How I ride: Franco Morbidelli

MotoGP

The 2017 Moto2 world champion has spent the last 12 years working with Valentino Rossi, so how does Franco Morbidelli ride a MotoGP bike?

Franco Morbidelli cornering at Sepang during 2020 MotoGP preseason testing

Morbidelli drifts his M1 through Sepang’s Turn Three during February’s MotoGP tests

Petronas SIC Yamaha

Franco Morbidelli became Valentino Rossi’s first protégé when he moved from Rome to Tavullia in 2008, at the age of 13. And when Rossi established the VR46 Riders Academy in 2013 he became its first member. In 2017 Morbidelli became the first VR46 rider to win a world title, in 2018 the first to race in MotoGP and last year the first to ride the same bike as Rossi. In other words, no one else has learned as much from Rossi.

Last year Morbidelli joined the new Petronas SIC Yamaha squad, alongside rookie Fabio Quartararo, and quickly found himself eclipsed by the rookie sensation. However, his results weren’t at all bad for a relative beginner riding a new bike.

How do you rate your 2019 season?

During the first half we tried many things on the bike to find our own settings and our own base. In the second half everything was a bit more settled, because we had got so much data in the first half, so we were able to refine everything. From Silverstone and Misano we started fighting for the top five pretty much every weekend, apart from Australia. That’s quite a good level and I’m happy overall with the season, especially the second half. Maybe I had too many falls, but sometimes that happens.

It must’ve been difficult for you: you joined the Petronas team as the experienced rider, then suddenly your rookie team-mate was MotoGP’s new star.

Of course it was difficult. I think it was difficult for everybody, not just for me. Fabio sprung up like a mushroom – so quickly! He was riding super-fast laps, great performances and great results; unbelievable! It was difficult at the beginning but now he’s just another guy in the wild bunch. He earned what he achieved last season and he became my reference. Now I’m working my arse off to be prepared to give battle in 2020, not just to Fabio but to everybody on the grid.

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From 2018 to 2019 you had two big changes: from Moto2 to a Honda RC213V and then from an RC213V to a Yamaha YZR-M1. It must’ve been like starting anew each season?

I’d say the biggest shock was from Moto2 to MotoGP because you have to adapt to many, many things: the power, the brakes, the electronics, the grip of the tyres and many more things. Then when I switched from Honda to Yamaha I already knew about MotoGP, so it’s just been a matter of changing my behaviour on the bike but keeping that general MotoGP nature.

Before you rode your first Grand Prix bike – a Moto2 bike at the end of 2013 – you raced a street bike in Superstock. That must’ve been another big change?

When I changed from Superstock to Moto2 it was really, really difficult to get used to a prototype bike. The stiffness of the bike and the tyres are the biggest differences – at first I couldn’t feel anything, so I crashed a lot. On a road bike you ride a bit looser – you have to feel the bike twitching beneath you. So when I first got on a Moto2 bike I was looking for the twitching, but the bike doesn’t twitch… there’s one tiny movement and then you crash!

I was already a smooth rider on a Superstock 600, so I guess my riding style suits prototype bikes more than road bikes. I like to be smooth and precise, repeating my lines every lap in a perfect way. It’s just what I like to do.

How has your technique changed from Moto2 to an RC213V to an M1 – presumably you want you keep your own technique but also adapt to each bike?

Yeah, sure. I wanted to keep my nature, which is being smooth in every movement I make on the bike, but also I had to change. Of course, I’ve had to change my lines, that’s the first thing you have to change, but also my braking style. Maybe these are the main two things I’ve changed.

How did your lines change from Moto2 to the Honda RC213V?

We all know the main thing with a MotoGP bike is getting the bike straight and firing it out of the corner. That means you have to prepare yourself in a much better way for the corner exit, so you would think that with a MotoGP bike you’d brake earlier and prepare the corner entry a bit better and then come out.

But it’s not like that! MotoGP bikes have such strong brakes and so much grip that you can brake almost in the same place as Moto2 bikes, even though you are going much faster on the straights. This is a big thing to digest! At first it’s difficult, but after a while you learn how to do it.

Riders kick up dust racing at Valentino Rossi's ranch

Racing at the VR46 ranch: (from left) Nico Bulega, Lorenzo Baldasssarri, Morbidelli, Andrea Migno, Pecco Bagnaia and Rossi

VR46

And how have your lines changed from the Honda to the Yamaha?

As you can see the Honda is quite a twitchy bike. It’s short and it’s small, so it’s nervous and it moves a lot, so I’d say it’s more difficult to control. The Yamaha feels smoother and the way the bike reacts is smoother and quieter, this is the main difference.

From the archive

When you rode the Honda did your riding become more aggressive?

Definitely, yes. The fact that I’m smooth with my movements on the bike doesn’t mean that I can’t be aggressive with my throttle and brake movements. I just try to be smooth with my body and I do whatever it takes with my right hand and wrist. If I have to be aggressive, I will be aggressive. If I have to be smooth, I will be smooth. I can change this with how I use my wrist to open the throttle and my fingers to use the brake, but I always try to be smooth with my body because that’s my nature. I have more fun riding the bike this way.

