It’s been quite an opening for the Petronas SRT Yamaha team in MotoGP, all new for 2019. At just the fourth round riders Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli scored an incredible qualifying one-two. Had misfortune not befallen the former in that race, MotoGP’s newest satellite squad would have a podium to show for its early season efforts.

Acquiring the right riders and team personnel to man the squad was partly down to Wilco Zeelenberg. The Dutchman, who had worked as Rider Coach for Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales in the factory team since 2010, was hired to manage the new team - a fair task as no staff or riders were in place when he was first approached.

Zeelenberg nevertheless started the year with lofty ambitions: to challenge to be the series’ best satellite team, as well as the best rookie title. Six races in and it’s in contention for both, with the squad 17 points behind LCR Honda in the Team’s Championship and Quartararo comfortably sitting as the class’ best rookie. sat down with the former 250cc race winner on the Thursday at Mugello to discuss the opening third of 2019 as well how he put the team together, his ideas for managing a MotoGP squad, and the merits of rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo.
Are you and the team where you expected to be after five races?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
That’s a very good question. I think we surprised the world. But we are where we wanted to be. You could say, ‘New team’. Clearly our goal was to be the best rookie of the season and to be the best independent team. We are able to challenge that at the moment. It looks like when the weekend goes really well we are even able to do a bit more. This is a surprise for the whole world, and we are very proud to say so. But I don’t think it’s a surprise when you have a factory bike and very talented boys in your team. We are happy that it’s working out.
When you have a blank piece of paper and are told to put a MotoGP team together in a matter of months, how do you do this?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
First of all you have to look at the facts. Frankie was on board quite soon because Marc VDS was not continuing. He was a world champion in Moto2 and it was very clear that he had more potential than what he was showing. That was done quickly. With the stopping of Marc VDS, they had a very nice team. Working-wise they had a lot of experience. If you had to say something from that team, they were working in a good way. So we dug into their scene to see which guys we could take. We took six or seven guys from Marc VDS and this was a big step. We did not want to throw all that experience away and have new guys from other places. It was already a group. Diego [Gubellini – Fabio Quartararo’s current crew chief] was already with Frankie. Now he’s not.

But they all know each other and they are ten or eleven nationalities. That also works. You know, if you put ten English guys together you know it’s going to be madness. Ten Spanish together and it’s also madness. That doesn’t work; you get groups and sometimes with this hot Spanish temperament… with two or three it’s OK because the Dutch and the Germans can keep them cool. But with ten you cannot fight with it. If you have ten ‘Dutchies’ maybe the atmosphere is too downgraded. You need to have a bit of a mix, and that works the best. This is an experience, to understand it just doesn’t work like that. As a team when you are away from home for 150-160 days a year it’s not just working-wise. I think that’s been proven.
You have a lot of experience as a rider, Team Manager in World Supersport, and Rider Coach. Was it always your aim to get to this position as a team boss in MotoGP?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
No. I did not have that as an aim. I was a team manager in Supersport. The goal was to get to MotoGP and the biggest guys in the world. I’ve been in GPs for a long time. I was riding a 250. I was never in 500s or MotoGP. So you always looked up to the bigger teams. When they asked me in 2010 to join I was surprised how much my experience was valued. Finally you’ve been racing many years, you’ve seen many riders, crew chiefs and coaches so it’s good to be an ex-rider, to have this knowledge and to use it in a factory team. It has never been an approach from me like, ‘I know so much, I have to do this.’ It was more a surprise, like, ‘Wow, I have a lot of experience and a lot of riders and teams can use it.’ That was a different approach but also very nice to experience.
When you came to this role, did you have a clear idea of one thing you wanted to do differently to teams you have worked for in the past?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
Yes. Clearly to be part of a factory team is like a dream because your goal is winning. Basically this is also our goal. But we are working in this scene and for many fans as well. It’s a big show. It’s all about image. I wanted to do better than that. Finally in the factory team if you don’t win it’s really hard on you, because it’s only winning [that counts]. But to be in the background we want to perform as a team.

