It is hard to keep secrets in the MotoGP paddock (though not impossible, as Jorge Lorenzo's move to Repsol Honda conclusively proves). One of the worst kept secrets has been the news that the Sepang International Circuit, or SIC, is to expand its current operation to include a MotoGP team. Over the months since rumors first started circulating that Sepang was interested in running a MotoGP team, details have slowly dripped out, until we now have an almost complete picture. The whole picture is to be formally announced at Silverstone, at a press conference at 6pm BST on Friday.
Here's what we already know: the team is to be an extension of the current Petronas Sprinta Racing team, which currently runs Adam Norrodin and Ayumi Sasaki in Moto3, and Niki Tuuli in Moto2. The Petronas SIC Yamaha team, as it will almost certainly be called, will be the showcase team for the Petronas-backed structure run by the Sepang International Circuit. The objective is to have two riders in each of the three Grand Prix classes, from Moto3 to MotoGP, as well as a team in the FIM CEV Junior World Moto3 Championship.
Current Petronas Sprinta team manager Johan Stigefelt will continue to oversee the full team in all three classes, though management of the MotoGP team will be delegated to Wilco Zeelenberg, currently rider analyst for Maverick Viñales in the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team. Zeelenberg will be too busy managing the Petronas SIC Yamaha team to take on the role of rider coach for the Petronas team, so an existing rider coach is to be appointed to the team to assist the riders.
Though it is yet to be announced, the rider line up for the Petronas SIC Yamaha team was finalized at Assen, with Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo riding the bikes. Petronas has the budget to obtain much better material from Yamaha than Tech3 ever did, with Morbidelli set to line up on a near-factory M1, while Quartararo will likely be riding something more similar to a satellite machine. Ramon Forcada, currently crew chief to Maverick Viñales, will join the Petronas SIC Yamaha team to work as crew chief to Franco Morbidelli. The crew for the Petronas SIC Yamaha team will be made up of a large part of the current Marc VDS MotoGP squad, as that team are leaving the MotoGP grid in 2019.
The importance of the team is emphasized by the role call of Malaysian representatives present at the Silverstone press conference. SIC CEO Razlan Razali will of course be there, as the driving force behind the team, as well SIC Chairman Azman Yahya. Wan Zulkiflee, CEO of Petronas, the state-owned Malaysian oil company, will also be present, along with the Malaysian minister of youth and sports, Syed Saddiq. The goal of the team structure is to promote primarily Malaysian, but in the second instance, Asian talent along a pathway from the FIM CEV to MotoGP, but it is also important for the team to be successful at as many levels as possible. The reason for Petronas to back the team so heavily is for the promotional value of being involved in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and that value is best served by winning.
The goal of winning races is why the rider line up took so long to assemble. Initially, Petronas and SIC had wanted an existing top rider, spending a lot of time courting first Jorge Lorenzo, and then Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo chose the security of a factory team, while Pedrosa decided he no longer had the passion to keep the intensity needed to be successful in MotoGP. Franco Morbidelli was already destined for the Petronas SIC team, as a protegé of the VR46 Riders Academy, and so it was a logical step to put him in the lead role. The team took a gamble on the youth and potential of Fabio Quartararo over existing and proven riders such as Alvaro Bautista.
Though there are few concrete details left for the Malaysian protagonists to reveal at the Silverstone press conference, it will still be eagerly awaited. Above all, it will give an insight into the reasoning behind this team, and demonstrate the seriousness of the commitment to the program. If the wilder rumors circulating in the paddock are true, this could be the future of the factory Yamaha team.