Hallelujah: Franky is risen again! — MotoGP Argentine GP insight


Franco Morbidelli fought for his first MotoGP podium since Jerez 2021, not once but twice at Termas, while fellow VR46 rider and first-time winner Marco Bezzecchi evoked memories of Marco Simoncelli

Franco Morbidelli at the head of the MotoGP pack in 2023 Argentine GP

Morbidelli’s surprising return to form had him lead Saturday’s dry sprint race, from pole-starter Alex Márquez and shock winner Brad Binder


Easter is around the corner and Franky Morbidelli is risen again. Or so it seems.

This is wonderful news for MotoGP, because the 2020 championship runner-up is one of the great characters on the grid and yet his form over the last couple of seasons has put his position on that grid in jeopardy. Yesterday at Termas de Rio Hondo the factory Yamaha rider wasn’t far off scoring his first grand prix podium since Jerez in May 2021, when he chased home factory Ducati duo Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia.

Morbidelli is the yin to Miller’s yang. Miller is another of MotoGP’s great characters, a true-blue, call-a-spade-a-spade Aussie, who tells it like it is without fear or favour.

“I was able to even lead the race – it felt unbelievable, it felt so good!”

Morbidelli is from the other side – there’s a real Jimi Hendrix vibe to the guy and he has an eloquence like no other grand prix winner I’ve known.

In Saturday’s dry sprint race the VR46 Academy rider was up front for the first time in what seems like forever. Earlier in the day he had qualified fourth, his best grid position since Jerez 2021, and he finished the race a close fourth, so maybe this is the start of his renaissance and he really felt it.

“I’m full of joy, I swear I’m full of joy,” he beamed, glimpsing some light at the end of the tunnel. “I was able to even lead the race – it felt unbelievable, it felt so good! This result is fuel for me and the team.”

Five years ago Valentino Rossi’s VR46 crew invited a few journalists to its famed 100km dirt track race in Tavullia. During that visit, Morbidelli explained to us the true meaning of Rossi’s Riders Academy, which has so far produced three MotoGP race winners: Morbidelli, Bagnaia and Sunday’s first-timer Marco Bezzecchi.

Franco Morbidelli in sunglasses sits on the MotoGP Argentine GP grid

Morbidelli qualified fourth and finished fourth in both races, by far his best performance since May 2021


“The academy and the ranch are like Florence was in Renaissance times for artists and poets,” Morbidelli told us. “This is Florence for riders.”

Wow, I’ve never heard a motorcycle racer talk about poets, artists and the Renaissance!

And then there was his special helmet paintjob at Misano in September 2020, featuring the Spike Lee movie Do The Right Thing. The back of the lid featured the word ‘equality’ in numerous languages.

This was related to Morbidelli’s own experience, because he is mixed race – half Italian, half Brazilian – and was bullied at school for his skin colour.

From the archive

“The bullying didn’t make me feel good at all. I really felt the need to be accepted and I wasn’t accepted at all,” he told me a couple of years back. “The lesson I learned very quickly was that it’s not nice being pushed aside, so I try never to do that to anyone, whether in racing or outside.”

His Misano helmet tackled the problem head-on.

“When I decided to make a special helmet for this event I wanted to deal with a big matter, which is racism,” he explained at the time. “There’s a Spike Lee movie that treats this matter in a great way, which I recommend to you. In the movie he [radio DJ Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel L Jackson] says, ‘Stop all this BS! Stop hating each other!’, so I decided to put myself in his shoes.”

Again, I’ve never seen a GP rider make a statement about racism.

And what about his second MotoGP victory at Aragon in October 2020, when he was fighting for the title aboard a YZR-M1 that suited his riding technique? He led every lap that day and didn’t let anyone even get close. Afterwards he described his race like a hippy might describe a good night out.

“It really was a trip” Franco Morbidelli

“It really was a trip,” he grinned. “Meaning, how can I say…”

“You felt pretty high?” prompted a journalist.

“Yes, I felt great. It wasn’t a journey it was a trip,” he added.

Morbidelli didn’t lead Sunday’s Argentine GP from lap one to the chequered flag, but he was in the podium fight until the last few laps when Johann Zarco came storming past, repeating his Portimao late surge.

For a rider who finished outside the top ten in 18 of last year’s 20 races, while team-mate Fabio Quartararo fought for the title, fourth in both the sprint and GP races was a massive deal.

Marco Bezzecchi leads 2023 MotoGP Argentine GP

Bezzecchi led Sunday’s GP race from Turn One to the chequered flag. He is the third VR46 rider to win a MotoGP race, after Morbidelli and Bagnaia


But do his Termas results actually mean anything in the greater scheme of things?

For the aforementioned reasons, I really hope so, but Termas is a strange place. The circuit is one of MotoGP’s least grippy, because it’s used so little, which might have suited Morbidelli. He’s a smooth rider, much less aggressive with the bike than Quartararo, who wrestled his YZR-M1 to the 2021 crown, extracting grip from the tyres that Morbidelli could only dream of.

Morbidelli is working hard to become more of an animal on the motorcycle, so that he can generate Quartararo-like grip from the tyres, but in the dry at Termas no one could put a lot of force through their tyres, because there was so little grip. In fact the track was even slower than last year, when Morbidelli was less competitive, so it’s likely he was fast because his gentler riding style worked better while skipping across the slippery, bumpy asphalt.

Quartararo, who struggled through much of the weekend, certainly thought so.

“Franco and me have two riding styles that are totally different,” explained the Frenchman. “At tracks with low grip, like Barcelona, at the first tests at Sepang and here, he’s always fast. I’m usually really aggressive on the brakes and use a lot of corner speed but here I’m struggling to do that.”

