Last year, the biggest surprise performance of the MotoGP world championship wasn’t really newly-crowned champion Joan Mir.
Mir and his Suzuki team went into 2020 quietly confident that they could produce something special and were able to deliver on it come the end of the season.
Instead, the real dark horse of the year was Franco Morbidelli.
The Petronas SRT Yamaha rider took a second-hand satellite bike to second in the championship, and was arguably only denied a chance to fight for the big prize by the engineering and technical problems that plagued Yamaha’s season.
What made it an even more spectacular performance was the strength of his team-mate Fabio Quartararo in the early part of the delayed season.
Riding a 2020 factory machine (as part of the contract to switch places with Valentino Rossi for 2021), Quartararo won the opening two races of the year in style – until Yamaha’s inconsistency problems reared their head and he was left struggling.
So how exactly did Morbidelli manage to turn around his year while all three factory Yamahas (Quartararo, Rossi and team-mate Maverick Vinales) suffered so badly?
Simply put, by relying not on technical innovation but instead using what he had at hand – experience.
“We’re going to go into the season with a great trust in ourselves. I’m going to be the same person if not better and I’m going to have the same bike” :: Franco Morbidelli
Morbidelli was paired with veteran crew chief Ramon Forcada, a man with more experience in winning titles for the Yamaha than anyone but Rossi’s former right hand man Jeremy Burgess. The duo have really clicked, with Morbidelli and Forcada able to take the benefits from their bike despite its weaknesses.
“Ramon knows Yamaha from head to toe,” Morbidelli told The Race. “That we were working one more year on the same bike really helped him a lot in refining the very small details that are there to be refined on a bike.
“This was one of our strengths; we knew the package very well. We knew what to do and when to do it in order to defend ourselves and to improve the setting in a very fast way.”
That’s going to work to their strengths again in 2021, too. Still riding the same bike as he had last year, while the factory-equipped riders line up on a new frame designed to give them some of the feeling that Morbidelli found from his older machine, he says that there’s no reason why he can’t repeat his form and fight for the title again.
“I was expecting to do well, because I was feeling like I was in a great form before starting the championship,” he admitted.
“I knew that something better was coming; I was waiting for it.
“But I wasn’t expecting so much better, so much improvement.
“But I’m happy I got there and I’ll keep it in my pocket.
“Everything is there now, and this year we’re going to go into the season with a great trust in ourselves.
“We’ll still be a satellite team, still won’t have too much to show, but with the desire to try and replicate the level and the results from last year.
“Who knows, maybe three wins is too much, but we’re going to try to replicate that.
“I’m going to be the same person if not better, I’m going to be the same athlete if not better, and I’m going to have the same bike.
“I don’t see why we can’t replicate the results that we did.”
However, there will be some changes for the coming year. One is that hopefully as the pandemic situation improves, there will be a little more order to proceedings.
“It was a very tough season, because I needed to make my preparation twice,” said Morbidelli of 2020.
“I was ready and prepared for the season to start and then it didn’t. I needed to stay at home, and then I needed to start it all over again. I had to go through that misery twice.
“When the season started, there was no time to breathe between one race and another and between one triple and another.
“For sure it wasn’t enough, but that was the plan and we were forced to make such a tight schedule.
“Valentino is a great rider, he is a legend, and he is a tough rider. But moreover he is a great friend of mine” :: Franco Morbidelli
“I was feeling it on my shoulders, both because of the schedule and because of what we were fighting for.
“It was a positive year, but a tough one.”
But the biggest change is in the identity of Morbidelli’s Petronas team-mate as he’s joined by one of his best friends in the shape of Rossi.
That will bring a huge extra focus to the SRT garage – as the reception the team’s 2021 launch on Monday is likely to underline – but Morbidelli thinks Rossi’s arrival can only help him.
“It’s going to be fun in the garage,” he said.
“Valentino is a great rider, he is a legend, we all know that, and he is a tough rider.
“But moreover he is a great friend of mine.
“For sure it’s going to feel different compared to Fabio, but I think that it’s going to be a good season. I hope that it’s going to be a good season for both of us.
“It won’t be easier than it was with Fabio, just different, because he and I get along.
“I never felt a heavy situation inside the team, a heavy air, everything went smoothly with us.
“It’s just going to be very different with Vale because we’re friends.
“I’m going to spend more time in contact with him than I did with Fabio.”