Relaxed, judicious and blisteringly quick. Morbidelli is about to shake it up in motorcycling’s premier class
Last season, Franco Morbidelli became the VR46 Riders Academy’s first world champion and next season he will become the first VR46 rider to race a MotoGP bike. Franco Morbidelli is not your usual young motorcycling maniac.
Chatting with the 2017 Moto2 king is more like hanging out with a musician than a racer. His whole demeanour is different to your average young racetrack assassin: he moves slowly and talks thoughtfully, always with a knowing smile that tells you there’s more going on inside his head than he’s letting on. The 23-year-old seems so relaxed and exudes so much cool that he doesn’t seem in a hurry to get up from our table, let alone screech around a racetrack at 275km/h.
This is not normal for a youngster scrambling up the grand prix ladder. Usually they are buzzing out of their brains on a batty mix of testosterone and adrenaline, glancing at their watches, anxious to wrap up interviews in a bid to go and continue on their rockstar journey. But not Franco.
Though Morbidelli does have a rockstar in him, it’s not the type you might think. A Jimi Hendrix type of rockstar. No, really. His look for starters is very Hendrix, plus that messy mane of hair, also his laidback American-English accent. But most of all his insouciance, the way he glides through a life that has most riders chewing their fingernails raw, heartbeats on the rev-limiter, morning, noon and night.
Morbidelli is, quite simply, ridiculously relaxed. Even when he crashes out of a race, he returns to his pit entirely unruffled. And he wants his crew to stay relaxed. Unlike many riders, he doesn’t put them under pressure and stress them out. He wants a happy garage.
“The best way is to stay calm,” says the man who dominated last year’s Moto2 World Championship. “It helps you to see more around you and to judge what’s around you with more precision. Maybe I’d like to yell or smash up the garage after a bad race, but I understood pretty early in my career that this isn’t the right way to go forward.
“Of course, it’s also my way of being. I’m not a crazy person at all; I’m generally quite quiet. When I’m at races, I try to stay even
more calm because that helps me perform better and that’s the most important thing.
“In the garage I trust the people around me and I don’t think that making them more stressed will make them perform better. We are all stressed anyway, so if we can be a bit less stressed, it helps.”
All this may sound obvious, but you would be amazed how few riders and teams adopt the Frankie-says-relax attitude, however hard they might try, because for all its glitz and glamour the GP paddock is a horrible and cruel pressure-cooker of a place.
Of course, Morbidelli has the advantage of learning from the master. He has been a protégé of Valentino Rossi since he was 13-years old. His father Luigi knew Rossi’s father Graziano when they both raced in the late 1970s and 1980s, Luigi aboard an MBA 125 twin.
“My father asked Graziano if I could train with Valentino,” he says. “We moved from Rome to Tavullia, so I could ride in the quarry where Valentino and his friends used to ride. Valentino started giving me advice about riding, then he started asking me what championship I was doing and what I was going to do next year, he started watching some of my races and started giving
me more advice.”
Morbidelli’s mother is from Recife, north east Brazil. His father owned a motorcycle workshop in Rome.
“So I was born among bikes,” he says.
He spent his formative years racing Polini minimotos, then Conti 80s and Metrakit 80s before Pre-GP 125s, and finally an Aprilia 125 GP bike. Then his parents ran out of money, so they switched to the less expensive European 600 Superstock championship, which Morbidelli won in 2013. That year he also became the very first official VR46 rider.
“Valentino decided to make everything official, making contracts with the riders who were training with him. Valentino said, ‘okay, let’s help these guys 100 percent and give all my resources to them’. VR46 have given me fantastic opportunities, I wouldn’t be here without them.
“Riding at the ranch is just like going to have fun with your friends. We race each other hard, but basically we just have a good time. I race with Valentino every week; sometimes I’m faster, sometimes he’s faster.”
Rossi sees it slightly differently. “When we train together Franco is a big problem for me, so I think he will be a big problem for everybody when he comes to MotoGP. I’ve known Franco for a long time now. We started riding in the local quarry, before we built the ranch.
“He has a great talent and a great potential. We are very proud because he’s the first VR46 rider to go to MotoGP!”
So what’s the best lesson the master has taught his first pupil?
“The first thing I learned from Valentino was to give everything that I had when I was racing, because I used to calculate things too much. He understood I was thinking too much. And the best advice for somebody who thinks too much is to tell them not to think too much!”
Morbidelli made his Moto2 debut at Misano in 2013, riding for Fausto Gresini’s outfit. Rossi’s crew signed him to the Italtrans team for 2015, he joined the Belgian-based MarcVDS squad in 2016 and improved from 10th overall to fourth, scoring four second-place finishes, including two agonisingly close defeats.
“I wasn’t too depressed about losing those races,” he says. “I was happy I was at the front and they just gave me more motivation to keep improving.”
And he certainly did that, taking his maiden GP victory in Qatar just over one year ago and backed it up with seven more wins to loft the Moto2 trophy.
“I didn’t train harder before last season,” he admitted. “I trained in the same way, but I tried to maximise everything, to do everything I do better and better.”
Which includes doing nothing, better and better. “I really love doing nothing – maybe it’s the thing I love the most!” he grins. “I love staying on the couch and watching sport. My best Sunday when I’m not racing is watching World Superbikes, then Formula One, then football from the British and Italian championships and then NBA in the evening.”
He also watches a lot of Hollywood movies, which explains why he speaks excellent English, with that slight American twang. And then there’s music.
“I listen to a lot of music, all kinds of music. I like good music; it doesn’t matter if it’s metal or classical. I go from Bob Marley to Rage Against the Machine. I like music so much that I don’t listen to music on the grid, because I get distracted by it.”
And what about Hendrix?
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know the songs everyone knows, like Hey Joe, that kind of stuff, but I need to know more of his music. A lot of people say I look like him!”
Morbidelli is a member of the VR46 rat pack, a gang of Rossi’s young disciples who party as hard as they ride.
“We have a small group of VR46 guys, the party group,” he says. “It’s Andrea [Migno, Sky VR46 Moto3 rider], Nico [Antonelli, Estrella Galicia Moto3 rider], Luca [Marini, Rossi’s half-brother and Forward Moto2 rider] and me. We hang around a lot.”
Importantly, Morbidelli believes his riding technique will translate well to a 260hp MotoGP prototype machine.
“I was already a smooth rider on a Superstock 600, so I guess my riding style suits prototypes more than roadbikes. I like to be smooth and precise, repeating my lines every lap in a perfect way, it’s just what I like to do.
“When I changed from Superstock to Moto2 it was really, really difficult to get used to. The stiffness of the bike and the tyres is the big difference; at first I couldn’t feel anything, so I crashed a lot. On a roadbike 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!”
He is still learning to be the complete rider he knows he will need to be in the class of kings.
“MotoGP is getting to the point where every rider has to be good at everything. You have to be fast when you’re riding alone and you also have to be a good fighter when you are fighting with other riders – I like doing both.”
Morbidelli made his MotoGP debut at the Valencia post-season tests in November. He was anything but overawed after riding a Honda RC213V for the first time, a bike with double the horsepower of his CBR600-powered Kalex Moto2 bike.
“It’s fantastic!” he said. “But I have a lot to learn…”
Name Franco Morbidelli
2017 wins 8
2017 pole positions 6
2017 podiums 12
2017 points 308
2018 team Estrella Galicia MarcVDS, MotoGP