2021 is going to be a decisive season for Valentino Rossi. Then again, we have been saying that for some time, as the 42-year-old Italian MotoGP legend continues his career well beyond what even the most experienced MotoGP hands ever expected.
Will he carry on racing? Has he still got what it takes to chase podiums and win races? Is a seventh MotoGP title and tenth Grand Prix title still a realistic possibility?
Those are big questions after Rossi’s worst ever season in Grand Prix racing. The Italian scored his lowest points total with 66 points from 12 races, his lowest points average at 5.5 points a race, and his worst finishing position in the championship with a 15th position.
He scored a single podium, matching his previous worst season tally in Grand Prix in 2011, when he also ended with just one podium during his disastrous first year at Ducati.
For 2021, Rossi moves to the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. The Italian must put his faith in the benefits of the best-run satellite team in MotoGP, and in Yamaha’s engineers having learned the costly lessons of last year, and finding a solution to the M1’s turning woes.
The Petronas Yamaha SRT team held a zoom media debrief with Rossi ahead of the first test of 2021, the first opportunity the media have had to talk to the Italian since he joined the Malaysian squad for this season.
Rossi talked about moving to a satellite team, his hopes and expectations for 2021, how he will make a decision on his future, and his friendship with new teammate Franco Morbidelli.
Q: You are back in a satellite team after a long time as a factory rider. Are you hoping to thrive in a more relaxed environment?
VR: I was a factory rider for long, long time. I think from 2002 to 2020, so 19 seasons in MotoGP. But in the first two seasons for me in the 500s I was in similar situation because I was in a satellite team.
It’s true, it’s 20 years ago and with the 500 it was another world. But in that moment I felt very comfortable. Like you said, from what I understand there are less people to work around the bike. But also in the satellite team the way to work is a bit different. You can focus more about the performance of the race than the development of the bike during season.
This can be good. I’m happy about my technical situation. I have the full support from Yamaha. This team in their first two seasons showed they can win races and can bring their rider to the top. I expect a very high level and I can’t wait to start the season.
Q: What are your expectations for 2021?
VR: It’s life, the 26th season is very long! But I don’t race just for spend the time. This is a very important season for me. I come from the last two seasons, 2019 and 2020 that were less than I expect. Especially the results.
The result will be the key. I want to be competitive, to be stronger than in last two years, fight for the podium and try to win races and try to be competitive through all the season.
I hope also the season, if the Covid is not fixed, I hope it will be more normal than last year. That we can use all the tracks in the right period. The target is to be strong from the beginning to the end.
Q: Will this be your last year? And what will your decision depend on?
VR: I will decide during the summer break. So, in the middle of the season. I want to make half a season. And my decision is based on the result. If I’m strong and can fight for the podium, can fight for the victory, I can continue for another year. Or if not, no. I will decide around summer.
Q: Did you ever imagine joining a new team at 42? And do you see Miguel Oliveira as a candidate for the title?
VR:bYeah. You never know what happens in a long career. I think that now for me and my moment it’s good to be in the Petronas team SRT. The technical support is good. The team demonstrated they can win races.
And I think Oliveira, after the performance of last year and now he’s in factory team, he can be a hard contender for the championship. I’ll put his name for the championship fight.
Q: Did you hear what Franco Morbidelli said yesterday?
VR: Yes, he said the friendship with me is more important than MotoGP?
Q: What do you think about it?
VR: Yeah, I agree with Franco. I’m happy with what he said. For sure the real friendship between persons is something very important for me in my life. It’s also because I always spend time and the power for have good friends. If you need to have a real friend and good friend, you have to work a little bit. It’s not easy!
I’m very good friends with Franco for a long time. We work together to bring him in MotoGP. I’m very happy to be his team-mate. He’s in a very interesting situation. Nobody is expecting me and him.
For sure it will be hard to manage because to fight – you know your teammate is your first rival. To fight and continue to be friends you need to have a real friendship, a real relationship. It will be not easy but I think we can do it. And I hope we can be both competitive to try and win races.
Q: How are your preparations for this season?
VR: This year we can make the work, the preparation more normal. Last year on March 1st they said to us to stop, so we stopped for 3 months. Sincerely we didn’t know if we would restart and when we would restart. It was a bit difficult to arrive at the first race at 100 percent.
