Riders form only a part of the MotoGP championship. With almost two decades of experience within the motorsport community - including eight in charge of team communications inside F1 - Andy Stobart moved to the world of two-wheels in 2019.
Bikesportews.com caught up with Petronas SRT’s Head of Communications to find out the differences between the two premier-class championships and glean an insight behind-the-scenes of paddock life, after one of the most demanding seasons in GP history.
“The MotoGP paddock is a great place to be,” Stobart told us. “It has a lovely European and Asian flavour mixed with other nationalities too. It’s a friendly and accessible paddock, but still highly competitive on track.
“In our team, we have a mix of 11 nationalities including Malaysians, Swedes, Dutch, Spaniards, English and Italians. There are many distinct characters. For a squad that operates across the three categories it’s a compact operation but equally one that’s grown rapidly over the past five years. The GP paddock and the team are both enjoyable and rewarding.”
Explaining his individual role within the Petronas structure, Stobart continued: “The Head of Communications role entails a number of different functions, overseeing the team’s external communications as well as a lot of work for partners too.
“There’s a lot of planning and strategic work. The team is young and has big aspirations in terms of longevity and breadth so the schedule is always full. You start early and often work late. Fortunately, it’s an enjoyable and rewarding team which nourishes you with positive energy.”
Having joined the Malaysian outfit in time for last year’s European rounds, his first full season in the championship was certainly far from the norm, so how were the complexities dealt with, both personally and as a team?
“It’s obvious how 2020 was different but at the core, the racing and the set-up needed to support this was very similar. Empty paddocks take a little while to get accustomed to over a race weekend and you never get used to someone sticking something up your nose till it feels like they’re trying to poke your eyeball out!
“It’s strange not having fans and guests at the track, however even in a normal season most of the fans or supporters are away from the track but nevertheless we worked hard to give people an extra flavour of what was happening trackside.
“The cadence of races was notable this year. Moto2 and Moto3 took in the first round, then it was a big waiting game till July. Then that raft of triple-headers and two week stays in the same hotel didn’t give much time for reflection and the intensity was one of the most challenging things in 2020.
“As a team, there was a lot of logistics and assessment work done behind-the-scenes to ensure the squad could function within the framework and guidance of Dorna and IRTA but we soon all adapted. On a personal level, the start of 2020 represented the most time I’d spent continuously at home for over 20 years so many jobs on the to-do list for the house finally got done!”
With almost two seasons now under his belt, how does he feel MotoGP compares to F1 off-track and are there any major similarities or differences that stand out?
“There are many similarities, but the biggest difference is the financial investment required and everything that implies. MotoGP is a smaller and more efficient set-up and there is more apparent interaction between the teams.
There are differences in the structure with how Dorna, IRTA, FIM and MotoGP teams work relative to Formula 1, the FIA and the F1 teams. A MotoGP paddock in pre-pandemic times is certainly a busier yet more relaxed place than a comparable F1 paddock.”
Joining Petronas on the back of a relatively underwhelming time in Moto2, Fabio Quartararo has had somewhat of a rollercoaster over the past two seasons - with 10 pole positions, 10 podiums, three victories and at one-time the championship favourite, balanced against a disappointing eighth place finish to the year overall.
How does Stobart view the situation compared to the expectations both from within the team, as well as from outside sources?
“Fabio did a tremendous job with the team over the course of his two years with us. His rookie season was remarkable and his start to 2020 extraordinary. From a team perspective, it’s more about goals and desires and putting everything in place to facilitate the best route to these rather than expectations.
“We all want great things to happen with all our riders. Regarding outside sources, part of our job is managing expectations and giving a balanced viewpoint. The competition is intense and everyone wants to win.”
Expectations were seemingly reversed in the case of second rider, Franky Morbidelli, who was originally tipped to be the team’s number one before Quartararo’s explosive end to 2019 and double victory in Jerez as this year began.
It was, however, Morbidelli’s stock on the rise as 2020 developed, with the Italian claiming two poles, three victories and five podiums overall and concluding the year runner-up to eventual Champion Joan Mir, despite riding a lower-spec M1.
“Franky has done a fabulous job over his time with the team so far. Though he was overshadowed in terms of ultimate results in 2019 and the start of the 2020 season, it was clear the potential was always there.
“He started 2020 with an unwavering resolve which is wrapped in an extraordinary zen-like calm focus. His achievements in the second half of the year were exceptional and he has looked at every area to maximise the tools at his disposal.
So what are you expecting from him for next season?
“Great things. Focus, dedication, perception, intelligence, eloquence and a friendly, positive presence in the team.”
This year wasn’t all plain-sailing for the likeable VR46 academy rider, however. Mid-August’s opening visit to Austria’s Red Bull Ring witnessed an horrific accident as Morbidelli collided with the rear of Johann Zarco’s Avintia.
Both riders were fortunate to escape unscathed despite a violent tumble while the incredible luck continued as his Petronas machine narrowly-missed fellow Yamaha riders, Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi, as it barrel-rolled across the exit of turn three. Reflecting on the incident, Stobart explained:
“It was a highly dramatic accident and we are lucky that no-one was seriously hurt. The organisers, marshals and everyone involved responded fantastically. With any incident like this, there are always lessons to be learnt and the response of the parties involved highlighted the professionalism of the operation.”
2021 ushers in a new era as Rossi departs the factory Yamaha squad for the final time and joins the satellite Petronas team, so how is he finding the prospect of having ‘The Doctor’ on board?
“We will be working with a living legend and we are all looking forward to this. We know there will be increased attention and demands because of the presence of VR46 and we’re sure he will bring added insight into everything we do as a team.”
The Petronas project has been an ambitious one from the outset, choosing to field representation in Moto3 and Moto2 as well as MotoGP, so how has he found working across the three classes rather than just focusing on one ‘smaller’ team and the usual two athletes?
“It makes for a longer and fuller day! It’s a pleasure as all three classes are so competitive and each has its own flavour.
With that in mind, is internal progression an important element, or even the ideal, to the Petronas team?
“Yes it’s important and desirable but not necessarily the ultimate definition. It’s part of the dream to have a rider that runs through the ranks with the squad to be one of our MotoGP riders and win the championship with us. Imagine how fantastic that story would be.”
2021 sees both continuity with the retention of the majority of this year’s riders - in Morbidelli, Jake Dixon, Xavi Vierge and John McPhee - alongside the arrival of Rossi and Darryn Binder, so what can we expect from Petronas for the season ahead?
“We have supremely strong squads across all classes in 2021. Each and every rider is capable of great things so there is so much potential when we look to the season ahead. In Moto3 the line-up of John and Darryn is formidable and they should complement and support each other well.
Xavi and Jake both had decent foundation years with the team in 2020 and have shown that all the building blocks are in place to be very strong next year. Franky ended his 2020 in such good form and is joined by VR46 next year. What’s not to like?”