After fighting off Covid over the winter, Fabio Quartararo made his first official appearance as a Factory Yamaha MotoGP rider during the team’s 2021 online launch.
The first question for the Frenchman was naturally about his health, the 21-year-old admitting to dropping his guard a little once the MotoGP season came to a conclusion in November.
“From Jerez until Portimao was so strict, I was at home always with a really small group. But after Portimao you don’t have the same reflex, let’s say. You don’t clean your hands as much as you do during the championship, you take off the mask a little bit too much and I got the Covid,” Quartararo said.
“I got it pretty bad and also it took me at least one month to get back to 100%. So I was a little bit worried, but finally I’m happy because I’ve reached a really good level and feel so great.”
Having cleared the Covid hurdle, Quartararo now has just over two weeks to wait before making his track debut for the Factory Yamaha team in the opening Qatar test.
Quartararo earned his promotion to the Official team on the back of two exceptional years with Petronas Yamaha, seven podiums in his rookie season being followed by the first MotoGP race wins and world championship lead by a satellite M1 rider.
But as the championship neared its climax, Quartararo nosedived from first to eighth in the world championship, the fickle nature of the Factory-Spec machine contrasting with the consistency of team-mate Franco Morbidelli, who rose to second behind Joan Mir on the older A-Spec bike.
“Last year was difficult first of all because we had some [valve] issues with the bike as everybody knows, but also for myself, because in 2019 everything was going perfect and 2020 also started perfectly but then big issue, up-and-down,” Quartararo said.
The #20 certainly wasn’t alone in suffering on the Factory-Spec in the closing rounds, Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi also failed to claim a podium in the last five races, but with hindsight Quartararo believes he could have handled it differently.
“At the end of the year we never had one Factory-Spec bike up in P1 or P2 and the others down in P10 or P11. We were all down, or all up,” he said. “But when you fight for podiums and victories and then you are in P10 you want more, you are angry with yourself and then you do worse.”
Seeking to repeat his earlier successes and contain the charging Mir, Quartararo’s natural reaction had been to push even harder in the face of the grip issues blighting the Factory-Spec M1s.
“I was not so much feeling pressure but the bike had been going well. I had two strange races in Misano then I came back in Barcelona, winning the race. Then we had some tracks where we struggled, the potential of the bike was getting lower and I saw I was losing the championship,” he explained.
“I wanted to push even more, but in some moments you push more and you go much lower. Then in Valencia the same, I crashed two times. I think in moments like this it is better to do a P7 than a crash.”
Contributing to Quartararo’s overreaction had not so much been a lack of MotoGP experience, but absence of any experience in fighting for a world championship.
“I never fought for a championship apart from CEV, but the difference is so big!” he said.
“Of course last year I was angry with myself, because I lost a big opportunity to win the championship, but now I say, ‘okay, I lost an opportunity, but it’s something that gives me a lot of experience for the future’.
“Now I’m not even frustrated, because I think I learned many things.
“Not accepting I was going to fight for P6-P7-P8 and instead making a crash, this is something that I was struggling to accept last year. But for a championship it’s what you need, if you can’t do better – points, points, points.
“At the end this is what made me lose a lot of positions in the championship.”
To avoid a repeat of last year, Quartararo isn’t just relying on Yamaha to solve the technical weaknesses of the Factory bike, he’s also been working with a psychologist for some mental tuning of his own.
“I’ve seen a psychologist during the winter, it’s going well and I’ll see again before the beginning of the season,” he said.
“First of all, I need to stay calm,” he explained. “I heard many things last year… ‘Fabio has no riding coach’, ‘Fabio doesn’t have the correct people around him’. To focus, I need to forget every single thing that people say. Because I know I have the correct people around me.
“The psychologist helped me to just focus on myself and not lose time hearing all the things people say that for me are not true, and I don’t need to give importance to that.
“Also for example last year when the bike was not working so well, I wanted to ride [and also] help the team to put the setting, help finding ideas to see if we can improve the bike.
“But my job is to analyse with the data guy and my crew chief, give my opinion on riding, not thinking hours and hours which setting I want to do.
“I need to disconnect, just focus on my job as a rider and not go in [different] ways. That’s what helped me with the psychologist.”
Quartararo hopes that the difficult lessons learned will also help him in his new Factory role.
“Maybe you have more pressure in a Factory team, but also much more support. I’ve learned a lot last year about handling the pressure and in the end, I think it’s a good pressure to be a Factory rider.”
Quartararo also intends to replicate the fun, family atmosphere he enjoyed at Petronas.
“I think we will bring the fun to the serious job,” he said. I think we can easily make our job and have fun because at the end what matters is to be happy.
“Of course it’s a really important moment in my career, but just because I’m going from satellite to official it doesn’t mean everybody needs to be so strict. For sure we will have a family atmosphere also in the Factory team.”
That includes building a real bond with his crew, beyond mere politeness.
“I don’t want to be the rider that arrives, says ‘hello’ and just focuses on the riding. If I can have fun with the team and help, even a small detail, I clean also the fairings and everything. It’s not because I’m a factory rider that I need to forget all that.
“I’ve moved from satellite to factory, which is more important, bigger, but it’s the same for me. I’m on the bike, having fun and with the people I love… So I can confirm I will start my own bike whenever I can before every practice!” he added, referring to the ritual he has undertaken with his mechanics since joining MotoGP at the end of 2018.
Quartararo’s arrival at the Factory Yamaha team came at the expense of the most famous rider in MotoGP history, Valentino Rossi, but he’s keen to distance himself from any talk of replacing the Italian.
“I didn’t take the place of Valentino because the place of Valentino is unique,” he said.
“Vale was the king of MotoGP I think, who brought [Yamaha] a lot. We just swap rides and it’s a dream, a big moment for me to make a change with your idol. But for sure Vale will do really well with the Petronas team.”
The seat-swap means Quartararo becomes team-mate to Vinales, Yamaha’s most successful rider in terms of race wins (seven) since Jorge Lorenzo departed at the end of 2016.
Having put two young, ambitious, evenly matched riders in the same garage, Yamaha acknowledge there will be a ‘healthy rivalry’ between the Quartararo-Vinales.
Might there even be a repeat of the past tensions between Lorenzo and Rossi?
“I hope it will be like Valentino and Lorenzo because they fought one-two in the championship until the last race of the year!” joked Quartararo. “I hope to be in the place of Lorenzo to win the championship!
“But yes, I have a good relationship with Maverick. I think we can work really well together and bring Yamaha to the top. That’s my goal. My personal goal is to fight for the championship.
“Of course Maverick is my main rival but if we can fight for one and two and not eighth and ninth it’s much better to work together.
“So I think that he will be a good rival but also a good team-mate to improve the bike… and then of course in the race and qualifying is the war!”