The 2020 MotoGP season was one that no-one could have predicted. After the start of the season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a rollercoaster ride ensued with the highs of maiden victories for PETRONAS Sepang Racing Team and the lows of injuries. Now that the dust has settled, Team Principal Razlan Razali and Team Director Johan Stigefelt sat down to discuss the year…
How difficult was it to face this season with the COVID pandemic? How important was the work done by Dorna/IRTA and the support of the team’s Partners?
Razlan Razali (RR): “It was very difficult with the uncertainty of when the season would start. Fortunately the season went ahead in July and it went well. We all managed to stay safe and out of our entire team there were only two people that tested positive and that was outside of the circuit staff, which was good because it shows that the protocols that were implemented by Dorna worked very well.
“We really appreciate all the hard work that Dorna and IRTA have done this year in working with the various countries and authorities to make the season happen, it couldn’t have been done without them. It was very good of them to coordinate and manage all of the testing and protocols so that we could race, which was crucial to the team’s survival this year. Of course we would not be able to go racing without the understanding and commitment of our current partners as well, so we sincerely thank them. I am confident that we can now look forward to a great 2021 together.”
It was the second season with all three categories working together, how do you value the adaptation of the team staff to the new situation and limitations where not all members were allowed to travel?
Johan Stigefelt (JS): After last year we had a lot more experience that we could draw on. We knew from experience how it could work, so we prepared ourselves really well in the winter going into the 2020 season. That was one key element to us starting off so well because we were really prepared. We also knew each other and knew how to work to get the best out of each other. We also knew how to handle the logistics, which is a very big operation in this team.
“When the COVID situation fully emerged we were in Qatar at that time. We had to fly our Moto2 and Moto3 people to the Qatar race but also our MotoGP staff had to pack up all their bikes and prepare everything because we didn’t know when we would start again. It was very difficult, but I think we handled everything really well and once we started to travel again we were also prepared. Our coordinator Heather MacLennan has been in the team for many years so it makes it a lot easier for me, for example, to work in that tricky kind of environment when you know your team really well.”
Talking about the MotoGP category, it has been a season completely unexpected for a two-year old team; how do you rate this 2020 season and why?
RR: “It was unexpected and actually it has been a rollercoaster ,just like Portimão! We started off this year coming off the back of a great first season in 2019 where we achieved a number of pole positions and a couple of podiums, which was already beyond our expectations. Our approach this year was to try and get that first win and to be the first satellite Yamaha team to do in about 20 years. We wanted to achieve that for the fans, who couldn’t be at the races, for the team and of course for Yamaha. Even better than that, Fabio Quartararo won back-to-back races in Jerez! After that it became a rollercoaster ride, where after somehow leading the championship for most of the year, it wasn’t to be our year. We found ourselves slipping backwards until Franco Morbidelli claimed his first podium in Brno and Fabio came back with a win In Barcelona.
“After that we had mixed fortunes with Fabio struggling while Franky became more consistent, taking podiums and wins. Although it was a topsy-turvy season, there were plenty of positives. Franco coming second in the world championship completely beat our expectations and was something we didn’t expect. We had some unpredictable results but on paper we looked strong and, although we were a little disappointed, our two year old team racked up six wins, six pole positions and eight podiums, which is something that we are very proud of.”
JS: “In my opinion, it was not completely unexpected because we saw, especially with Fabio in 2019, incredible performances that saw him get stronger and stronger each race. He grew as a rider and we too learned and grew with him as a team. Also we got better machinery from Yamaha, he had a factory bike, so coming into this season I did expect top results from Fabio. We didn’t put any pressure on him but we were expecting podiums and wins, that’s what we were targeting. With Franky it was a bit different because he struggled in 2019, but he worked so hard in the winter and he really was an underdog this year. 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.”
And regarding Moto2 and Moto3 teams, there were also highs and lows in both categories. What feelings do you end the season with?
JS: “John McPhee was immediately quick from the start; he was very fast in testing and then in Qatar he was challenging for the win. He took second there and then coming into Jerez after lockdown he was incredibly fast again, very aggressive and did really well. We expected a very good season with him, but then we experienced the lows with John in the last five or six races, we lost some points. It was difficult to see that he couldn’t challenge the front anymore. He was there, but he wasn’t in front winning races. After the second Misano race it was hard for him and so I end this season with mixed feelings in Moto3, especially because we had the high in the beginning and then the low at the end. With Khairul Idham Pawi it was very difficult this year as he never really picked up the understanding of Moto3 and it was hard to see. I feel for him because I have been in that situation as a rider and it’s not easy. I really hope that KIP can come back to racing in the future.
“Moto2 was also up and down. We did expect more from Xavi Vierge, the target was to be in the top-five this year with podiums and maybe a win. It didn’t happen, we struggled and it wasn’t easy for him, although we had some strong performances from him which highlight the level of potential. On the other side of the garage, it was fantastic to see Jake Dixon’s progress throughout the year, how he performed going into Brno, Austria and Misano before leading the race at Le Mans. It was heartbreaking to see him crash in the closing laps and then his injury in Valencia cut the season short, with three races to go. It was tough in Moto2 at the end of the year and we are definitely looking for a better season in 2021.”
What were your favourite moments in 2020?
