An exclusive interview with RNF MotoGP team principal Razlan Razali covering Andrea Dovizioso’s surprise retirement, Cal Crutchlow’s return, Darryn Binder’s rookie campaign, swapping Yamaha for Aprilia next season and more.
Last August came the bombshell news that, despite unprecedented success by a satellite Yamaha team, Petronas would not extend its Sepang title sponsorship beyond the initial three-year agreement.
The decision resulted in Sepang’s MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3 teams being disbanded, with team principal (and former Sepang CEO) Razlan Razali then taking over the MotoGP grid places to salvage what he could for a new ‘RNF’ project.
Yamaha agreed to back the team on an unusually short one-year deal, with Andrea Dovizioso riding a factory-spec bike and rookie Darryn Binder, promoted straight from Moto3, on an older A-spec machine. WithU stepped in as title sponsor.
A ‘debut’ MotoGP season is a challenge at the best of times but another big call came in late May when RNF signed with Aprilia for 2023 and beyond, rather than extending with Yamaha.
The off-track surprises didn’t end there.
On the eve of the British MotoGP, Dovizioso announced that he will retire after his home round in Misano next month, with Yamaha test rider Cal Crutchlow taking over for the final six events.
Meanwhile, Razali’s former rider Fabio Quartararo leads the world championship for the factory Yamaha team but the next-best M1, of Franco Morbidelli, is just 19th.
Like Morbidelli, Dovizioso has struggled to put the M1 into its narrow performance window, the former title runner-up scoring just ten points and managing a best finish of eleventh.
Binder has equalled that tally, a head-turning tenth in the Mandalika rain being followed by a twelfth in Catalunya. But with Suzuki leaving the grid, there are more riders than bikes for 2023 and the South African admits he may be forced to look at Moto2.
Crash.net caught up with Razlan Razali on Friday at Silverstone…
Let’s go straight in with the big news of Dovizioso’s retirement. How surprised were you by his decision?
First of all, [after Rossi] he has raised the perception that we are a team for retiring MotoGP riders!
But seriously, we saw it coming in a way, because there were many, many rounds where I could clearly see on his face the frustration, the disappointment, ‘I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be in this position’.
Many times I’ve been involved in meetings with Dovi, with the Japanese, with Yamaha, with him trying to improve, trying to do better. Comparing data with the factory boys, especially with Fabio. And when he was the last Yamaha rider, comparing data with Darryn, with Frankie.
I think clearly, from the look on his face, he is not a happy man. And there are times where we ran out of words of encouragement to help him. We don’t know what else [we can do] to help him.
It came to the point where we said, ‘look, just go out there and have fun’. But Andrea is that strong of a character and, as he said in his press conference [on Thursday], he still believes he can put in all of his effort, his body and mind. But he just can’t [get results] in MotoGP.
We were still hoping for him to finish off the season, but I guess it got too much for him and he decided to stop. We respect that decision because the last thing you want is to ‘force’ a rider to race.
If he wants to stop, it’s better to do it sooner rather than later…
That’s it. Having a rider retire before the season is over is not nice, because we are in our first year of rebuilding and rebranding. We’re also changing manufacturer for next year. So there’s a lot going on! Too much!
Dovi is leaving, Cal is coming in. Cal is the obvious choice as Yamaha test rider, but were any other names considered?
Not really. The last thing we wanted is to repeat last year’s situation, when after Frankie we had Garrett Gerloff, then Cal, then Jake, then Andrea. That’s also not great for the team [to keep swapping riders]. So we are very pleased that Yamaha managed to get Cal for all six races.
I messaged Cal and he said he’s fitter and has been testing more compared to last year. Because we are still with Yamaha, I think it’s also strategically and technically good for Yamaha for Cal to ride the current [factory-spec] bike for development for next year.
Even though it doesn’t make any impact for us next year, we are still with Yamaha now, so we can allow that to happen.
This season has been difficult results-wise, but do you feel like you’ve proven the doubters wrong by getting your ‘second’ team up and running, then securing a longer-term future with Aprilia?
Certainly, it’s very much different. I don’t have the comfort of [backing from] the Sepang circuit. It’s on my own.
