the 20 bike, which was a completely new philosophy and a completely new structure of bike. So, it was a revolution the one Yamaha did between 19 and 20 because top speed was a great issue and we need to follow that. It was a great evolution and some things got lost along the way.”

In his first full season at the factory Yamaha team, Morbidelli beat his world champion team-mate Fabio Quartararo just once in a grand prix (when both riders finished), with a best result of seventh in the wet Indonesian GP. In the standings, Morbidelli ended up with just 49 points while Quartararo had 248. Over the course of the season, Morbidelli’s deficit in qualifying to Quartararo was 0.798s.

Morbidelli believes he isn't as far away from Quartararo as results suggest in 2023 (Photo by: Yamaha)

Unsurprisingly, coming into 2023, Morbidelli was facing much more pressure as his contract comes up for renewal at the end of the year. Already, there have been links between Yamaha and Jorge Martin, who admitted in France that his current Ducati contract with Pramac does have a clause in it that stipulates he can break free a year early should a factory team offer him a deal.

Morbidelli’s 2023 season didn’t get off to a flying start either. Qualifying in 16th in Portugal, he was 14th in the sprint and the grand prix, while Quartararo was 10th and eighth. He attributes this to the fact that, despite changing his riding style “a lot” to ride more aggressively to get the best out of the M1, he was “greedy” in testing as he tried too many new items and got lost. As Quartararo reverted to older settings on the final day of testing, Morbidelli “got caught out” trying to do the same in the first round.

In Argentina, Morbidelli was a fine fourth across qualifying, sprint and grand prix in wet conditions as Quartararo struggled to 10th, ninth and seventh. Morbidelli was 14th on the grid in Austin and stayed there in the sprint, but climbed to eighth in the GP – albeit with Quartararo in third. He was two spots clear of his team-mate in 14th in qualifying in Spain again, and was only 16th in the sprint before finishing 11th in the main race behind Quartararo. France was tougher, as he was only 17th on the grid, 13th in the sprint and 10th in the GP.

After the first five rounds of 2023, Morbidelli feels he is much more closely matched to Quartararo than his largely underwhelming results suggest.

“If I look at my team-mate, I see that the performances – especially in the important sessions, which are races and qualifying – are not that different,” he believes. “I was able to be quicker in Jerez, which is a track that he has either been first or second throughout the year, which is a track I know he is very, very quick.

“In the qualifying I was behind, I was just behind by two tenths and not one second like happened in the past. So, the improvements on the approach and the way of working are there, if we take into consideration my team-mate. But if we look at the big picture and we take into consideration the other opponents, the situation is pretty tough.”

Looking at the qualifying average lap time difference between the pair, it stands at 0.378s if you exclude the 1.1s advantage Morbidelli had over Quartararo in a wet/dry qualifying in Argentina. Taking the same sample from the first five rounds of 2022 (excluding Portugal’s wet/dry qualifying), the gap was 0.754s, with Quartararo heading Morbidelli in all sessions as opposed to the three-two split in the Frenchman’s favour in 2023.

Fourths across the board in Argentina was a marked improvement for Morbidelli in 2023 on his lacklustre 2022 season (Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images)

In the sprints, Morbidelli was only faster on lap time than Quartararo once, in Argentina, with the average gap 0.904s over five rounds. In grands prix, the gap is much tighter at 0.313s.

So, there is some truth to Morbidelli’s claim that he isn’t as far away from Quartararo as the results suggest. Indeed, in the standings Morbidelli is just nine points shy of Quartararo. Given Yamaha is unlikely to have a satellite squad in 2024 again, it needs a rider who can acclimatise quickly. Martin is on the best bike on the grid – trading it for a Yamaha seems as unlikely as it does foolish.

The results are still a far cry from those he should be achieving, but Morbidelli doesn’t feel like his talent has been forgotten – not least within Yamaha.

“No, not at all,” he replies when asked if he feels like his past results have been forgotten. “If I kept going like I was going in the beginning of last season, then yeah. Definitely I’d be here panicking and thinking about what I will do. But I’m actually very, very trustful in my means now. The adversities that I had last year just made me a better person and a better rider, a better athlete, a better professional.

“And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to step up my game and give battle to the guy who makes the best results from the package I have. And it looks like that is happening this year and that’s the positive of this year, and that’s the thing that doesn’t take away my trust and doesn’t make me feel unsure about my future because I know the situation is difficult and I know how focused and how good you need to be to deal with the other guys in this situation. So, till you’re not sure about your future, you always have a bit of doubt – but not that much.

“When I speak with the Japanese and I speak with the guys from my team, I definitely feel that especially after the last part of last season and this beginning of the season, I feel that the trust is much more there. So, but at the same time I need to keep going, I need to keep pushing because it’s really complicated to survive and to survive really it requires a high amount of effort. So, I need to keep the energy high.”

Forgetting Morbidelli’s potential would be unwise, but reading between the lines to see that his current results aren’t as bad as they seem won’t be enough to keep his seat. With Yamaha wanting its 2024 line-up to be firmed up come the summer break in July, Morbidelli is facing three crucial weeks in the quest to save his MotoGP future starting with this weekend’s Italian GP.

At the very least, he appears equipped to face this challenge.

Morbidelli may have just three weeks to save his Yamaha seat for 2024 (Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images)
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