This year the situation is more clear. We have the data more clear. We can work more. When you become older you have to work harder. Especially for the breath. More work on bike, more running and try to improve your high capacity. I feel good, I feel in a good shape and ready for start. But we need to wait for this first test. We’ll have 5 days on the bike. And after this test we can have the idea more clear.
Q: Wilco Zeelenberg said it would be better to reduce the time you spend in front of the computer studying data? Are you going to change your style? And also, your thoughts on Fausto Gresini?
VR: For the first question, sincerely I’m open for everything. I think from what I understand in the satellite team we’ll have less people to work around the bike. But you can concentrate more on the race on Sunday.
When you are in factory team you have part of work that is to develop the bike during the season and form the next season. This takes a lot of time. I can’t wait to start to work with this team.
This is my idea, my picture from outside, but I’m not inside. We have to understand the better way to work together with Wilco and all the guys. But for sure I’m open for everything.
About Fausto, it’s a very sad story. Also, a story that is a bad feeling for everybody. In the end Fausto was in a good shape, with 60 years old and he dies from the Covid. Everybody understands you can die from the Covid, even if you are OK.
For me personally, I know Fausto from when I was very young. When he was still a rider, I remember when he fight with Capirossi, because I followed all the races. Because [Rossi’s father] Graziano is a former rider I know all the riders, I know also Fausto.
After we were very strong rivals. We fight against from 250 when he was with [Loris] Capirossi in 99, and also we fight for the MotoGP championship in 2003, 2004 and 2005 with Sete [Gibernau] and also in 2005 and 2006 with [Marco] Melandri. So, we were strong rivals. I think Fausto is a strong point in the paddock for the Italians.
Also, because he is similar to the Academy. He has a Moto3 team. He grows up young riders. Moto2 and MotoGP. Also, our team is 15km from his team. We always speak about. It’s very bad that we don’t have Fausto anymore. He’s an important image for the paddock.
Q: Is it good to be racing, and not to be developing bike? And what are your thoughts on Cal Crutchlow as a test rider?
VR: I need to understand. Anyway, will be different, yes. You can concentrate more on the weekend and the priority is not to develop the bike. So this is good for the result.
We saw that in the last year have a lot of strong results, the satellite riders. Sometimes the factory riders have more problems. This is good for me.
We expect a strong support from Cal. Because Cal is a MotoGP rider. He stopped just last year. He’s in a good shape. He ride Honda for a long time. He can give to Yamaha some advice. I want to speak with him after his first touch with the M1.
Q: Morbidelli was very successful with the 2019 Yamaha M1. Want to test Frankie’s bike?
VR: No. Because Yamaha have already decided last year. They said that the 2020 is for me, Maverick [Viñales] and Fabio [Quartararo]. And Franco will continue with the ‘19 bike.
This will be a very important aspect for this year. We need to understand if they are able to improve the 2020 bike or if the ‘19 is still very competitive. It will be a bit more hard in the team with two different bikes.
This makes a bit of confusion. But anyway, it’s not a big difference but anyway I will not ride the old one.
Q: Have you thought about how it will be when you retire?
VR: Yes, it’s not an easy decision. But for sure everything depends on the result. If I can be competitive, if I can fight for the podium, for the victory, I can continue for another year. This is my idea. But I don’t speak to the team or to Yamaha. Maybe they say to me I don’t have a decision! [laughs] It’s possible.
Yes, it will change a lot my life. But I’m not very worried. I know I have had a long, long career and I’m happy. About my power, I can have also another season but it depends on the results.
And after when you stop after 26 years of this life, something will change. But I want to continue to be a driver and I want to race with the cars. Maybe it will change but not a lot. I hope!
Q: Is Cal Crutchlow as a test rider the missing piece of the puzzle for Yamaha?
VR: I think that Cal can make the difference, can help a lot Yamaha. Also, I have a good relationship with Cal. So, I’m very happy to work with him. It depends very much on the motivation. To be a test rider, it’s not easy.
For sure you have to find the motivation to push to the limit of the bike also if you don’t race. This will be not easy for Cal. I hope he arrive with good motivation, with a good approach. He stopped just this winter so he’s in a good shape. This can make the difference, I think.
Photo: Petronas SRT Yamaha