Petronas Yamaha director Johan Stigefelt and the team’s new superstar MotoGP arrival Valentino Rossi go back a long way.
Stigefelt, 44, first met Rossi, 42, when they were competing together in the European championship at Mugello in 1995. Rossi went on to make his grand prix debut the following year and Stigefelt in 1997.
While the Swede’s GP career ended in 2004 (with a best of eighth place) he soon forged a new career in team management, initially in World Supersport, then Superbike, before joining the Caterham Moto2 project.
That morphed into the Sepang team, now one of the biggest and most prestigious Independent outfits in the paddock with frontrunning entries in all three grand prix classes, as well as MotoE.
Meanwhile, Rossi has become the world’s most famous motorcycle racer, winning nine titles, a record 89 premier-class races and 199 podiums.
Their paths cross once again in 2021 after Rossi, replaced at the Factory Yamaha team by Fabio Quartararo, opted to start a new chapter in his illustrious career by taking over the Frenchman’s place at Petronas.
The Italian will bring his crew chief David Munoz, data engineer Matteo Flamigni and rider coach rider Idalio Gavira from the Factory team, but Stiggy won’t be the only prominent member of Petronas already known to The Doctor.
Wilco Zeelenberg (team manager) and Ramon Forcada (Franco Morbidelli‘s crew chief) spent many seasons working in the same garage as Rossi, albeit for the #46’s former team-mate and title rival Jorge Lorenzo.
“With Valentino it’s going to be a challenge because he’s coming from so many years at the factory team and starting to work with us,” Stigefelt said. “The first mission is of course to make him feel comfortable and happy inside the team and they all have to match together, some new guys he didn’t work with before and some new guys joining with him from Yamaha.
“But for me and the team the target is definitely to go for podiums, and a win would be fantastic with Valentino. If we could achieve that it would be fantastic. We know Valentino is always there, if he has a good season he will be there in the top five I’m sure.”
Rossi made one podium appearance at Jerez last season, narrowly missing out on a second at Misano, but hasn’t won a race since Assen 2017.
Nonetheless, the ingredients are in place on paper, Petronas winning more races than any other team last season (three each for Quartararo on the Factory-Spec and title runner-up Morbidelli on the A-Spec) and Yamaha confident it has fixed the inconsistency performance from the Factory-Spec bike, which Rossi will continue with in 2021.
“We are a very young team, stepping into our third season and we are still learning,” said Stigefelt. “But saying that we managed to do it very well the first two years and I think for Valentino, the initial talks we had with him coming to the team, he was very enthusiastic because it’s a new beginning for him.
“He’d been in the factory team for so many years and it’s a different kind of working environment definitely from our team. We know that because we are close to Yamaha.
“I’m not saying they are doing something wrong and we are doing everything really well. But we are just more ‘on hand’ shall we say, meaning me, Razlan [Razali, team principal]and Wilco are always there and we are very passionate about the racing and the riders.
“I think the whole team feel that kind of leadership from our side.
“When Valentino spoke to me, he said that’s the feeling he also had from the outside looking into the team and is looking forward to starting this collaboration with us. Now we have to see how we kick off and it’s not going to be easy, we know that. but we will bring our experience from these last two years and our passion of running a team.”
The usual stereotype is that being in a satellite team means less pressure. It’s a concept Stigefelt rejects in this case, simply because expectations in terms of results will be the same, but he is confident Rossi will enjoy the ‘happy’ atmosphere.
“I think he will not have less pressure because he really wants to perform and he’s coming to the team with the mindset to try and be on the podium and win races again,” Stiggy said.
“I think for everybody it’s sometimes good to change environment and coming into a new team, the combination of our young mechanics with his staff – his crew chief David is also young. He has a very good approach. Very open minded.
“I think the combination will be great and I think the riders’ feel this, we can see in Franky and Fabio how well they adapted to our team and liked the team to work.
“Because the most important for me as the director of the team is to take care of the people, the staff, that everybody is happy. When we have happy mechanics, we have happy riders and happy riders normally perform. That’s my mission at least.”
While Rossi sometimes had a frosty relationship with his Factory Yamaha team-mates, Razali knows there is unlikely to be any friction with VR46 protegee Morbidelli.
“Because of their relationship, their friendship, their history together, they train together, they are good friends, I think it will be easier to manage. We won’t have to put any walls between the two riders!” he joked.
“I think we are all looking forward to it, because as I said, both riders do get along. Regardless of whether one beats the other, they are still going to be friends.”
With Yamaha guaranteeing Rossi a Factory-Spec satellite seat upon signing Quartararo to take his place for 2021, it’s unclear how much say Petronas had in the Italian legend’s arrival.
Razali has often pitched the team as a place for young riders, especially after such stunning success with Quartararo and Morbidelli, but maintains the pandemic situation tilted the decision in Rossi’s favour.
“If it had been a normal year, we would have looked at Valentino and other riders as well [to replace Quartararo],” Razali said. “But the option of Valentino became much more attractive rather than selecting a rookie amidst this pandemic.
“We want to continue our performance on the track, we know that we have a good, young rider with Frankie, but we also believe that Rossi can bring stability and performance.
“When he is relaxed, happy with the bike, he can deliver that performance. So it’s more about the stability of the team. We made an exception this year, only with Valentino and that was the main objective.”
With that in mind, what does Rossi need to do to secure a second season at Petronas in 2022?
“Number one, we will have to look at race-by-race with Valentino and – like any other rider I think – the first 6-7 races is crucial to see where he is at,” Razali replied. “And Valentino being such an experienced rider he would also have a self-evaluation of his performance in the first 6-7 races before he decides what to do.
“We are aware that in his contract with Yamaha there are certain targets that he needs to achieve for any talk of continuation next year.”
“That performance clause is with Yamaha and Valentino,” Stigefelt added, “but of course we’ve been discussing this and at the end of the day it comes down to results and being comfortable and happy about what we are doing.
“It goes both ways, with Valentino and us. We have a common understanding to evaluate and see how he performs.
“It’s as much in his hands, if he’s happy and he’s in the positions – top 5, top 3, what he wants to do – and wants to continue, we are here and we are open.
“But that’s something we have to evaluate a bit further ahead, right now it’s too early to say. We have to see half-season where we are and hopefully we will be doing really well, have a lot of fun together and be out there challenging for the top positions.”
The Sepang team is currently in discussions with Yamaha, Dorna and Petronas over contract extensions, starting from 2022.