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MotoGP

Why Morbidelli’s Yamaha semi-revival was never going to be enough

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

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Franco Morbidelli’s big 2023 MotoGP mission was to get back to respectability, to prove that what had made him a three-time race winner and championship runner-up back in 2020 was still there in some capacity.

Eight rounds in, that mission stands as tentatively accomplished. Also eight rounds in, it has been officially replaced by the more tangible mission of securing a different place on next year’s grid and preparing for the next chapter in his career.

A buzzphrase like “Yamaha has bigger problems to solve than Morbidelli” is an easy punditry button to hit. It demonstrably does, yes. It is last in the constructors’ standings, its star rider Fabio Quartararo clearly doesn’t have full faith in its current developmental capabilities, it has no satellite team despite wanting one and its M1 is a podium contender only in very specific sets of circumstances.

Amid all that, Morbidelli is just seven points adrift of Quartararo, and there’s an argument to be made that it was he who has so far authored the best Yamaha rider weekend of the season, collecting a pair of fourth-place finishes in the low-grip surroundings of Termas de Rio Hondo.

Franco Morbidelli Yamaha MotoGP Argentina

He has clearly worked hard to overcome the awful depths of his 2022 season – seeking to adapt a riding style that had worked for previous M1 iterations but was seemingly completely incompatible with the less compliant M1 of today – and that work has unmistakably bore fruit this year.

It is perhaps this why Morbidelli has tended to sound almost indignant at the idea that he still had to prove himself to Yamaha – given also the state of its MotoGP package. “Have I really not done enough in your eyes to justify a new contract to continue to ride this obviously flawed bike?!” he seemed to be saying.

He rightly cited the fact that he’d got self-evidently closer to Quartararo and had his number on some weekends. Omitted somewhat from that logic, however, was the fact that the weekends where Quartararo absolutely wiped the floor with him still lingered.

Assen, right before the summer break, was one such weekend, and perhaps it is a case of truly rancid timing. But Yamaha’s stance seemed to have cooled before that, the rhetoric seeming to pivot from ‘if he keeps this up, he’s our number one priority for 2023’ to ‘well, hey, let’s wait and see’.

So it surely wasn’t any one weekend in 2023, any last straw. It can’t have been. It would’ve been 2022, a campaign so disastrous that to rebuild the team’s trust after it Morbidelli would’ve likely had to somehow convince Yamaha that he was an entirely different rider.

He knew only too well – admitted it publicly, in fact – that his off-sequence deal, coming as a result of Maverick Vinales’ sudden delirious exit, shielded him, that had it run to the end of 2022 like so many other factory contracts he would’ve been out of there in no time.

But it was managing director Lin Jarvis’ shocking admission at the end of 2022 – that he felt Yamaha would’ve been better off giving Morbidelli’s ride to World Superbike rider Toprak Razgatlioglu when the Vinales exit began to crystallise – that really felt like a point of no return.

Yes, Yamaha has since tested Razgatlioglu, didn’t see enough to fast-track him to MotoGP and lost him as a long-term WSBK option, too, so perhaps Jarvis no longer feels that way. But that side of it has got nothing to do with Morbidelli.

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The Morbidelli part of the equation remains, and it is as damning now as it is then. What Yamaha saw in 2022 made one of its most senior figures feel that it would’ve been better off handing the keys to a rider who’d never once appeared in any of the grand prix classes.

When a team’s faith is shaken to such an extent, it just doesn’t get rebuilt, does it? That’s not to say that a Morbidelli/Yamaha marriage of convenience can’t have lasted beyond 2023 – but it surely won’t have beyond 2024, and it is a wholly unsurprising development that, having caught a sniff of Alex Rins’ availability, Yamaha swiftly moved in that direction.

The silver lining for Morbidelli is perhaps that, if this is how it was always going to be, having it happen now rather than mid-2024 is better for him, too – assuming he can secure one of the potentially available Ducati satellite rides.

Franco Morbidelli Yamaha Fabio Di Giannantonio Gresini Ducati MotoGP

He has mentor Valentino Rossi in his corner, and Rossi’s VR46 set-up will serve as a safety net to ensure a Yamaha exit won’t be a MotoGP farewell. If a VR46 seat opens up through some intra-Ducati machinations, he is first in line – and, if not, Gresini appears to be a tangible option. Even if all the doors are somehow closed for 2024, over at VR46 Marco Bezzecchi will surely be fielding factory offers for the following year – and given how invested VR46 is in Morbidelli, it seems impossible to imagine that he wouldn’t be immediately offered a Bezzecchi-vacated gig.

And a Ducati satellite ride is, at worst, a genuine shot to add more MotoGP silverware. At best, it is a potential path back into factory rider conversation.

Just probably not with Yamaha.

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