Tales From The Petronas Launch: Rossi, Morbidelli, 2019 vs 2020, And Petronas' Future As A Satellite Team

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.

The privateer

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."

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Razali has clarified the next piece of an interesting puzzle - Aqua will run Yamahas. Yamaha is giving them more of what they want, and is getting the lower classes rider pipeline they have wanted/needed. 5 yrs more about to be signed. No Suzukis.

The Gresini team (love you Fausto!) is likely to announce sticking with Aprilia, for now an underwhelming venture, but with hope for future bearing of fruit.

So our last puzzle piece? VR46. No, they won't run Ducatis or merge with Avintia (I know, give me until race 1 on the name change). What then? Run Suzukis, that's what. Or, I hope. Valentino's relationship with Yamaha is strong and long. The bikes are coming good just in time. Will Suzuki get left out of this shuffle? Vale could run a one bike team with a 5th Yamaha. Or he could merge with one of the two existing Yamaha teams, enjoying branding and the VR46 Academy rather than the huge work and expense of fielding a full fledged garage. 

Heart? VR46 2022 or 2023 running two Suzukis. Head? Merges into one of the two existing Yamaha teams. Maybe Factory Yamaha, who have a large Italian rooting. Monster approves. Can we go ahead and rid the bike of most the black then? Thanks.

P.S. I love FM21, but not tipping him anywhere near title contention. Circumstances have changed around him, and he is being caught by a solid handful of riders. He will continue as well as he did...just in lots of company. 


"Razali had not spent enough time with Valentino Rossi to offer an opinion on the Italian veteran's character, he explained, ..." - Has Razali been emtombed for several decades only to emerge recently with Punxsutawney Phil?

I need to spend time with someone to begin to appraise their character (and it's a long process, usually), but everyone I meet isn't as well documented (by orders of magnitude) as VR46. That just seemed a very disengenuous remark (and odd, too.)

Raz, Raz, Raz, why oh why? You had the best color scheme and now you've gone and thrown black all at it. I like black, in it's place, and that place is sparingly on a racing motorcycle. Yamaha and Ducati have already bedowngraded their looks with great swaths of black where color should be and now you. Sad. When they zig in the wrong direction,,,zag,,,moar aqua!

Per Vale. Methinks there was MUCH arm twisting to make a powerful and reluctant Razali to take on the monster that is the VR46 circus. There has been/is/will be a gigantic power struggle; both extremely powerful entities, both entitled to have things their way. Carmelo has his work cut out for him with this one. I hope Franky can stay above/apart from it.

Even with his difficulty expressing himself in English you call tell that Morbidelli is a bright insightful guy. His answers appear to be well thought out and not the sometimes "canned" responses you get from some riders partially because of their difficulties with English. Morbidelli tries to communicate and takes chances expressing his actually thought, I'm impressed.

Mr Emmett wrote: 'Jarvis' explanation was rather economical with the truth, however. In direct contrast to what the Yamaha MD had said nearly two weeks ago,...'.

It seems to me that the defensive word salad around Yamaha extends beyond discussion of the factory team. Beyond being 'annoyant',(thanks Lilyvani) it seems completely unneccessary as the Yamaha teams are clearly working their butts off and taken collectively, enjoying a lot of success, in literally unprecedented circumstances. In fact it seems to me that their challenges whether technical (valves anyone) or riders and bikes (the best rider on the oldest spec bike, which was a happy accident last year and god knows what this year) are just being compounded by a series of messy public statements. The question here though is whether this sort of doublespeak is a cultural thing in Yamaha, and whether the challenges Petronas faces in dealings with Yamaha can in some part be attributed to this flood of obfuscation.  (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/obfuscation?s=t)


The thing that intrigues me is the dynamic of having Vale in the garage. This is a little like hiring someone who, when asked in the interview about their career plan, says they want to be in your job in 5 years time. Except in this case, the candidate may not just want the job but the business itself and, not in 5 years but possibly next year. Which means he's already working on it. Personally I wouldn't have wanted that candidate within a mile of my company secrets and, if forced to hire, my evil twin might come into play. I can only think this was a pre-condition of Yamaha's, for them to even talk about a Yamaha-Petronas future. However I could see this not ending well, regardless which marque Vale goes for.

The colour scheme is nice though. I do like a bit of 'in-yer-face' colour on race bikes, if only because it gives me half a chance of being able to spot who's where in a pack.


I think Morbidelli and Valentino should work well together. They seem to get on fine. V.R. should be a good mentor. With all the experience Valentino has; I think if Franky says "doing X on the bike doesn't feel right" Rossi could reply "at Indy I had this and did Y which improved the feeling with the bike & the lap time." So much racing experience is a big asset, in my opinion. Plenty of life experience too. Which would also help.

I hope the entire Sepang Racing team works well together. I have been hoping that Yamaha will get their act together for some time. Maybe next year? Maybe this year, we'll see.

Too much black for my eyes on the bikes. Should Rossi decide mid-season to hang up the towel on an illustrious career, he will have the opportunity to become the perfect teammate and mentor both on the track and off.