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Franco Morbidelli at the 2017 Grand Prix of Czech Republic
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Relax Frankie: The Moto2 World Champion dissects the path to 2017 greatness

Nov 152017

“Tuesday will be one of the best days of my life,” grins Franco Morbidelli and offers proof that motorcycle grand prix racers – especially world champions – rarely like to stay still. The 22 year old Italian is sitting stationary on this occasion, and, as ever, looks very at home in his own skin. The 2017 Moto2 World Champ is facing some members of the press in the bright confines of his Estrella Galicia Marc VDS team hospitality on the eve of the Gran Premi de Comunitat Valenciana and the final round of the MotoGP term. He deals with questions in his calm and considered English (indeed, transcribing his words later that day there is barely need to pause the Dictaphone) and manner that reveals an intensely thoughtful and competitive man but also one that could easily find some inner peace. Mention his impending move to the MotoGP class with the same Marc VDS set-up in ’18 though (the initial test on Tuesday at the Ricardo Tormo circuit the reason for his excitement) and the very first champion graduate from Valentino Rossi’s VR46 Academy unabashedly smiles and shuffles in his chair.

Franco Morbidelli is something of a contradiction. His make-up is half Italian and half Brazilian, and as an athlete there is also a detectable divide: the laconic and even slightly timid person found around the paddock offset against the rapier force of speed and focus on the racetrack. In 2017 MotoGP fans and Moto2 rivals have seen plenty of the latter. 8 wins and 12 podiums from 18 races in what was just his second season with Marc VDS crew laid waste to arguably the most competitive division in Grand Prix.

“He is difficult to understand,” confesses Team Manager Michael Bartholemy. “You never know how much effort he puts into his riding. I still remember Qatar and the first year we were together in 2016 and in the hotel lobby I recall saying to him that my feeling was that he didn't want to be a world champion because he always looked like he wasn’t giving everything. But I have to say that this is just the way Franco is. He looks very easy and relaxed and is not the guy to spend hours in the gym to have a nice body. His approach is different. But when he is on the bike he is much more closer to Valentino. He gives 150%, especially on Sunday when he gives everything to try and win the race; it is this aspect where he is closer to Valentino. Even after two years I still have this feeling ‘where is his limit?’ But the thing with Franco is that he has enormous talent.”

“This year was about fine-tuning from 2016 – where he was already not to bad from the middle of the season – and then from Jerez this year I thought ‘we can win the championship’ because I saw a different Frankie. His mind was clearer and at ease.”

Morbidelli sauntered into Moto2 in 2014 and within three seasons was the dominant force of a category where 600cc Honda engines are standard and seven riders from the final top ten of the standings were using the same Kalex frames. “Moto2 is a tough category and especially in the last three years everybody has had the same bike with the Kalex,” he says. “The only thing that was really changing was the suspension and the way to work. I think Moto2 develops a rider a lot in terms of riding style and also their method. Also tyre preservation…but MotoGP will be a completely different story and what worked here might not work there. I don't know anything about electronics but maybe that is a good thing!”

The daunting grid of Marquez’, Rossis, Viñales’, Lorenzos, Doviziosos, Pedrosas and more sits on an ever-nearing horizon with only four months until the series howls into life again. “I am very optimistic about Franco,” says Rossi. “He is arriving to MotoGP at the good moment and is quite ready to ride this bike at the limit. I think he can be competitive next year.”

With ‘Morbido’ – as some of his VR46 peers like to call him – holding court in the sunny Valencia paddock it was an appropriate moment to get some opinions and insight on a remarkable championship campaign and the growing spark of another vibrant star.

 

On his feeling after winning his first world title…

Franco: I feel much ‘lighter’ and I am able to relax a little bit more when I am home. The main job is already done and I can deal with other things. It was so nice to get home and see my friends after the championship. It felt like I could have fun again and we celebrated. When you pump up and you are full of pressure and emotion and then finally make it you immediately deflate and relax.

On the MotoGP test and getting help from the ‘master’…

Franco: It will be interesting, powerful and fast. It will be the start of a learning process that I hope will last long. I will ask Valentino for some advice but the last time was a long time ago. I can always ask him anything that pops in my mind. The main thing I need to learn is for sure the riding style, so if I can get some tips then why not? I come from a different kind of bike so I had to adapt my style a lot from a streetbike to a prototype. I learned a lot from just watching and being around Valentino. I can see ‘the game’. Everybody has their own style, so I had to adapt mine to Moto2. I didn't copy anyone’s. Maybe you can copy an approach or a working method but to copy a position on the bike is really hard. You can get tips for how to control the bike or how to react when the bike does something.

On learning in 2017 and the mental pressures of being a winner, series leader and title contender…

Franco: This was a great year for us and I learned a lot but I think I will get even more when I sit down and analyse everything. I still haven’t done that! It was a year where I just kept going, and looked for the win every race and every moment. [To keep] this point of view was easy. I only just started to think about [settling] for a good result when we left for the three overseas races. Until Aragon I was only thinking about winning and giving everything in every practice and race. For sure I learned but I will understand it more at the end of the year. In my first season I was super-nervous and had many things to do in the championship and many things to take care of. I thought I was already a good rider but in the second year I looked back at the first and thought ‘how many mistakes did I make?!’ In the third year I did the same! You learn a lot all the time. Technically speaking maybe the best thing you can do in Moto2 is manage the tyres, and the riding style to do that. That's the mistake we made in 2016. I was fast at the beginning but was struggling a bit more at the end and this year was the opposite. I was just trying to manage the tyres and get to the last part of the race in good shape and form. This allowed me to win a lot of races.

On being ready to switch from race winner to MotoGP rookie…

Franco: I am curious to see if I am ready for it. It is a challenge and I am ready to take it. I don't know how it will come out. I know I am ready to do everything to make it come out good. I try to be rational but if you look at how many races I won this year and how many mistakes I made this year then you will see I am not so rational sometimes! I was even thinking of myself ‘what are you doing?!’ but I try to understand every aspect of my work. You have to use your head and if you don't then you don't last too long in this sport.

On seeming to be so cool all the time…

Franco: I get nervous! Sometimes I don't have a relationship between what I am feeling inside and what I am showing outside. Sometimes I am nervous but it doesn't look like it! I know if I am nervous then I don't perform how I want and things don't come out how I want. I try to stay relaxed, understand and embrace my nerves. I want to deal with them and stay cool even though they are there. I don't work with anyone or do any techniques; it is just something I have learned. I have raced since I was seven. It is a long time…even though I have only been here four years. I have been dealing with pressure since I was seven. I have learned how to manage it.

On how it really feels to be a world champion…

Franco: It feels really nice. And to have achieved it so early in my world championship career, at just 22 years old. It is a great thing and sometimes I stop and think about it and it makes me feel good. I have already achieved what I wanted when I was a kid. So I have made a step and it is like I have destroyed a boundary: I am thinking beyond it with even more motivation to train and improve myself. Now I have a new challenge and I want to see where I can reach.

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