What about Yamaha’s speed in Sunday’s soaking GP race? Sometimes the M1 is a disaster in the rain, because it needs edge grip to go fast and obviously there’s little edge grip to be found in the rain. But once again Termas is weird – slippery in the dry and relatively grippy in the wet, which is why Morbidelli was in podium contention for so long and why Quartararo was able to charge through to seventh, after being punted to 16th by Nakagami on the first lap.

Of course, Morbidelli hopes that his Termas trend is the start of a turnaround, as he fights to keep his Yamaha ride into 2024. His current contract expires at the end of this season.

“We need to think about having this kind of performance at Austin [venue for the next GP on 16th April] and then we can think about building and creating some performance from this good base.”

Many people were also impressed by the Yamaha’s straight-line speed during Saturday’s dry sprint race, when even the Ducatis struggled to overtake Morbidelli on the back straight.

“In the sprint I was thinking about all the engineers and engineer Marmorini [former Ferrari Formula 1 engineer Luca Marmorini, who has worked on M1 engine development for the last 14 months] who had help me in the straight to keep my position,” added Morbidelli. “We were able to be difficult to overtake and this is a positive, because last year we got smoked on straights.”

Marco Bezzecchi holds Argentine football shirt on MotoGP podium

A touch of the Simoncelli about him – mad-haired Bezzecchi celebrates with an Argentina football shirt, signed by Lionel Messi


Again, I’m not so sure that this performance will transfer to Austin two weeks from now, although once again I hope I’m proved wrong.

The back straight at Termas is preceded by a long, long right-hander, where corner speed creates good straight-line speed, hence Morbidelli’s apparently surprising top speed. On the other hand the back straight at Austin is preceded by a dead-stop hairpin, so top speed there is all about brute horsepower and anti-wheelie downforce aero, both of which the Aprilia, Ducati, Honda and KTM have more of than the Yamaha.

Unless Marc Márquez is fighting fit for COTA it’s hard to see beyond the Ducati legions, which have so far taken nine podium places from a possible 12 at the first two races.

Such is the Desmosedici’s current dominance that Termas was the first time in more than a quarter of a century that three non-factory bikes have occupied a premier-class GP podium: VR46 Ducati’s Bezzecchi, Pramac Ducati’s Zarco and Gresini Ducati’s Alex Márquez, who impressed once again and started from pole for the first time in MotoGP.

Winner Bezzecchi was brilliant all weekend and his victory came as no great surprise, because he has been building speed ever since he arrived in MotoGP last year and took an important step forward when he upgraded from a GP21 and GP22 for this season.

There is definitely something of the Marco Simoncelliwhose death in 2011 inspired Rossi to create his riders academy – in Bezzecchi. The mess of curly hair, his goofy, laidback demeanour and his wildness on track, although he’s certainly more in control of what he’s doing than was the much-missed Simoncelli, whose ambition, optimism and sheer craziness sometimes made us scream.

Marco Bezzecchi in 2023 MotoGP Argentine GP Sunday’s conditions were treacherous but Bezzecchi never put a foot wrong – it was an ominous performance from a first-time winner

Early last season Casey Stoner told me that he sees something very special in Bezzecchi – about how he can magic lines that others can’t. And praise doesn’t come much higher that.

Although Bezzecchi scored his first podium at Assen last June, his standout moment of 2022, at least for me, was Friday morning at Phillip Island.

Australia’s GP venue is one of the most daunting on the calendar, dominated by high-speed, big-balls corners and usually by grim, tyre-chilling weather. And yet 15 minutes into FP1 he was fastest! That was truly remarkable and reveals massive natural talent and feel for the motorcycle, as well as grande cojones. All the things that are necessary to succeed in MotoGP.

From the archive

“It’s something you can’t describe,” grinned the 24-year-old Italian after his first MotoGP victory. “It’s been a long journey but finally the moment has come. Without the team and without Vale and the academy it would probably have been impossible for me to arrive here

“When I saw the rain this morning I was desperate, honestly. This was the first time I thought I could win a race, then when I saw the rain it was a disaster for my emotions. But when I jumped on the bike in [the wet] warm-up the feeling was incredible, so I said to myself, OK, I can do this.”

Morbidelli was the first-ever VR46 rider, signing up in 2013, while Bezzecchi joined after winning the Italian Moto3 championship in 2015. VR46 riders now occupy the first two places in the 2023 MotoGP world championship – Bezzecchi, then Bagnaia, with Morbidelli ninth and Bezzecchi’s team-mate Luca Marini 11th.

This is a remarkable achievement and just another chapter in the never-ending story of Valentino Rossi, who this coming weekend will no doubt be doing battle with his proteges at his ranch.

Indeed Morbidelli likened Saturday’s sprint race, when he fought with Bezzecchi, Bagnaia and Marini, to a just-for-fun dirt-track contest at the ranch, where VR46 riders hone their skills and aggression.

“It felt just like the ranch” Franco Morbidelli

“It felt just like the ranch, just like that,” he grinned. “We always fight very hard. We are good friends, we have a great relationship, but we don’t hold anything back, we are so open to each other. We’re not afraid to hit each other [on track] and we’re not afraid to tell someone that they’ve been an asshole, so we are a great group. That’s reflected on the track, in our performance and the way we fight against each other and other people.”

So Rossi’s “fountain of youth” (as his mechanic Alex Briggs called it) continues to flow and we may just end up with a VR46 duel – Bezzecchi versus Bagnaia – for the 2023 MotoGP crown.

That would be cool, but not as cool as having Morbidelli properly back in the mix and guaranteeing himself a place on the 2024 grid.