RR: “In MotoGP Fabio’s win in Jerez, achieving our team’s first victory in MotoGP, was unbelievable and a great feeling. Words cannot explain further than that. Then Franky’s win at the second Valencia round was such a good moment. At the first Valencia race we had two pole positions in Moto2 and Moto3, but we weren’t able to capitalise on it. We had possibly the hardest championship round but then one week later Franco’s win was like a big morale boost. It lifted the team up and our motivation continued to end the final round in Portimão in a good way. Those were two great moments for the team.”
JS: “If I were to list my top three moments the first is definitely the win coming back from lockdown. Fabio’s win in Jerez was such an amazing feeling and that was the reward for many years of hard work and dedication from everyone in the team. My second highlight is Misano when Franky and John both won on the same day and I was on the podium two times – it was a great feeling. The third best moment was Franky’s fight in Valencia when he beat [Jack] Miller in a last lap battle. It’s not every day that you get to see that in MotoGP anymore and it showed how strong Franky is as a rider, and how hard he is to beat.”
How difficult was it not to participate in the Malaysian GP this year? When does the team plan to come to Malaysia again?
RR: “It was really hard when the time came for what would have been the Malaysian GP because you can feel it in the air and suddenly that was missing. I was in Malaysia at the time because I had to come home at that point. When it should have been Free Practice on the Friday I went with my son to Sepang Circuit for a casual bike ride, it was eerie and sad that we weren’t racing. Normally I would have been so busy at that time. It is only temporary though and we will come back next year. At the moment Sepang Circuit is working very hard to ensure that the winter test happens there and we really look forward to that test and of course our team launch that happens during the winter test.”
What lessons have the team learned in 2020?
JS: Take nothing for granted! We cannot control everything and we really saw that this year with COVID; we were all put on hold and we had a big struggle as we were not sure if we would come back racing this year – that’s my biggest lesson learned. I think everyone in this environment must be thankful that we’ve been able to do what we do this year. We do this because we have a passion for motorsports, for motorcycle racing, and I feel so blessed to be able to work with so many good people and to experience the emotions every weekend we race.”
What can we expect for the 2021 season for PETRONAS Sepang Racing Team?
RR: “We are very excited for 2021 in all three categories. We welcome Darryn Binder to our Moto3 team. He has a lot of potential and we will look to help him develop further and perform well. I’m sure he and John will push each other to be better and I know that we have a strong team for Moto3. I am looking forward to many podiums and hopefully the fight for that Moto3 crown.
“In Moto2 we hope to continue our progress. This year we achieved our first pole position in the category and, although we unfortunately weren’t able to get our first podium, this year’s championship standings are already an improvement on last year. We expect Xavi to continue to fight, with Jake not far behind him, or Jake could maybe even be in front of him! We hope that Jake recovers well from his injury and will come back strong next year. I expect both of them to be fighting for good positions.
“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. Nobody should underestimate him, as we have seen that he was a contender this year. It will be a very different atmosphere here for Valentino Rossi as we are a real family and one team across all three categories, where we support one another completely. I hope to learn a lot from him and at the same time I’m sure he can learn things from us as well. Therefore I think next year will be extremely exciting.”
JS: “I think in MotoGP we will continue to target high results – podiums – and I hope we can help Franky to be even better. With Valentino coming on board it will be an amazing feeling, a different feeling, because he’s coming from a factory team. It was a long time ago that he was last riding for a satellite team, so we will support him and hope to make him feel comfortable. I think if we do that then he will be very fast. We have very strong riders in Moto2 and Moto3 next year and my expectations are very high there. I want to win the team championship in Moto3 and I want at least one of our riders to be in the top three of Moto2.”
What’s the next step/future for this young team? What’s the next target?
RR: “To deliver the results for our sponsors and for our fans. We want to always be competitive, to always fight for podiums and, eventually, to win the world championship across all three categories. That is the intention and I believe that we can do it.”
How will you continue to help and promote young Malaysian talent?
RR: “The team was built to help develop young Malaysian talent and that will still be one of our key objectives. However, we don’t want to have a Malaysian rider just to be able to say there is one of the grid, to make up numbers, we want them to earn their place and be just as competitive as any other rider. We are one of the biggest teams in the paddock and we want to be seen as progressive and competitive. The junior development programme is really important to us, so we will continue to monitor young Malaysian riders in championships like FIM CEV and Asia Talent Cup. We want to see how much these kids want to race, see their passion and to have them demonstrate their commitment and skill by being competitive, successful and winning in these junior programmes. We have the structure to help them make the step from this into the world championship and we can’t wait to give that opportunity to a rising Malaysian star again. Of course we continue to help and promote Malaysian talent throughout our whole organisation, with so many different aspects to our business we want to help those who aren’t riders as well!”
Last year one of the wishes from the team was to achieve a win in the MotoGP category,… What is your wish for the 2021 season?
RR:”In MotoGP our aim is to continue winning, we want to show that this wasn’t just a ‘lucky’ year for us. We want to continue this momentum, continue this winning streak and continue being on the podium. This is also the next task in Moto2, we want to see our riders on the podium. I think in Moto3 it is time for us to really fight for the world championship!”
JS: “We have already achieved so many things this year in MotoGP: we have won races, we had pole positions and podiums, so what I would really like to see is both of our riders on the podium together – a 1-2 finish would be amazing. That’s also a target in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes.
“My ultimate wish though is to have our riders win all three classes on a weekend. We saw in Misano that we can get two of the three, as Franco and John proved. Winning on the same day in all three categories is something that no-one else has done before, so it would be really something if we were the first. It’s a big target but I think we can do it!”
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