Forced to settle for a single twelfth place finish from the Qatar season-openers, MotoGP title runner-up Franco Morbidelli was back to last year's form - literally - at Portimao.

The Petronas Yamaha rider completed the 25-lap race distance in a time just 0.078s slower than he had done at the same circuit in November. Last year it had been good enough for third, 3.3s from victory, while this season it left him fourth, 5.1s from the winner.

At face value, such statistics sum-up Morbidelli's technical situation; still using the same bike specification as last year while his rivals have made progress over the winter.

During a video chat a few days after the race, the Italian chose to see the Portimao performance in more positive terms, especially given the perplexing Qatar form.

Morbidelli pointed out he had matched his 2020 Portimao race time despite dropping to 13th in the early laps, while at last season's finale he had the luxury of running in second place until Jack Miller's last lap attack.

"It's great to be back in the top five," Morbidelli began.

"Yes, my race time is unbelievably similar to last year, which is a good thing considering the starting position, the sketchy beginning of the race and having no clear track in front of me. I fought a lot in the beginning.

"The package is the same and we managed to replicate the good performance of last year and this is a positive thing for us.

"It's more difficult than last year for sure, because we have the same package and the other guys have improved on their problems compared to 2020," added Morbidelli.

"So if 2020 was difficult but possible to stay with the guys that had the current year bike, and I had the previous year bike, this year is even more difficult - but not impossible."

Never before in the MotoGP era has a title runner-up campaigned the same bike specification the following season and Morbidelli is joined by only Esponsorama Ducati rookies Enea Bastianini and Luca Marini in using a bike package from 2019.

It paid off last season, when Morbidelli and the A-Spec machine were able to win three races and close to within 13-points of Suzuki's world champion Joan Mir.

However, partly aided by Morbidelli's A-Spec data, Yamaha looks to have made big steps with the consistency of its Factory-Spec model, which has taken a perfect three victories so far this season in the hands of Maverick Vinales (1) and Fabio Quartararo (2).

"Yeah, the [Factory] bike is a bit stronger on the tyres, it looks like it's a bit more exploitable under that point of view and it's faster in a straight line," agreed Morbidelli.

"Looking at what happened in Portimao, I struggled in qualifying but I had a really good race pace, but also I couldn't pick that pace up in any moment of the race like the other brands and also the other [Factory] Yamahas, especially as Fabio did.

"So this looks to be the difference to me at the moment, but I cannot say precisely because I didn't try the bike."

Factory-Spec bike top priority for next year

Morbidelli's memorable 2020 season was the closest a satellite rider has ever got to being MotoGP champion, surpassing the efforts of previous title runner-ups Sete Gibernau (2003-2004) and Marco Melandri (2005).

The 26-year-old maintains last season's satellite display was no freak occurrence during a Covid influenced calendar and that riding for a factory team is no longer mandatory to become MotoGP champion.

"I think under the current rules, a satellite rider can fight for the championship... And has even more chances if he has the latest spec!" Morbidelli smiled.

So a Factory-Spec bike will be your top priority for next year?

"Yes."

Morbidelli's current two-year Petronas contract extension is thought to be more of a '1+1', with only an option in place for 2022, especially since the Sepang team is yet to confirm a contract extension with Yamaha for next season.

"At the moment I race for Petronas SRT Yamaha and I'm focussed on this team. About my future I don’t know yet," Morbidelli said.

VR46 should aim for young talents

It's even theoretically possible that Morbidelli might find himself in something of a tug-of-love between Petronas and VR46 for 2022.

The squad named after Morbidelli's team-mate and mentor Valentino Rossi is known to be seriously considering a full MotoGP project, having dipped its toe into the premier-class with Luca Marini this season.

"Racing for VR46 maybe in a distant future could be a good thing, but I think VR46 should aim for young talents from the Academy to bring up," said Morbidelli, the first and most successful member of the VR46 Riders Academy.

"I've spent already four years in MotoGP and, yeah I'm young, but I'm not that young! So I don’t think I'm in the target of an eventual VR46 Riders' Academy team."

Qatar qualifying aside, Rossi - who has a Factory-Spec Yamaha - has made a slow start to his Petronas career, scoring just four out of a possible 75 points so far.

Morbidelli remains convinced that the nine-time world champion has the potential to fight for victories if he can ride as he wants.

"If Vale's able to put on track what he knows to do, I'm sure he's going to be able to fight for wins," Morbidelli said.

Fabio has an extra edge on everyone else

Meanwhile Quartararo, who swapped seats with Rossi, is riding the crest of a wave, with victories in the last two races putting him 15-points clear of Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati) in the world championship standings.

Morbidelli feels the young Frenchman currently has the 'extra edge' in terms of the title chase, especially heading into Jerez, where he claimed a double victory last year.

"Quartararo is doing a great job and he looks really strong, starting the season very well," said Morbidelli. "He has the factory team behind him and he's in the right mental shape.

"So I think that at least in these first races, and I think Jerez is going to be good for him as well, Fabio looks like the one who has an extra edge on everyone else at the moment."

MotoGP riders are human beings. They can get hurt by what they read

While Quartararo beat his 2020 Portimao race time by a massive 26.127s on the way to victory last Sunday, team-mate Vinales sunk to last in the early stages before a recovery ride to eleventh place.

Some fans were quick to condemn the Spaniard's result on social media and, while Jack Miller opted to steer clear of direct social media use after being slated in Qatar, Vinales went one step further and closed his account.

Morbidelli - whose inspiring Misano 2020 helmet message based on Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' resulted in a surprise phone call from the film director himself – feels fans are always entitled to their opinion, but sometimes forget that MotoGP riders are human.

"Well, when you have a big following for sure at some point you're going to split the idea; some people are going to think good things about you, some people are going to think bad things about you. That's how life goes," Morbidelli said.

"Sometimes the delivery of these bad things can be rash, can be rough. So some people might get hurt by the delivery of these bad things.

"But I think that haters are quite normal in this world. They can't change what they're thinking, but maybe what they can improve is the way of saying it so they don’t hurt too much the people they are talking about.

"Because sometimes we forget and we look at a MotoGP rider just as a big character, but after that they are a person. They are normal human beings. So they can get hurt by what they read."

Morbidelli is eleventh in the world championship heading into next weekend's Spanish MotoGP at Jerez, where he finished fifth in last year's season opener, before becoming a victim of faulty Yamaha valves with an engine failure in race two.

One of the Italian's targets this time around will be to confirm that the strange Qatar form, which saw Morbidelli bounce up and down the timesheets as he and his crew "struggled to understand how the bike was working", has been solved.

"We need to see if the feeling in Jerez is going to be similar to Portimao and then I can say the problem might be solved. But we need to wait at least until Jerez," Morbidelli said.

"You never know in MotoGP, but I hope to remain at least in the top 6-7 positions. I think if I have a similar feeling to Portimao and can ride the bike as I was riding in Portimao then I can aim for top 6-7."

If that's the case, meaning the podium and victory highs of 2020 currently look out of reach, how does Morbidelli stay focussed?

"The support, on and off-track. From the fans, my team, our partners... we have Petronas working to provide us with the best products for our performance. It really helps when we can focus on the riding while knowing that we have the best partners supporting us in other technical areas."

 

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