Not your average MotoGP racer: Chatting with Franco…
This year the last five rounds of MotoGP visited Spain (twice), Japan, Australia and Malaysia and there is only one rider from all three classes of Grand Prix that lifted a podium trophy in each race of the continent-hopping stint. 21 year old Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS star Franco Morbidelli wanders into the compact team hospitality at a sunny Valencia for the 2016 curtain closer. The unit carries a busy but polished vibe. Surfaces shine, food platters entice and stocked fridges unquench thirst.
Seeming very much part of the furniture, Franco is of (half) Italian stock and is a highly rated member of Valentino Rossi’s VR46 Academy; unearthing the next generation of motorcycle racing gems. This presents a challenge for #21 to stand out from the wealth of his co-‘pupils’, countrymen and Spanish youngsters breaking lap-records in the Moto3 and Moto2 categories on the scrabble to reach the peak of MotoGP. Morbidelli has etched a curious profile however not only thanks to a sterling second half of 2016 in Moto2 where he was one of the highest points scorers (and just missed out on third spot in the championship standings, mainly due to a slow and irregular start to his maiden year with the title-winning team) but also courtesy of an exciting riding style, easy demeanour and an articulacy unusual for his profession and certainly his age group.
Morbidelli is keen to walk the Ricardo Tormo circuit at Valencia and has also been told he has another media commitment before the Spanish sun threatens to dip on the eve of the Grand Prix. He sits to negotiate the interview – a process he has to become more and more familiar with as his sporting success increases – and he warms up considerably as conversation goes on. Before we know it a good twenty-five minutes have passed and the Tavullia resident is tight for time. Franco carries a youthful confidence despite his surprising claim to be “insecure” and there is evident single-mindedness towards his career…but also a degree of innocence. Morbidelli is relatively new to the MotoGP world that can ruin as well as reward and the margins to prosper can be so tight. He still has to drink-in the thrill of his first Grand Prix win but after two campaigns and nine rostrum appearances is now prepped to nestle in the big time. 2016 Moto2 World Champion Johann Zarco has publicly given the nod towards Franco’s chances come the start of another exciting term in the intermediate division in Qatar next March.
What a recent run of form. How did that come together?
It was about balance. I found a balance at home, with my training, with my lifestyle and with my team also. We made progress with the bike and the set-up and our communication. Everything came together and this allowed us to make good results in a row. We were able to be consistent. We know each other more and we are working together well. We ‘found’ each other!
Did you make some kind of mental switch to reach that level of performance?
It wasn’t really a switch but something we built up from the beginning of the year. We made a couple of mistakes but I think this is quite normal when you are in a new team and surrounded by new people. I am a guy who takes things step-by-step and doesn’t rush too much. We got better and better but then hit a few mistakes and had to look at what we were doing…but then we were able to come up again and now I’d say we are consistently near the top.
Are you an athlete that likes to analyse…Do you think about things quite a lot?
[smiles] I try not to! Sometimes thinking too much makes you lose a bit of focus and the important thing is to be fast on the track no matter what. I am also a guy that likes to analyse and I want to properly know what is going on under my ass! And what will happen if we make a modification. I fully trust my team and I’m really confident what they do will end well.
Do you have a way to escape the demands and focus of racing?
This year I had the luck that a friend came with me to the races and that helped switch off once the day is done. We talk about a lot of things and it helps to get rid of the stress and things you think about during the day in the paddock.
We love sport in general…so a lot of football-
Roma or Lazio for you?
Roma! We talk about other sports as well whether its golf, Olympics or whatever.
Your ‘job’ is pretty exhilarating. Can you explain what it feels like and what drives you?
I think this is one of the most adrenaline fuelled things that you can do. Just going on a bike gets the adrenaline going anyway so to move at a certain speed is not something you do everyday. To think about it makes me really enjoy this sport. Of course sometimes you struggle and you don’t have fun, you crash and have pain and you have to get back on the bike but this sport is really special. Thinking about it gives extra value to what I am doing [with my life]. There is the pressure to do well and I feel it…but at the moment not too much! I think real pressure will come when you need to win a championship and there are some vital moments to deal with.
