FAST TALK – FRANCO MORBIDELLI | Columns | Gassit Garage
We catch up with MotoGP’s future star on the eve of his first factory ride in world motorcycle racing’s premier category
Franco Morbidelli is being groomed for stardom. No pressure then, given that his racing and life coach is Valentino Rossi. It’s a rarefied scene for the free spirit that is Morbidelli, the son of a bike racer Italian father Livio and Brazilian mother Cristina.
He is the first of the talented tyros from Rossi’s VR46 Academy to become a grand prix world champion by winning the Moto2 title in 2017. After a debut MotoGP season in 2018 on a Honda, Morbidelli has been placed into the factory Yamaha system that has Rossi as its primary influencer.
Morbidelli has a two-year deal to ride a current-spec factory YZR-M1 for the Petronas satellite squad, starting the 2019 season at the Qatar Grand Prix on the same spec factory YZR-M1 as his mentor Rossi. It will be mate versus mate, master and apprentice going head-to-head on identical machinery.
But Morbidelli is unfazed by the prospect that he may be fighting his hero for track space, or that their close friendship could potentially hinder their competitive spirits.
“I don’t think it will change my relationship with Vale,” Morbidelli said. “We are friends outside of the track. Actually he is much more than friend to me outside of the track.
“But when we race, we race. On track we do our job at the maximum.”
The training rides and impromptu races between Morbidelli and Rossi at the dirt track ranch are legend in Tavullia. Morbidelli has been a sponge soaking ups tips from Rossi on the M1.
“We have spoken many times about riding, the weak and strong points of the M1, a lot about the bike and everything going on in Yamaha,” Morbidelli said. “I’m really looking forward to the chance to be racing Vale this year. I know he is planning to fight for the championship, so that’s a little different form me. He is still aiming for that.
“But perhaps sometimes I can be there fighting with him and that will be a great thing for me.”
Although in separate teams, Rossi will be a key benchmark for Morbidelli who has been earmarked by Yamaha bosses to have the inside running when Rossi’s factory slot opens up.
Despite his ageless passion for bikes there is anticipation that come 2021, when he will be 42, Rossi will finally decide to ease out of full-time racing. And Morbidelli knows that over the next two seasons he has the chance to make an irresistible case to inherit the factory gig.
“I will try to be the best rider I can be at every race and every practice at every track,” Morbidelli said. “And if at the end of these two years I deserve a factory place, we will see. I know it depends on my performance, the results on paper count for a factory place.”
Morbidelli’s father Livio was a road-racing contemporary of Rossi’s dad Graziano. He was runner-up in Italian 80cc and 125cc championships.
He lived in Rome, where Franki was born, but Morbidelli Sr had been exposed to the hot-bed of motorcycling centred around Misano and Pesaro on the Adriatic Coast. And Rossi’s home town of Tavullia is just 15 minutes away.
It was to be the perfect playground for his son to join this passionate motorcycle fraternity. The Morbidelli family sold-up in Rome and moved when Franco was just 10 years old.
Morbidelli’s life changed forever “when my father asked Graziano if I could train with Vale.” From just 13, Morbidelli was in Rossi’s slipstream. That was when Graziano Rossi’s famed La Cava quarry dirt track just outside Tavullia was the forerunner to the VR46 Motor Ranch.
“I was already training with Vale when the ranch opened in 2013, I was there when it was born,” Morbidelli said. Like many young racers Morbidelli did not have the family backing or sponsors to break into grand prix racing.
He sat out a season when he was 15 and then lower-cost production bike racing matched the Morbidelli budget — certainly not the traditional route into Moto3 and the grand prix ranks.
“I had no money to do anything else,” revealed Morbidelli, who at 18-yers-old, won the European Superstock 600 championship.
But in training and racing, Rossi had been taking notice of Morbidelli’s mix of talent, laid-back lifestyle and a fierce motivation for racing.
“I was on the path to Superbikes,” Morbidelli said. “I was racing in Superstock and I was a good rider in Superstock but it was Vale especially who told me ‘you need to race in a better championship.’ He said I could do well in Moto2.
“I was like, whoa, let’s try and it has worked out pretty good.
“But it was big job to switch from street bikes to prototypes, it was very hard.”
Indeed. A wildcard ride in 2013 in Moto2 at the San Marino GP led to a gig with Italtrans and then followed the high-profile MarcVDS squad for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Morbidelli, then 22, swept to the 2017 Moto2 title in dominant fashion winning eight races, earning his upgrade to the coveted MotoGP category in 2018.
“I don’t think I would be world champion without Vale and the Academy because my path was going in a different direction,” Morbidelli said. “It was the academy that took me and brought me into this MotoGP world.
“If it wasn’t for Vale I wouldn’t be here, I’m quite sure about that. He helped me a lot throughout my bad moments, and was with me in the good moments.
“I’ve spent lot time with him since I was 13, riding and training, that’s how we became friends.
“One of the main things I learned from Vale is that you have to have fun. Because he is having fun all the time.”
Don’t be fooled by Morbidelli’s ever-smiling calmness and seemingly casual approach to racing and life. His passion for motorcycles started with his father, his view of life and passion for football more aligned to his Brazilian mum. Franki is a Roma fan, VR46 is for Inter Milan.
If Morbidelli is ever nervous or angry in racing, he rarely shows it. No garage explosions or tantrums. But everything Morbidelli has done, and is doing, is to get to the top in MotoGP.
The lifestyle and inspiration of the intense but fun-loving bike zone of Tavullia and Pesaro is the platform Morbidelli is using as a springboard.
“It’s a lot of fun, you live it every day, you train and live for your sport, for the bike,” Morbidelli said.
However Morbidelli has eased up on the motocross training, a broken leg a couple years ago has seen him retreat to “softcross” – on low-level, smooth-landing ramp jumps at the Rossi ranch.
“I live in Tavullia with my girlfriend and when I’m not training I’m with my friends, hanging out and having good time,” Morbidelli said. “I play football, go fishing, normal stuff. And being involved with Vale is interesting. He is 40 but he is not 40. He still wants to win races and it is difficult to see that there will ever be another rider like him. The best in history.
“It’s difficult to say if I can be racing at 40 like Vale with his performance.”
And there a no flash predictions from Morbidelli for MotoGP, just a desire to honour the opportunity presented to him.
“I will just try to be the best rider that I can be to show that Vale and the academy did a great job.”
Interview Colin Young Photography Gold&Goose and AMCN archive