Throughout the 2020 MotoGP season, Franco Morbidelli emerged as somewhat of a renaissance man, taking three incredible race victories and finishing a close second in the championship.
But while the Brazilian-Italian rider did a lot of talking on track last season, he also became the first MotoGP rider to speak out openly and honestly about racism in the midst of the Black Lives Matters movement – and says he’ll continue to do so in the future if the situation calls for it.
MotoGP’s response to the global protest movement was deafening in its silence when compared to F1, with MotoGP boss Carmelo Ezpeleta going as far as to say that he simply didn’t believe that the sport needed to address the issue thanks to an absence of racism within the paddock.
That’s entirely missing the point of using the platform offered to the global championship to increase representation, though, according to Francis Bradfield – a helmet technician for some of the biggest names in the MotoGP paddock and the only black person working in the MotoGP paddock.
“I do think there is an issue with diversity. There are only a few black people in every paddock and I think it’s important to understand why,” Bradfield told The Race’s Hidden Voices podcast earlier this year.
“In some ways, it’s a really diverse world, but it’s important that everyone is represented properly too.
“I think there was a lot of time for them [MotoGP] to prepare to show some support for the biggest cultural movement of 2020, considering there was so much downtime.
“There are still so many atrocities going on in the world for underrepresented people, and considering they have such a big platform it’s almost their duty as a global sport to show that they have got diversity and promote that so that people who maybe think they can’t get into the sport, can.”
That call went largely unheeded all season, however, with no official action coming from MotoGP promoter Dorna and with no rider willing to speak out publicly – until Morbidelli made a statement at his home race at Misano with a Spike Lee-inspired helmet design that called on people to unite in times of division.
“When I decided to make the special design for this year’s event, I wanted to deal with a big matter and a big topic: racism,” said Morbidelli ahead of the San Marino Grand Prix – which went on to become the 26-year-old’s first-ever premier class victory.
“I wanted to send a message of equality in different languages too, because this is one of the most important things to remember. We are all the same, and the virus has reminded us of this in a bad way. We need to remember the good things about it too, and I think it was the best message to send and in the lightest way possible.”
It perhaps comes as no surprise to anyone who knows him that Morbidelli was the first rider on the MotoGP grid to speak out about the issue. One of a new generation of racers perhaps more aware of social issues than those before them, Morbidelli is a considered thinker and a person who understands both the privilege and the platform that his talent on a motorbike has given him.
And, speaking exclusively to The Race, he says that it’s a position that he’s going to continue to use in the future when he feels he has an opportunity to make a difference.
“This is a really delicate matter,” he admits, “and my aim is not to share every idea that I have. But now, being on the stage that I’m on, I know that I can inspire people in some way, and if I can transmit or say something inspiring now, then I’ll do it.
“I won’t let out everything that pops into my mind; if I have something that’s worth letting out and that will inspire other people, I will. If I don’t have anything to say, I’ll just do my main job of going on the bike.
“But this year, I thought that that message was really important to transmit. It was a particular year, for many reasons, and I deeply felt what I put on my helmet and what I was trying to transmit.
“If in the future there’ll be any other messages as strong as that one, I’ll do it, because I think that it’s important to try and inspire people in a good direction, towards a good spirit and a good way of living.”
Morbidelli says he has been keen not to preach to anyone or to cause conflict, instead simply focusing on the positives rather than the negatives with his carefully-chosen and thoughtful words.
“I think that this is what will bring us forward, in the sense of what will allow humankind to improve and go forward,” he says. “Positive messages and good things.
“There are many bad things happening in the world, and at some point in history this needs to stop. Maybe 200 or 300 years from now, maybe 1000 years. But there are steps to make, and if you can help in making a step, then why not do it?
“It’s not just me though. Everyone should do it, everyone should inspire the person next to them towards positivity and good things. It’s a great thing [that my generation of rider is willing to speak out]. Positive things and good feelings are always the right thing to do.”