It would probably be fair to describe the Petronas Yamaha SRT team's 2021 season as disappointing. After an exceptional year in 2020, they started 2021 with high hopes. Franco Morbidelli had finished 2020 as runner up to Joan Mir in the championship, and between them, Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo had won six races.
For 2021, Morbidelli was joined by MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi, now back and fully fit after a period off with Covid-19. But their expectations were dashed in what would turn out to be a bizarre and unpredictable year. They managed just a single podium from Franco Morbidelli at Jerez, finished second to last in the team standings, lost their title sponsor at the end of the year, and then the team was disbanded and reformed as RNF Racing for 2022.
Nothing quite encapsulates how strange 2021 was for the Petronas Yamaha SRT team like the parade of riders which veteran Catalan crew chief Ramon Forcada had to work with through the season. He started at Qatar with Franco Morbidelli, who started to struggle after a training crash in which he damaged the ligaments in his knee before Le Mans. Morbidelli kept going with a very painful and weak knee through the Sachsenring race.
After the Sachsenring, Morbidelli decided to skip Assen and have surgery to fix his knee, writing off the 2021 season. At Assen, Morbidelli was replaced by American WorldSBK rider Garrett Gerloff, making it rider number 2 for Forcada.
Morbidelli wasn't back after the summer break, which meant that Cal Crutchlow was drafted in for the two races at Austria. Maverick Viñales' meltdown after Austria 1 saw the Spaniard leave Yamaha with immediate effect, and Morbidelli promoted to the factory squad on his return.
That left a gap at Petronas, which Moto2 rider Jake Dixon filled for two races, Silverstone and Aragon, the fourth rider Forcada would have to take under his wing. In the run up to Aragon, Andrea Dovizioso signed a contract with Yamaha to race in the RNF team for 2022, and to take the place of Morbidelli in Petronas for the remaining five races in 2021. Dovizioso was rider number five for Forcada in the 2021 season.
It wasn't just the lack of stability in rider line up, it was also the different levels of experience of those riders. Morbidelli was well established and comfortable on the Yamaha. Gerloff was getting a second chance to ride a Yamaha MotoGP bike, having had half a weekend on the bike in 2020. Crutchlow was retired from racing and in his first season as test rider for Yamaha, having spent the past six years on a Honda. Jake Dixon was an absolute rookie, having never ridden a MotoGP bike before. And Andrea Dovizioso arrived at Yamaha after spending the past eight seasons with Ducati.
Each of these riders required a different approach, a challenge even for a crew chief as experienced as Ramon Forcada. How did Forcada handle that? "It depends on the rider," he explained. "Mainly the biggest problem is with the riders that come from another category. Then everything is different, because we had some riders that it was the first time to ride the Michelins, the first time to use carbon brakes, the first time to use the bike, so it's difficult."
The first objective for Forcada was to get riders who had never raced a MotoGP bike comfortable. "This category, it's important to make the right position, that he feels comfortable on the bike. That's very important," he explained. But that is not as easy as it seems. "But this also takes time, because always, when you make the right position in the garage, and then when riding, it's different, everything changes."
Putting a rookie on the bike for just one or two races leaves no time to get a real understanding of how a MotoGP machine works, Forcada believes. "To make only one race, this is a problem. Because you have no time, the maximum you can get with the bike is to arrive to the race where the rider feels more or less comfortable, and understands how to manage all the systems, the start device, the launch control, everything. So that's the maximum we can do. So the race is normally, it's no good."
With MotoGP now an increasingly complex category, substituting at short notice gave rookies no chance to show their talent. "So for me, it's not a good situation, even for the rider. Because he's riding only one race with the pressure from Moto2 with a new bike. He can never show his skills, so the result is always a disaster. And then, OK, you can keep working and maybe can show something, but in one race, it's impossible."
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