As a satellite team you can have a different approach. Of course we still want to win badly. But on the other side there are so many other aspects: to perform well as a team; to show the world that we are sporting, because in my eyes we have 20 competitors, not 20 enemies. In a factory team it’s difficult. If you applaud a Ducati or a Honda that is winning then something is wrong with you. In my eyes if I have seen a nice, attractive race I don’t mind who is winning. Of course I would like a Yamaha to win. But if they do the right thing on the last lap and they are braver than the others then that deserves my respect. This is what I want to show from our team. We’ll do everything to win, but in a sporting way. This is how we asked the boys to act and behave. I don’t want to see a lot of stuff on the track. Sometimes there are riders who blow up your last lap, but I’ve asked them to respect it, because they will be in a certain way at some point as well. When it’s on purpose it’s another story. You can ask behind the scenes. But then you go out and try again. Don’t get attention in the wrong way, like throwing helmets or doing bullshit. Show your emotions but behave yourself as a sportsman. This is an area where we are doing good.

Also to be a bit more transparent to the world to be able to talk about these things. In factory teams you ask questions but you don’t really get answers. That’s the benefit of being a satellite team. We are renting bikes. We respect Yamaha a lot because they’ve helped us. But finally if somebody else is winning they deserve our respect.
During a race weekend, how does your role differ to when you were a Rider Coach?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
I have to keep my eyes much more on the whole group rather than just one rider. But still I keep the riders in my vision when there is a problem, or when they get stressed, to understand what they’re going through. [Like when] The tyre doesn’t work or they lose their confidence, I keep my eye on what is going on. I think it’s still important to understand what they’re going through. I think one special reason that I’m a little more calm is I took Torleif [Hartelman, Petronas SRT Yamaha’s Rider Coach] on board and I trust him a lot. We communicate a lot about it. That helps me a lot. I’m not always around but my eyes are still there.

It’s changed. I have a lot more responsibility. I can also use my experience in a better way than I could as a coach. Many things were decided around me when I thought I would do it differently. But it’s not my area and with a team like this, it’s also like that. You have your responsibility in the pit box, but behind the scenes in the marketing area or the PR group, they’re pushing the guys left and right… Sometimes I’d do that differently.

And they will listen a bit more to me because it’s good to calm them down a bit instead of making the riders tired before the race weekend, you know? Of course, I know the sponsors are important and you need to balance it. It’s a question of learning and accepting you can’t control everything. At least to give my advice. I’ve been nine years with Yamaha and they respect my words. I need to say it to guide the team in the right way instead of going over the moon and destroying the riders before the weekend because they already have too much on their minds.
Your guys qualified first and second at Jerez. Had Fabio not suffered misfortune in the race, he’d have finished on the podium. How was this possible in only the team’s fourth race?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
Before Jerez we expected them to make a step. At least I hoped, because with the first three rounds we saw we had some potential. Clearly they missed track time on these bikes. They are two boys. When they go on track it’s the first time. Tomorrow they will ride the M1 for the first time at Mugello. That means you have some disadvantage to the other boys, who have been around for a long time. Jerez was the first race where they had already been riding, because of the test there. Then we changed the bike a bit. They got more comfort. They knew a bit more about the tyres. The level was growing and going up. Suddenly you’ve done three races with good results. We were fifth and seventh in Austin.

Then we came to a racetrack where we had already been and you say, ‘Now I understand this game!’ We had four practices and they made a bigger step than expected. But in qualifying there were some tactics in it: following Maverick, so that was also important. But for a rookie to do that you need to be cool, calm and smart. We did not expect first or second. It’s one of the highlights of what we’ve been doing and maybe it’s something we can do again in the future. To be podium contenders, that’s where we want to be.
You said earlier that Franco was always considered for this ride. But many other names were linked to the second seat. Were Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo seriously considered?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
Yeah, of course. We were discussing with many guys. Jorge was out of the Ducati deal so he was involved but then he went away, even at a very early stage. Then we still didn’t have the green light from Petronas. We were discussing in moments when we couldn’t promise anyone anything. This team was done in one or two months, especially during Mugello and Assen. The first time the contacted me was here in Mugello with Johan [Stigefelt, Petronas SRT Yamaha Team Principle]. He asked if I was interested in being the team manager. You can imagine what happened. It went very fast. Normally this doesn’t happen in MotoGP.