It’s true that with the Honda I had to exploit the braking more. I had to make most of the lap time on the brakes, so I really focused on that area and I took a lot of risks in that area. It seemed like the Yamaha has a bit of margin in that area.

Is the Honda more stop and go, so the different sections of the corner are more defined – braking, turn and accelerating – whereas the Yamaha segues the whole corner into one?

Well, if I look at the Honda now, it’s fast everywhere! Now they seem to have a bit of margin in braking, while now we have to take risks in braking and have to really squeeze the bike in braking. Last year I was riding a 2017 Honda, so I struggled, so I needed to really squeeze everything in braking!

You can lock the Michelin front in a straight line, how do you manage that?

I try to control the front lock, but not all the time because that way you can lose your focus too much. Sometimes we do have front lock and those are… difficult moments. Maybe with the Honda you can feel it a bit earlier.

My aim isn’t to be smooth, my aim is to be fast, so I do whatever it takes to be fast.

Is the secret with the Michelins to get through the first part of the corner, then get the load onto the rear tyre and use the rear?

Well, I didn’t come from Bridgestone MotoGP tyres; I came from Dunlop Moto2 tyres, so for me the grip I have now is a step ahead, both with the front and the rear. Everyone who raced with the Bridgestones told me the story: once upon a time you could trail brake all the way into a corner and nothing bad would happen. But I never tried those tyres, so to me the Michelin front has very good performance.

Some riders talk about using the rear tyre to turn the bike, what do you do mid-corner?

I flick it in and then I wait for the bike to turn. Especially with the Yamaha I wait naturally; I just wait for it. Then when it turns I like to keep both tyres in line and then pick up the bike nice and smoothly.

MotoGP has lower-tech traction control in the past, so how do you help the Michelin rear to drive out of corners without spinning?

Once you get a lot of wheelspin it’s difficult to recover, very difficult. So the aim is always to go not too far with it, because not only do you ruin your drive you also ruin the tyre, because it degrades a lot when it spins. So you need to be smooth in that area and you need to give grip to the bike by really picking it up onto the fatter part of the tyre. It’s a balance of lean angle, throttle degrees and so on.

Your riding technique is smooth, the Yamaha is a smooth bike and the Michelins require a smooth style – do you now have the perfect combination?

I feel that the nature of the bike and my own nature suit each other, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be fast. My aim isn’t to be smooth, my aim is to be fast, so I do whatever it takes to be fast. It’s true that on paper I’ve always been a smooth rider and on paper the Yamaha has always been a smooth bike, so it looks like we are best mates. But we need to be fast – we always need to remember we need to be fast!

Franco Morbidelli at Sepang in February 2020

Morbidelli at Sepang in February

Petronas SIC Yamaha

Are you still climbing a steep learning curve?

This is funny, because I start each year and at the end of the year I look back and go, wow, I’ve learned so much since last year! Now I’m a much more experienced person and a better rider, so next season it’s going to be difficult to learn as much as I did last season. Then I finish the next year and I look back and I say, wow, I’m a much better rider and a much more experienced person! I’ve found myself thinking this for the last three or four years in a row.

You never stop learning and Rossi is proof of that. Now you are both on the same bike you can look at each other’s data. That must be quite weird, because you’ve been with him since 2013 and you are the first VR66 rider to ride the same bike as him. Do you look at data together?

No, we don’t!

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What do you see when you look at his data?

That he’s a great rider.

Is his riding more aggressive than yours or about the same?

About the same. Not exactly the same, but very similar, similar.

What about Maverick Viñales?

Viñales is aggressive on the bike. Him and Fabio [Quartararo] are a bit more on the aggressive side.

Valentino says he learns from you – so what does he learn from you and what have you learned from him?

I’ve learned from him everything I know. Now I try to develop all that I’ve learned in my way, in my style. Now he can look at my data to see what I’ve developed, what I’ve changed. So he can see the things I’ve learned from him that I’ve made suit to my style – and maybe he takes things from that he can use for himself.

This is probably unique in racing history – a veteran helping a young guy and both swapping data and helping each other…

Yes, I guess it’s a pretty unique thing. We are still opponents, but we are great friends and when we are away from the track we speak a lot about all of this because you can always learn. Vale is super open-minded, so he’s ready and prepared to learn from the new kid in town.

Is the secret to his ongoing success that he’s so open-minded?

Yes, it’s one of his secrets, although it’s no secret! It’s definitely one of his advantage, one of his good points

What’s it like actually racing with him?

It’s fun because you find yourself fighting with a guy who you know really well and you know how he’s going to ride. I find myself at home when I’m fighting with Vale. But I’m also thinking he’s Vale, the huge character that he is! I’m lucky, because when I fight with him I find myself having fun, instead of being shy of this great sportsman.

Are you now developing the M1 together? Yamaha have been going nowhere for a while, so maybe you and Quartararo can help them move forward?

We definitely give our feedback, but it’s still the factory riders’ job to develop the bike. We do our job but the biggest part of that job belongs to the factory team.