The nine-time world champion has played a major role in helping guide Morbidelli’s career, who has repaid the faith shown in him by becoming the VR46 Academy’s first world champion (in Moto2) then first (and so far only) MotoGP race winner.
But if a team-mate is the first rider to beat, is there a risk their friendship might sour this season as they go head-to-head at the Petronas?
“With Vale, I make to myself the same wish that I make towards all my friends,” Morbidelli said. “I hope to be fair, just, and right, with all my friends, not just with Vale.
“Vale is a big friend of mine, and his figure is maybe even bigger than a friend, and I hope to be fair, just, and right towards him in every aspect of life.
“I will race against him in the same way that I have been racing against him all my life. Nothing is going to change.
“Maybe in one moment and in one situation, I will see him as the first guy to beat. And then five minutes later I will see him as one of my best friends. So it’s difficult to pinpoint one of the two.
“I think that for sure when I will be in the pitbox, I will feel more that sporting feeling. So the first rider to beat, for sure. I will have that feeling more. But it’s difficult to split the rider from the friend.”
But if the on-track competition between them becomes too intense, Morbidelli hopes they both remember what matters most in life.
“Of course we are fighting for something big, but we need to remember that nothing is as big as friendship, love,” said the reigning MotoGP title runner-up.
“The human side is more important than games. This is just a game. A pretty important one, a game we have been doing since we were a little kid, but it’s still a game.
“So it’s important to remember this when we are fighting, and I hope we will be fighting for top spots and important things.”
Petronas Yamaha team manager Wilco Zeelenberg feels one of the many things Morbidelli has learned from Rossi is how to work effectively with his team, especially crew chief Ramon Forcada.
“Ramon is very experienced but he always had riders with a big and very strong direct character…. Kocinski, Jorge [Lorenzo]. Names that you know it’s not going to be an easy season!” Zeelenberg said.
“Franky’s a completely different character, he’s polite and thinks really well before he says something. He’s very clever also in this way.
“He learned that very well from the VR46 Academy I believe, because when I hear him talking, I hear the same sentences and the same way and same style as Vale uses.”
Morbidelli – who kept Rossi at bay in their home Misano race last season, en route to his first MotoGP victory – believes Rossi feels a great sense of pride whenever his VR46 ‘pupils’ do well.
“I don’t know what goes through his mind when he sees his pupils doing so well. Trying to understand him, I think he’s filled with pride, that’s for sure,” he said.
“That’s one of the main things that is going through his mind when he sees me, Luca [Marini], Bezze [Marco Bezzecchi], but also the other riders going well. I think he is more filled with pride and he’s more happy about his job, his work and his legacy.
“He was believing in me when I had no one behind me in 2012, and he was believing in me again when I was struggling in MotoGP in 2018.”
But that tough rookie season on a Marc VDS Honda seems a long way from the three race wins and top Yamaha performance of last season, which took Morbidelli to just 13 points from Suzuki’s world champion Joan Mir.
“Last year I did a very good season, and toward the end of the season I was able to feel great with the bike, and to be able to attack and squeeze the things and the performance at a level that wasn’t expected by anyone,” said the 20-year-old.
“If I’m able to replicate that, I will be able to fight for the championship and important positions in the championship and not just single races. That’s my job, that’s my duty, that’s what I want to do, and that’s what I will try to do.”
Zeelenberg also made clear the team has higher expectations for Morbidelli than Rossi at present, simply based on last season’s results.
“I think at the moment we need to look at the results from last year, Franco finished second in the championship and I don’t even know where Vale finished, 13th? [15th].
“But saying that, in two or three races Fabio dropped from 2nd to 8th, so close was the championship last year, so we should not forget that the championship is getting tighter and tighter and this is very good for the show.
“But Franco in my eyes at the moment, the way he rode last year – and of course there were two races like Austria where we were not able to perform and we had the engine failure in the second Jerez race.
“Basically, if that would not have happened and the season would have gone the same, I have to say that he would have had more points than the winner [Mir]. That says enough.”
Morbidelli admits he was stung by being overshadowed by rookie Quartararo during the 2019 season, but channelled that frustration into the basis for his breakthrough 2020 campaign.
“2019 got me pretty frustrated as a rider, and that frustration made me pull something out of me that I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “So I’m going to use that kind of feeling at my service also this year.
“I got more serious about my job from 2019 to 2020,” he explained. “I started to train more, I started to train better, I started to focus more on motorcycles. And I liked that, because the serious behaviour that I had to maintain was reflected in results.
“So I kept doing this and having that behaviour also this winter. But I enjoyed more going through the ‘misery’, and going through the training this year because of what it gave me back last year.”
One area that Morbidelli has focussed on this winter is, “trying to be a little bit more powerful for one single lap. I was able to make two pole positions last year, but I definitely have to improve on that side.
“So we’ve been trying to improve on that area. Especially at the gym, but also on track I try to focus a little bit more in one single lap. That’s a thing we’ve been trying to improve this winter. Plus trying to make a small step everyone else.”
But much of the discussion around Morbidelli ahead of the 2021 season, which starts with testing in Qatar on March 6, is not on his ability but the specification of his motorcycle.
Morbidelli will again be the only rider on an A-Spec M1, rather than the Factory-Spec machine.
“What do I expect from the machine? I don’t know what to expect. I know that my bike is going to be the same, and I hope that some small updates that fit both bikes, Factory and my one, are going to come on my bike also, because anyway small updates are going to help,” he said.
The ‘good’ news for Morbidelli is that the technical freeze, which prevents engine updates this winter, means the other machines are unlikely to make a big technical step.
“The gap between my machine and every other factory machine is not as big as it would be if it were two normal seasons,” he said. “These are two very strange seasons, and the development of the bikes is not going forward as fast as it would be in a normal one.
“So I hope and I think that the gap, if there is a gap, has remained similar or the same to last year. I hope that it’s going to be just about the human side, and I really trust in that side and that matter, so I will really try to make a good job.
“I don’t know what to expect from the other machines. I saw that Ducati was very strong last year, especially at the end of the season with Jack, and I expect them big time this year. And Suzuki. Those are the two main machines that I expect [to perform] this year.”