No more fun time Frankie?

We all know about the brilliance that carried Joan Mir to last year’s MotoGP title by now. The Spaniard was one of the more unexpected victors in the 72-year history of the premier class. But there are grounds to argue the man that finished behind him was even more impressive in his pursuits.

Franco Morbidelli won more races (three to Mir’s one), scored more poles (two to zero) and ended the season stronger than his younger Spanish rival. That he managed to do it all in a satellite squad on a year-old bike with just two working engines for ten of the year’s 14 rounds – a massive handicap for rider and technicians alike – adds further weight to his cause.

With that in mind, there was every reason to think Morbidelli would be back to go one better in 2021. Certainly preseason results were good. Yet recent indications haven’t been good. There is a growing sense the 26-year old has already accepted that a repetition of his heroics last year will be out of reach this time around.

The grid is a different place to what he found in those autumn months: the factory Yamahas have upped their game considerably; both factory Ducatis are no longer mired toward the back of the top ten; on the tracks we’ve visited so far, the Suzukis have been faster than before. And with Marc Marquez only going to get stronger, the pack will likely be stretched further by mid-season as they dance along to the Catalan’s tune. All the while, the former Moto2 champ remains on a 2019 spec Yamaha M1.

Qualifying day in Portugal was a prime example. Across a six-minute debrief, Morbidelli mentioned the limits of his package four times. The most pointed comment came when he was asked if he could attack in the race. “It’s difficult to overtake when you’re missing 15k’s on the straight,” he said. “We will need to check that out.”

And it wasn’t just to the press. It is believed Morbidelli was not his usual self during the exhaustive two-week stint in Qatar. His results fell well below par. But there was a lacklustre approach behind the garage doors, too. He voiced his frustration of the situation, and not just to the Dorna cameras. “I know I’m not on the top of Yamaha’s list at the moment,” he said in the aftermath of a disastrous race one, where he limped home 18th, 23s back of race winner Maverick Viñales. There was a walk back five days later. But alarm bells were ringing that such negativity was being broadcast with the season just one race old.

It is, of course, easy to judge this from the outside. To give him his dues, Morbidelli rode a superb race in Portugal. His time over 45 minutes of a spirited podium fight with Pecco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco and Mir was less than 0.1s slower than what he produced in Portugal last November. And the motivation and mental strength needed to face up to the most competitive grid in history on two-year old equipment is hard to put into words.

Let’s be honest: Franco can consider himself among the best riders in the world at the moment. That he finds himself on such outdated equipment when team boss Wilco Zeelenberg earmarked him as the “guy who is in charge of our results for the moment,” at the start of this season is perplexing.

“The decision for the spec of the bike for Frankie was taken in the middle of last year. So, it’s not something that could have been changed in October or November,” explained Managing Direction Lin Jarvis this March. But in the middle of last year, Morbidelli was third in the Andalusian Grand Prix before his engine blew. And he so nearly won in Brno, but for Brad Binder’s brilliance. Ducati and KTM have shown the benefits of having four identical bikes. With Morbidelli competing at the highest level, his input on development direction for 2021 would only have been a good thing.

But here’s the thing: Franco was clearly down Yamaha’s pecking order in 2020. But rather than focus on it, get upset by it, he channeled whatever anger or feeling of negativity into more focus, more effort, more desire. He was unerringly positive, a fine alternative to the occasional histrionics witnessed by Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales, two names whose expected title challenge crumbled.

How Morbidelli spoke after last year’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix should be taught to any rider guilty of focussing on the negatives of a race weekend. On the back of a complicated weekend – tinged by sickness and an off-track excursion to avoid an Aleix Espargaro crash – he was asked if he was upset with eighth, he was the total opposite. “I’m happy because I’m 5th in championship, I’m happy because I did a great comeback, I’m happy because I spoke with Spike Lee, I’m happy because I’m sick but I’m not so sick. It could’ve rained but it didn’t rain! I could’ve crashed in Aleix’s accident and I didn’t. Everything could’ve been worse and it wasn’t so I’m happy about that.”

That evergreen positivity hasn’t been anywhere in sight this season. Instead, he’s coming to terms with and accepting his predicament, rather than attempting to rail against it. His plight underlines the difficulties of anyone expected to challenge for a title in a satellite outfit, even one as professional as Petronas SRT, and just how exhaustive it is to battle against the world’s best riders and bikes when making up a mechanical deficit. Back in March Zeelenberg said, “It takes a lot out of the rider to do these kinds of things,” of his rider’s 2020 heroics.

You have to wonder the impact a change in team dynamics has had. Last year Quartararo was Petronas’ clear number one, and Franco thrived in the underdog role. This year he’s expected to do the same all while Valentino Rossi struggles outside the points on the ’21 spec M1 that has swept to victories at each of the year’s three grand prix. Little wonder a sense of frustration has infiltrated his thinking. 

The situation bears some resemblance to Johann Zarco’s sophomore year in the top class, when it became frequent to hear him talk of the limits of his situation. Morbidelli’s future at Yamaha looks exceedingly unlikely with a factory bike the absolute priority for 2022. But as Zarco showed when departing from Yamaha’s satellite squad three years ago, the grass isn’t always greener. To recapture that very highest level of performance, that magic must come from within.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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