So maybe as soon as next year…
I hope so! Sometimes with the pressure you can do quite badly but then you can also achieve things that you didn’t know was possible.
Is it still possible to have fun at this level?
Yes, I’m really having fun and especially the last races I’ve had such a good time with the team. As I said I think I found the right balance because I am not too stressed. I’m relaxed and do my best every single lap and practice. I try to improve on any weaknesses…it has been a great time.
How do you think people see you? Some young, crazy guy or someone articulate and smooth on the bike? In this sport – especially as an Italian – it must be hard to make your own identity…
I think people see me as kinda mellow and I’m like that. I’m a quiet guy. I don’t worry too much about things. My identity is a bit of a mess because I am half Brazilian and half Italian and in Italy I am half from Rome and half from Pesaro! I don’t have a fixed origin. I am a big mix! And I like that. I like to destroy the boundaries between me and the person I am talking with and so languages is a great tool. With a Spanish guy I try to speak Spanish, with a French guy in French…I like to feel closer to the person I am talking with.
What about the VR46 academy? How is that experience? It seems to be more of a lifestyle than a training group…
It is a lifestyle. I have the luck to live there but some of the other riders from different areas had to come to that zone in Pesaro to be there. It is a lot of fun and you live it everyday. You train and you live for your sport, for the bike. Everything you do is to get to the top level in this place [MotoGP]. So it is a lifestyle but it is not too hard! I don’t train at 6am for many hours. We live and train and it feels good and easy.
How long have you been based there?
I’m twenty-one now…so eleven years. I feel great there. I love the quiet, the nice landscapes and the seaside and all this stuff. I love being there. Misano is close. Overall it is a nice zone of Italy because you are five minutes from the sea and then not far at all from the mountains. You have a lot of choice: mountain bike, skiing…but I like more the beach!
You had a pretty bad crash doing motocross last year. How do you feel about that sport now? Too risky after seeing what happened in the accident?
I like motocross…but especially after the injury I had to step back a little. I’ve ridden motocross since I was eleven; which is not long actually. To be really good at motocross I think you need to start earlier. Being a Pro racer you go to do motocross with other people who are fast and it makes a switch go in your mind because I want to be as fast as them but I don’t have the skills. It is really risky and I make mistakes, sometimes you can end up on the ground with a broken leg.
How did it happen?
The bike slid on a jump take-off and I landed badly. My foot slipped off the peg and stamped into the ground. You know I still like motocross and I follow the sport. I admire those guys. Now though I do ‘softcross’! There is a track at The Ranch that doesn’t have any big jumps and I carry on riding there in an easier way.
How do you find and build confidence? Is it a physical thing or mental?
Results give me confidence-
More than a good feeling on the bike?
Yeah. I’m insecure, so when I see that things are good on the paper [results sheets] then I am really sure that what I have done is good. Actually the only thing that matters is the paper. If you are feeling good and confident but the paper doesn’t show it then it’s not a good thing. Feeling great and seeing the proof is how you build up confidence, and going into a race you know what you can do and what you can aim for.
That’s a hard line…
Yeah, it’s really hard. If you feel good but it is not working then you have made a mistake somewhere or you have lost yourself.
With complete respect you are kinda like a baby in this world; just two Grand Prix seasons now. Are you set for the next step your results and riding profile are bringing?
I’m curious to see that. I don’t know but I think I am ready. I have to be in the actual situation to judge it. As you said I’m really young and have only been a professional racer for three years actually. I haven’t been in many really stressful situations…but then again I have because whether it was mini-bikes or Pre-GP 125s I had to fight many times – luckily – for championships. OK, they are not world championships but they were important at the time. I’m really looking forward to being in those kinds of positions again.