It has been an incredible rookie year for PETRONAS Sepang Racing Team in the 2019 MotoGP World Championship. In a superlative season, Fabio Quartararo took six podium finishes and seven pole positions en route to securing Rookie of the Year and Top Independent Rider, whilst strong results from Franco Morbidelli further helped the squad to finish fourth in the overall teams’ standings as well as secure the Independent Team title. Alongside that, the 2019 Moto3 season was also successful, with John McPhee taking the team’s debut Grand Prix victory and finishing the year fifth in the championship race.
Looking back on the amazing year, even as preparation gets underway for the team’s sophomore MotoGP season in 2020, we sat down with Team Principal Razlan Razali and Team Director Johan Stigefelt to get their thoughts on the epic 2019 season.
If someone told you in Valencia last year that the team would achieve the great results it did in 2019, what would you say to them? How satisfied are you with this season?
Razlan: “I’d never have believed them if someone had told me the great results we’d achieve in our first year. We didn’t expect it, and we went into the season relying on Franco to deliver for us based on the target that we set for him at the beginning of the year. The aim for him was to be top six in the championship, and for Fabio it was to be Rookie of the Year. We didn’t expect at all to do what we did as a team and to have the riders perform so well, especially Fabio. We’re extremely satisfied with the year, because it’s been a wonderful fairytale season.”
After one year with all three categories working together, how do you rate the 2019 season and what was your highlight?
Johan: “The highlight of the season for me was to roll out the three teams together in Qatar after a hard season in 2018 to establish the team. Working so hard to get everything ready meant it was a proud moment in Losail at the first race; one of the milestones for the whole project. Of course, the season itself was amazing in MotoGP, achieving way beyond our wildest expectations. In a way, the entire year was one big highlight for us thanks to what we achieved.”
Why do you think the team has been able to surprise the MotoGP paddock and the wider motorsport community?
Razlan: “We made such a strong entry into the paddock with the MotoGP team, not only with the performance of our riders. We came into the first race in Europe with our trackside presence making a big impact and with people immediately commenting on how friendly the team were, and how welcoming. We presented ourselves very well in 2019, not only in MotoGP but in Moto2 and Moto3 as well. We don’t look like a first-year rookie – it looked like we’ve been there for a long time. Of course, we have with Moto3, but MotoGP is a very different ballgame and we were able to bring a breath of fresh air to the paddock.”
What’s the key to having all three teams together and as a single group?
Johan: “The thing for me, working as Team Director across all three categories, was how important it was to keep everyone together as one team. Listening and talking to everyone in the team is key, and I try to be a friend as well as a boss to everyone and to listen to them. At the end of the day, it’s a hard job with a lot of time spent away from our families, and we have to ensure that we have a nice environment out of the garage and that everyone is well looked after.”
What are your favourite moments of 2019?
Razlan: “There are two moments that I’ve reflected on a lot. Number one was John’s win at the French Grand Prix, with the team able to get our first taste of victory. After that, it was the first podium of Fabio in Catalunya, which was also an amazing moment. Of course, we had seven pole positions all season, but to get on the podium for the first time in our rookie season was just fantastic.”
Johan: “I have two favourite moments of the year, starting with John’s first win for the team. It was a big relief for us because we’ve worked for five years in Moto3 and I pushed this year to have a top rider in the class. Signing John, I knew that he would be a good rider, and it only took five races to have pole position and a win. The second big moment was Fabio’s pole and Franco’s second place on the grid in Jerez. We went there with a brand-new hospitality, new trailers and a whole new set-up in Europe. We made a big impact before we even went out on track, and the pole was quite surreal.”
It’s the first year working with Yamaha in MotoGP. How is the relationship with them?
Razlan: “It was a steep learning curve, but we have had a tremendous amount of support from Yamaha both commercially and technically. Yamaha are very happy with what we’ve done and we’re very happy with the support they’ve given us. It feels like we’re not just a client but also a partner, and we’re contributing together and developing the bikes for 2020.”
After one year working with the three categories, how different or similar is working with each team?
Johan: “The basics of running a team are the same in all categories, but in MotoGP there is more pressure from the media, sponsors and fans. I was a little surprised and shocked to see how much attention there was on us, but that’s a consequence of the success we enjoyed and having a huge name like PETRONAS partnered with us. Everyone in motorsport know who they are and I’m so proud to carry their name.”
How important has this season been for the Malaysian Grand Prix and Malaysian motorsport and what’s the next step?
Razlan: “For the Malaysian Grand Prix, having the team was fantastic. The crowd came in droves to support not only the event but our team, and working together with PETRONAS has been very effective both for us and for Malaysia. Getting over 100,000 people on Sunday was amazing, and to see so many of them wearing team merchandise makes me very proud. Although the results weren’t what we were hoping for, to start from pole and finish inside the top five was great. Maybe we can do better next year in the race, but in general we’ve given the young kids in Malaysia something to aspire to. They can now see that the dream of being a MotoGP rider can be reality if you work hard.”
Next season the team will keep four of the current riders and welcome two new riders in Moto2. The team will also have two A-spec bikes from Yamaha in MotoGP. What can we expect to see in 2020?
Johan: “Starting 2019 like we did, the pressure will be on now for 2020. This season was the honeymoon, but now we need to live up to our results and our image. We need to keep the team happy and smiling as we do it as well. There will be a bigger challenge, but we’re ready to meet it. We’ve set the bar high, but the target will be to raise it even higher. Everyone in the team is competitive and wants to do better – no one is happy until we’re performing at our expectations. 2019 was a tough year in Moto2 and it’s nice to have an experienced rider like Xavi Vierge and someone who is fresh and hungry in Jake Dixon. Jake can surprise and Xavi just needs fine-tuned to be at the top. In Moto3, we’ve set the bar high with John and we know what we need to work on to be at the front every weekend. With Pawi coming back to Moto3, it will also be a challenge – but he know the class and the bike and he had success there in the past. I am looking forward to seeing him and John working together throughout the year.”