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How Petronas nearly signed another MotoGP star before Rossi

by Simon Patterson
4 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The story of how the foundling Petronas Yamaha SRT team plucked Fabio Quartararo from relative obscurity in the Moto2 world championship and stuck him on its new MotoGP bike has become one of the fairytales of modern grand prix racing. It paid off in spades for Quartararo, and it helped make the team an attractive enough destination for a MotoGP legend like Valentino Rossi.

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However, it’s a fairytale that almost never happened because a much higher-profile candidate expressed considerable interest in joining the newly-formed squad. One of the most respected and experienced names in grand prix racing, in fact: Honda’s 31-time MotoGP winner and three-time championship runner-up Dani Pedrosa.

“Fabio was, to be honest, a mediocre Moto2 rider” :: Johan Stigefelt

But first, back to the man who did get that Petronas ride – and used it as a springboard to replacing the legendary Rossi in Yamaha’s works squad this year.

Tipped as a hot talent in the earlier days of his career after being so dominant in the CEV junior series that MotoGP’s rules were changed to allow him to move to grand prix a year early, Quartararo joined Moto3 as a 15-year-old in 2015.

MotoGP Quartararo Yamaha Pedrosa Doha GP 2021

But things quickly took a turn for the worse for him, with a strong start (including a second place in only his second race) derailed by injuries halfway through his debut season.

He missed five races with a badly-broken ankle, and it waylaid the rest of his career as a lightweight-class rider. Quartararo moved to Moto2 in 2017 without ever returning to the podium in Moto3.

His debut season in the intermediate class wasn’t much better either, Quartararo failing to finish three times and coming home out of the points a further six times from 18 races.

A move to Speed Up for 2018 didn’t look set to bring anything better – but the Frenchman picked the exact right time to impress by winning at Barcelona and coming home second at Assen a week later. They were his first podiums since before breaking his ankle in Moto3.

“It was Dani’s choice to stop, but if he hadn’t stopped then things would have been different” :: Johan Stigefelt

“Fabio was, to be honest, a mediocre Moto2 rider,” Petronas Yamaha team boss Johan Stigefelt admitted in an exclusive interview with The Race.

“He wasn’t a superstar. He can thank his results in Assen and Barcelona. Of course I know he’s talented, but what he did there was very good and at the right time. It was a gamble, and everyone told us we shouldn’t do it, but we had Frankie [Morbidelli] signed and we could take a risk on a rookie.”

Fabio Quartararo Andalusian GP MotoGP 2020

And obviously Quartararo went on to achieve great things for the team after an amazing adaptation process with the Yamaha M1. Scoring seven podiums and six pole positions in his debut year in the series, he went even better in 2020 with three wins and a promotion to the factory squad for 2021.

But none of that would have happened if Pedrosa hadn’t decided against joining SRT.

Pedrosa was one of two names linked to the deal, along with fellow MotoGP veteran Jorge Lorenzo, in the early stages of the Yamaha project coming together.

And, while five-time world champion Lorenzo was ultimately never a realistic prospect, Stigefelt confirmed exclusively to The Race recently that it was only because Pedrosa decided to retire from racing rather than continue with SRT that the team even looked to Quartararo.

“We never really had any discussion with Jorge,” admitted Stigefelt. “There was an initial fantasy, but there was way too much money involved so it was never a reality.

“But Dani, yes. It was his choice to stop, but if he hadn’t stopped then things would have been different.

Dani Pedrosa MotoGP Honda Yamaha

“Petronas wanted a famous rider, they wanted someone with his name.

“Dani was interested in Yamaha too, he was always looking at it and wondering what he could do on that bike.”

Instead it was KTM that secured Pedrosa – as a test rider – when his remarkable 13-year Honda MotoGP stint ended. Given how successful Petronas SRT has been so quickly, it’s tantalising to imagine what a rider of Pedrosa’s experience could’ve achieved on its bike across 2019 and ’20. And amazing to think that Quartararo, rather than aiming for the MotoGP title with Yamaha right now, might still be treading water in the intermediate class if Pedrosa had said yes.

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