The Motorcycle Grand Prix history books will record that Franco Morbidelli got within just 13 points of becoming the first-ever satellite world champion of the four-stroke MotoGP era.
To put that into perspective, the only other satellite riders to have finished MotoGP title runner-up – Sete Gibernau (2003, 2004) and Marco Melandri (2005) – were a distant 80, 47 and 147 points respectively from the top.
Admittedly, the shortened 14-round season compressed the points standings, but Morbidelli’s three wins still matched Melandri’s victory tally (over 17 races) in 2006 and were the most by a satellite rider since Gibernau in 2004 (4 wins from 16 races).
Morbidelli’s Petronas Yamaha team-mate Fabio Quartararo also took three victories, and was leading the world championship for most of the season.
“The win by Franco Morbidelli was truly a satellite team win,” wrote team principal Razlan Razali after the Italian’s debut MotoGP victory at Misano. “This M1 is inferior to the other 3 factory M1s. Yet it is just as good and with an even competitive rider like Franco, it is a winning spec bike.”
A strong believer in Morbidelli even when trounced by rookie Quartararo in 2019, Razlan Razali later hailed the #21’s season as a true ‘underdog’ story, a word also used by team manager Johan Stigefelt.
“Franky struggled in 2019, but he worked so hard in the winter and he really was an underdog this year,” Stigefelt said.
“Nobody really spoke about him, but as a team we always supported him and then he grew stronger and stronger during 2020, similar to Fabio in 2019, so it was really nice to see that progress and to see him end this season second in the championship.”
Top Independent rider and title runner-up seemed a distant dream for Morbidelli after round 5 in Austria, where he dropped to eleventh in the standings – 38 points behind Quartararo and last of the Yamahas – when a brutal race one clash with Johann Zarco was followed by a single point the following weekend.
But the Italian responded in perfect style with the emotional home Misano victory next time out and, as the Factory-spec M1s floundered, Morbidelli and the A-Spec took strides up the championship table.
Over the final nine rounds from Misano onwards, eventual world champion Joan Mir (Suzuki) was the only rider to outscore Morbidelli – by 111 points to 101 – each suffering one non-score.
But the comparison with the other Yamahas was most shocking, Vinales managing only 74 points and Quartararo 57 over the same period. Rossi, sidelined for two races by Covid, took 21 points.
Morbidelli, who began the year without a top-four finish in the premier-class and no higher than tenth in the world championship, ended it with three wins, five podiums and two pole positions. He was the top M1 rider in six of the 14 rounds, including the last four races, and of his three non-scores, only Le Mans was completely his own fault, suffering an engine failure at Jerez and the incident with Zarco in Austria.
While Yamaha wins have increasingly become characterised by an early breakaway at the front, Morbidelli also broke that trend by passing Jack Miller twice in a thrilling last-lap victory showdown at Valencia.
“This was a great season for me. I think I was able to discover a part of myself that I didn’t know; the serious part, the working hard part,” Morbidelli reflected.
“And I liked it, because when I when out on track immediately in [pre-season testing] in Malaysia I realised that I was feeling better on the bike and I was able to be more aggressive and feel more what I was doing on the bike.
“That gave me the chance to work better with my team and to work more precisely with my crew. I would say a wonderful season came out; three wins, [two other] podiums. So I’m very happy with the overall season.”
Morbidelli was not only closest to Mir in the final standings but arguably second only to the Suzuki rider in terms of being MotoGP’s surprise of the season.
“Franco coming second in the world championship completely beat our expectations and was something we didn’t expect,” Razali admitted.
But Morbidelli’s breakthrough year means he is now firmly on the radar as a championship challenger for 2021.
“I am confident that Franky will continue his good form in MotoGP next year and I think he could be one of the contenders for the 2021 world championship,” Razali said.
“Nobody should underestimate him, as we have seen that he was a contender this year.”
Rossi will swap places with Quartararo and ride alongside Morbidelli at Petronas this season, the #46 continuing on a Factory-spec machine and Morbidelli the A-spec.