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In 2018, MotoGP™ welcomes four rookies from the intermediate class. Two of those – reigning Moto2™ Champion Franco Morbidelli and the runner up, Tom Lüthi, will both be at EG 0,0 Marc VDS. So ahead of the Sepang test, Team Principal Michael Bartholemy sat down with motogp.com to talk about the upcoming season.
In 2018, the MotoGP™ team starts from zero with two new riders. So what made the team choose Morbidelli and Lüthi?
“Choosing Franco was quite clear,” explains Bartholemy. “The goal for the team is to get the best results we can in Moto2™ and then bring those riders into our MotoGP™ structure. In 2016 we already had a good season with Franco, and then we won the title. We wanted him in MotoGP™ and we made a two year deal, which is fantastic. Then for the second rider, we were keen to keep Jack. It seemed to be on track, but then there were some small problems. Jack was under direct contract with HRC. We did everything we could to keep him, although there were some things we couldn’t change. In the end he decided to sign for Pramac, so we had to start looking at other riders and the transfer ‘season’ was already in gear. In recent years, we’ve often fought against Tom in Moto2, so we asked ourselves: why not him? I saw him ride the KTM in Austria, and from then on everything was sorted quickly. I’m happy with our choice.”
Both the riders also come from Moto2™, which is the category most often supplying the ranks of the premier class. But it’s not as easy as climbing a ladder and for Bartholemy, the focus is on adaptation rather than pressure. “The move from Moto2 to MotoGP is still significant. Marc Marquez was very strong from the off, but I think riders normally need some time to adapt. That’s also why I’m happy we’ve signed a two year contract with Franco – he doesn’t have a lot of pressure to get results in his first season. […] For us, the most important thing is to make progress every weekend – with Franco as well as with Tom.”
The two riders are quite different – Morbidelli is 23, and Tom 31. Some say that’s old to move to MotoGP™ - but Bartholemy has some advice for them: “They should check the age of the rider on the number 46 bike…at 39, Valentino is still there. He has a lot of experience in the premier class of course, and Tom is starting from zero, but I don’t think age is a determining factor nowadays. 23 or 31 doesn’t change anything – the important thing is to give 110% and that you enjoy your job!”
Lüthi had a difficult start to is premier class career, however, when he injured himself at the end of last season – and missed the first tests. So is he now ready to get on the bike?
“With Tom, we got off to a bad start,” affirms the Belgian. “His injury at Sepang made him miss the first tests, but from the start of the season we’ve been able to organize some training in Spain – supermotard, motocross, flat-track...I hope we can make up for the delay as soon as possible, during testing at Sepang, Buriram and Losail, to have the best package possible for the first race in Qatar.”
Morbidelli, meanwhile, was able to complete the four days the team had for testing at the end of 2017. Dueling LCR Honda Idemitsu’s rookie Takaaki Nakagami for the honour of fastest newcomer much of the time, Bartholemy says he was very happy with the Italian’s debut. In terms of expectations, the Team Manager says it’s a question he gets a lot – specifically about whether the outfit can match the results of Monster Yamaha Tech 3 with Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger in 2017.
“I don’t think we can expect the same results,” he explains. “The Honda isn’t the ideal bike on which to make your debut. It can be difficult to ride, and it needs some experience. But then it’s also the bike that the World Champion has. […] There are 10 factory bikes on the grid, so if you finish just behind them, that’s not bad. That’s the target we had with Jack and we were close to that despite a DNS. So if we can achieve that with Franco, for a first season that would already be impressive. And I’d like to see Tom finish in the top fifteen.”
Finally, the question of machinery going forward – are the team talking to Honda about renewing their agreement?
“I think we’ve done a good job with Honda during these three seasons,” Bartholemy begins, “and they’ve always kept their promises. Let’s see what they’ll offer us next and if we can have factory bikes again as we have in the past. All of this will be decided around April or May. The only thing I want is a long term contract with Honda or whichever other manufacturer, because that puts us under less pressure.”
A theme recurring from Bartholemy’s thoughts on his rookie riders – with the long game always the most important. And for the first Independent Team to win a race since 2006 when they took victory with Miller at Assen in 2016, the modus operandi has seen some good success. Now, 2018 will be another new adventure - with another new set of talents.