Rider-wise it was the same. Jorge was out of the line. Dani was also out of the Honda line so we were negotiating, but not really because we had nothing to give. Also in the background Dorna was interested in this rider and that rider. But ultimately we needed to decide. When Dani decided to retire then basically all options were open and it was up to us. I had clearly made a list. Johann also made a list. Petronas didn’t know which other rider to go for. We made a list separately from each other, because I was in charge with Yamaha. Johann said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘You make a list and I’ll make a list and then we’ll compare at the same time and discuss.’ He had Fabio on top and I had Fabio on top. That was easy.

Then we just needed to convince Razlan and Petronas. They all said OK. They trusted us. Our position was to fine-tune what we could achieve. You have this taste, this feeling that the riders were good and that we could make something really good out of them. Everybody knew Fabio was really good when he was 13 or 14. I also checked really well what happened. I also realised that when you are 13 or 14 you don’t think about anything. You just give gas. Then when you’re 15 the hormones are getting involved and they all have put you on the moon because you are the next Marc Marquez. He lost a little bit the plot.

Looking back, he was in teams with Alex Marquez there and his management. A lot of things that we don’t know about but I understood that it wasn’t the best situation. He went up and down the road. Then last year with the Speed Up he won the Barcelona race, which was impressive. His Assen race was impressive. Motegi was very impressive, even if he was a bit out of line with the tyre temperature. He was fighting with [Francesco] Bagnaia and it wasn’t an easy job to do that. Many riders were not available: Bagnaia was not available, Mir was gone so I said, ‘It’s him.’ He’s beating these boys at the moment. I can only say we made the right decision.
From what you’ve seen, what does Fabio do so well on the M1?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
He’s very smooth so he suits the Yamaha. He understands well how to get the lap time with the bike at the moment. He has space in the head to think about new things. He’s fast but he can create new ways and learn from it. That makes him very special. He’s not fixed yet to a kind of style that’s like, ‘This is for Bridgestone [tyres]’, ‘This is Ducati’, ‘This is Honda’; he’s very open-minded to find the lap time with the bike you give him. At the moment this is a very big benefit for him. He’s not interfered with by anything that could be negative for him compared to the past, or even compared with the other Yamaha riders.

Maverick came from the Suzuki. Frankie has been on the Honda. That interferes a little bit [because] you are searching for a kind of feeling that maybe is not in the Yamaha or needs another riding style. He has no other experience with MotoGP. He just enjoys the beast and goes fast. Of course we have some positive and negative points with the Yamaha, but he’s not arguing, saying, ‘I need more of this…’ He just wants to be the best rookie. At the moment we can only look through the list and he’s the best rookie. [But it’s only] So far, thought. Don’t underestimate Bagnaia and Mir. We’re proud. Compared to what we expected from him we’re further ahead.
You have a lot of experience with Yamaha. How would you assess the 2019 M1?

Wilco Zeelenberg:
We improved quite a bit compared to the last two years. But also the competitors didn’t sit still. Ducati is fast and also more factory bikes are involved. Cal is on a factory bike. Nakagami is on a factory bike. Miller too. The whole package of the championship has been growing, which for the championship has been great. If you have a shit day you don’t finish third anymore; you finish ninth. The whole championship changed a lot. The level of riders and their experience has been growing. Also the bikes with it. There are 20 very good bikes on the grid, maybe 22. Even the Aprilia, the first couple of laps in Le Mans, Fabio was behind it and he said, ‘That bike is fast.’ You know what I mean? You think, ‘No, it’s an Aprilia.’ But he couldn’t fucking pass it! The level is very high.