Back at the end of the 2017 MotoGP season, Yamaha had a problem that many manufacturers would love to have – too much talent and not enough bikes to put all of it on. The situation ended badly for it – and now, four years later, there’s a very real risk of history repeating itself as Yamaha struggles to accommodate its urrent roster.
The problem in 2017 was rookie sensation Johann Zarco. Promoted into the satellite Tech3 team after becoming the first man in history to win back-to-back Moto2 titles, he made an exceptional start to his first year.
Leading the opening race at Qatar until a small mistake saw him crash out, he learned from his error and didn’t record another DNF that year. Even more impressively, he soon made it onto the podium, launching something of a renaissance for French motorcycle racing by finishing second at Le Mans only five races into his premier-class career.
A podium finisher a further two times that season and consistently inside the top five, he ended the year sixth overall in the championship and ensured that Tech3 got top spot among the satellite teams.
But it was soon confirmed that there was no place for Zarco in Yamaha’s future not just in 2018, but in 2019-20, if he wanted to be a factory rider.
Instead, Yamaha retained the line-up of Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi, despite the fact that Zarco had finished his rookie season on year-old machinery only 34 points from the nine-time world champion.
Age before beauty, as the saying goes: the marketing pull of Rossi – and the possibility of him joining someone else should he be sacked – was just too irresistible for the Iwata marque.
That instead left Zarco looking for factory options elsewhere, and he found one at KTM. True, that ended in disaster, but he’s proven his worth since then by carving his way back to the top of MotoGP as a satellite Ducati rider – and is currently repaying Ducati’s faith in him by leading the 2021 championship.
Yet, it seems that Yamaha’s bosses haven’t learnt much from the Zarco experience – because it seems they’re currently in the process of letting an even hotter talent slip away – the man who finished runner-up to Joan Mir last season, Franco Morbidelli.
Morbidelli is now in his third season as a Yamaha rider, after being first signed up to lead the newly-founded Petronas Yamaha team when it took over from Tech3 as the manufacturer’s satellite outfit.
He was outperformed in his first season by another French rookie sensation in Fabio Quartararo and it was Quartararo who got the eventual nod to step up to the factory team as Rossi’s replacement for the 2021 season, with Yamaha making the decision before the 2020 season even got underway.
However, last year’s results didn’t back Yamaha’s choice in the end, with Morbidelli taking three wins and second in the championship while Vinales managed one win and sixth and Quartararo finished eighth despite matching his teammate’s victories.
The crisis could have been averted for 2021, mind you, had Yamaha elected to throw its commitment behind Morbidelli and ensure that he was given the chance he earned to be as competitive as possible this year.
Instead, Yamaha once again backed 42-year-old Rossi, who ended last year 15th in the championship and remains without a win since 2017. Rossi has kept a works-spec bike and full factory support, whereas Morbidelli remains on what is essentially two-year-old 2019 M1.
That lack of support is what prompted a rather unusual outburst from the Italian-Brazilian after the opening race of the year, too, when a malfunctioning holeshot device cost him any chance of a win and left him riding around outside the points.
“I know I’m not on the top list of Yamaha at the moment, so I don’t know with which rush they’ll take this problem,” he admitted after the race, addressing the issue he’d encountered in the race. “But I hope that they will take it with pretty much a lot of seriousness.
“Maybe after the race I explained myself a bit too roughly,” he added a week later, dialling back his comments but not exactly disowning the sentiment, “because of the adrenaline multiplied by two after such a bad result and such a bad feeling.
“What I meant is that for sure I’m not at the top of their list, because there are factory riders to care about. That’s for sure.”
So where does that leave Morbidelli’s future? Without a clear path to at the very least a factory bike, it could be that he starts to look elsewhere, knowing that there’s a number of manufacturers who would be only too happy to get his name on their books.
Should the long-fabled satellite Suzuki team emerge, for example, then he would be a very safe set of hands to place alongside a rookie to speed up development. The same applies to Aprilia, who would be more than happy to have him should its new venture with Andrea Dovizioso fail to materialise.
And in reality, Yamaha’s best chance of retaining Morbidelli probably revolves, like the rest of its plans seem to, around Valentino Rossi more than Morbidelli. Should he decide to call it quits at the end of 2021, then it opens the door to his protege inheriting his full-factory support – perhaps solving what looks like a rather complicated issue in the process…