Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP rider Maverick Viñales sent shockwaves through the MotoGP paddock when he announced his departure from the factory team following the 2021 season. With a year still left on his contract, Yamaha graciously accepted Viñales’ early exit, but one month after Top Gun’s announcement, Team Blue still hasn’t officially announced a replacement.
Despite the delay, many analysts and fans anticipate Yamaha promoting Petronas Yamaha SRT rider and Valentino Rossi protégé Franco Morbidelli to the second factory seat in 2022. Though “Frankie” will miss both upcoming Austrian races due to surgery on his damaged meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), he is the strongest candidate by far.
In 2020, the Brazilian-Italian rider finished runner-up in the Rider Championship despite fielding a year-old Yamaha M1 machine. He secured three wins, two additional podiums, and finished better than Factory Yamaha team riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales as well as Petronas teammate and current points leader Fabio Quartararo.
Morbidelli hasn’t enjoyed the same success in 2021, however, with only one podium to his name and lingering injuries disrupting his consistency. Current misfortunes aside, the number 21 seems the heir apparent to Viñales vacant seat.
"Even if there is no official status yet, Franco should replace Maverick Vinales in 2022,” commented Petronas Yamaha SRT Principle Razlan Razali. “It is a natural path; after all, it is Franco's dream and it would not be right to deny him this opportunity. We have therefore already given him the green light. Now the ball is in the hands of Yamaha and VR46, which manages Morbidelli."
If Morbidelli does ascend to the factory team, the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad would have a tall task on its hands. With many speculating that Valentino Rossi will retire following the 2021 season, Razali may need to replace both MotoGP riders in 2022. Due to recent developments, pickings are quite slim, with Superbike World Championship (WSBK) Yamaha riders Toprak Razgatlioglu and Garrett Gerloff both signing contract extensions.
“We have the structure and the set to offer young riders the opportunity to make their dreams come true,” added Razali. “We saw that with Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo, so we’ll dedicate our time to assess every rider we want.”
Of course, Petronas SRT can’t fill their 2022 seats until Yamaha announces Morbidelli’s move into the factory team and Rossi makes his retirement official. With less than two weeks left in the MotoGP summer break and several options still on the table, it will be a busy second half of the 2021 season for the Petronas SRT camp.