One of the most tantalising questions when the delayed 2020 MotoGP season begins this weekend is whether Fabio Quartararo can build on his startling rookie year and prove he’s the man who’ll topple Marc Marquez – especially now that he’s replacing Valentino Rossi on the works Yamaha for 2021.
Earlier this year, our MotoGP correspondent Simon Patterson reflected on his own time working with Quartararo to explain what makes the young Frenchman tick.
Since bursting onto MotoGP stage last season, Petronas SRT Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo has been something of a sensation. Taking seven podiums, six pole positions and two fastest laps from his first 19 starts in the premier class, he quickly established himself as a future world champion.
He’s finally managed to live up to the huge expectations placed on his shoulders when he first joined the grand prix paddock in 2015, when MotoGP’s rules were changed purely to allow him to move from the Spanish Moto3 championship (where he was already a double champion) a year early.
But while the road from there to MotoGP (and a factory Yamaha for 2021) hasn’t been an easy path for the young Frenchman, it’s been that rocky path that’s made him into the rider – and the personality – that he is today.
I was able to see Quartararo’s development at first hand while working with the SRT squad last year during his extraordinary rookie season.
When I first got to know Quartararo, he was still very much living in the shadows of his past accomplishments. He’d made the move to Moto3 in 2015 and started strongly, but a badly broken arm soon put paid to any chance of race wins.
A last-minute change of manufacturer in 2016 ended his season before it really began, and a disappointing year with Pon Racing in Moto2 made it look like he was destined to spend his career in the middleweight class’s mid-pack.
Quartararo was repeatedly told that he wasn’t good enough for a premier class ride by media and fans alike
When Quartararo signed up as Danny Kent’s Speed Up team-mate in 2018, it didn’t look like things would make a big change – but as I spent a lot of time around the team’s truck as a British journalist covering Kent, it was pretty obvious that Quartararo hadn’t lost his personality.
Still the same friendly and passionate kid that he was when he first posed for photos in the paddock with Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo 10 years earlier, it was testament to his mentality that the experiences of the previous few seasons hadn’t knocked the love of racing out of him as they have for many other prodigies in similar situations.
Finally showing his potential in his second year in Moto2 by taking two superb victories (although subsequently losing one of them thanks to a too-low tyre pressure), he came good just at the right time to secure himself a spot in MotoGP with the then-newly founded Petronas Yamaha squad.
Even that wasn’t easy going, though – Quartararo enduring a subsequent batch of criticism when he was repeatedly told that he wasn’t good enough for a premier class ride by media and fans alike.
Thankfully veteran team boss Wilco Zeelenberg saw something that most of us didn’t in the then 19-year-old, not only studying his current form but also his style and quickly coming to the conclusion that Quartararo had what was needed to be fast on the Yamaha M1s his new team would be campaigning in 2019.
Analysing exactly what Quartararo was doing on the Speed Up Moto2 machine and speaking to people who had worked with him in the past, Zeelenberg made the right call on the potential Quartararo had and the gamble paid off.
It’s pretty much been an upward trajectory since then, Quartararo taking multiple podiums and pole positions in the latter half of the 2019 season – and he was unlucky not to win after numerous last-corner battles with Marc Marquez.
Robbed of the chance to challenge for victories from the outset in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequently-cancelled races, it won’t be sitting well with him to be stuck at home right now.
From punching the bike to informing his rivals exactly what he thinks of them on track to crying his eyes out in pitlane after that now infamous Jerez technical problem, wearing his heart on his sleeve is something that will further endear him to fans if he can keep it going
Still very much an over-energetic teenager, it’s part of Quartararo’s charm that he’s always full of beans and at heart a bike racing fan as much as a racer himself. As likely to be spotted in the paddock in his Nicky Hayden cap and t-shirt as he is in sponsors’ cap and team outfit, he’s managed to keep a little bit of his old self even as he goes on to bigger and better things.
That charm is rapidly apparent when you see him interacting with fans, too. No doubt aided by film star good looks (Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow’s nickname for him is ‘Hollywood’ for a reason!), he’s rapidly become a fan favourite in a short period of time.
That’ll stand him in good stead going forward, too. Unlikely to ever rival Valentino Rossi in terms of popularity (who will?), Quartararo’s step up to the factory Yamaha team in 2021 to take over from ‘The Doctor’ will mean that he’ll inherit a significant portion of Rossi’s fans as part of the passing of the guard.
His popularity and his charm aren’t the only characteristics he shares with Yamaha’s old guard either, though. As fiercely competitive on track as any of his rivals, he isn’t afraid to show his hot-headedness when it flares up.
If he’s able to continue to build on what he achieved in 2019 then it’s not too hard to imagine that he’ll be the one to eventually dethrone Marc Marquez
From punching the bike to informing his rivals exactly what he thinks of them on track to crying his eyes out in pitlane after that now infamous Jerez technical problem, wearing his heart on his sleeve is something that will further endear Quartararo to fans if he can keep it going.
However, there’s perhaps one area where he’s got a little bit of an edge on Rossi – in his ability to not just learn from the negatives but to move past them, too. The nine-time world champion is arguably still hung up on his conflict with Marquez to his detriment, carrying around his grudge like a millstone around his neck – but we’ve not seen any examples just yet of the younger Yamaha rider being hindered by similar rivalries.
So, if we’ve established that there’s something new and refreshing about Quartararo, what exactly can we divine that the future holds for him? Already signed up to be a Yamaha factory rider in 2021, he resisted the temptation that big money at Ducati presented in order to maintain some consistency.
If he’s able to use that step to continue to build on what he achieved in 2019 (and should have already been building on in 2020) then it’s not too hard to imagine that he’ll be the one to eventually dethrone Marc Marquez from the top.
Marquez is no doubt the man to beat right now, as he has been since his debut in 2013, but there is still one consistent factor in racing to take into account: every great’s time at the top comes to an end. The reign of most legends lasts around eight years, and with Marquez now in season eight already, Quartararo’s time could be coming sooner rather than later…