I also discovered that when you’re on your own, there’s certain things that I’d love to see improved for MotoGP in terms of attracting sponsors. That is the biggest challenge, when you’re going into your first year. It’s harder. But if it was easy, everybody would do it!
I’m just privileged that I’m able to take over the former team, to call it my own. But it has its personal challenges in all areas – financial, sponsorship, riders.
But we have proven our doubters wrong. We are here, and we are not working out of a car boot! We are very well presented and that gives more confidence to potential partners as well as current partners.
Especially when we are embarking on another round of rebranding with a new manufacturer and so on.
What persuaded you to go with Aprilia? You were obviously talking to Yamaha but were there any other manufacturers you were in discussions with?
Look, running a MotoGP team at the end of the day is a business. The capital outlay is huge. And for you to plan, you need to have a long-term strategy. A long-term strategy, where possible, is as long as the contract that you have [for MotoGP grid places] with IRTA, which starts at five years.
Usually, [the contract between an independent team and manufacturer] is for a minimum of three years, like we had [from Yamaha] with Petronas SRT before.
We did not get that, but we made an exception this year. I understood because we were considered a start-up company. But we’ve proven ourselves this year, so we thought that, with what they [Yamaha] have seen, what was set up, that we could get a longer a contract [for 2023]
Because we do not want to go into a situation where it comes to June or July next year and we don’t know, because we are at the mercy of a manufacturer. So it did not fit into our long-term strategy.
But we were lucky because the next option [Aprilia] was a very good option, if you look at the current performance. Actually, this is not the first time we’ve been talking to them, even as early as two years ago, about the possibility of us going to them.
They offered us a very good package, a very good long-term deal and we made that decision.
So Yamaha only offered another one-year deal?
Yes. It just does not fit into our plans.
But no doubt, we had some sweet stories with them, especially with our former [SRT] team, the first two-years were incredible. The Japanese engineers gave us a lot of support. I have no complaints.
But, yeah, long-term corporate wise we could not continue with this kind of [short term] arrangement.
Suzuki is leaving, it’s a blow for MotoGP, but I think in the past there were talks between yourself and Suzuki about a satellite team?
Yes, we had that option during Davide [Brivio’s] time.
When you first started the Sepang team…
[And also] when our contract with Yamaha was scheduled to end in ’21. At that time, it was not clear cut whether we would continue with Yamaha so we had no option but to speak to other manufacturers and of course Suzuki was the first one, being the same [engine] characteristics of the bike.
We spoke to them but of course at that time, without Davide, no decision could be made. So we couldn’t rely on that. But again, we were also talking with the likes of Aprilia, and in fact everybody.
What’s the latest on your rider line-up for next year? How long is the short-list?
Well, we are still adopting a wait-and-see situation because the riders’ market is different to the past. There are still young riders, meaning 24-30 years old, out there. So we can afford to wait and see what all the other teams are up to.
You took a big gamble on bringing Darryn straight from Moto3, how do you think he has done this year? How is his future looking with two less places on the grid next year?
We can’t expect more from Darryn this year, coming straight from Moto3 to MotoGP.
Are we expecting him to perform like Fabio in his first year? No. But he has also proven doubters wrong. He is a MotoGP racer but coming from Moto3 he needs more time than the riders that graduated from Moto2.
We are happy with him. He’s done very well. But then he’s also in a way, a victim of circumstances of the rider market because when you have these other riders out there, you’re forced to look beyond Darren.
He’s still in our list. Unfortunately, he’s not a priority because of other riders that are available and as I said MotoGP is a business and results are important.
For the last two years, with our former team and now, we’ve been languishing second last or last [in the teams’ standings]. This is something that sponsors do not want to see. And in some ways, we as management are under pressure.
So we need good results next year and to have good results you need experienced riders, mixed with being relatively young riders.
You mentioned earlier there are some things MotoGP can do to make itself more attractive to sponsors, does that include spicing up the weekend format or the show itself?
I truly believe that MotoGP provides the better show than F1, still. But maybe MotoGP needs to evolve to have better hype, to get a new audience: A more female audience. A more younger audience.
It’s very much still a predominantly male sport and it will always will be. But if we can close the gap with a female audience, it’s better. A younger audience would also be much nicer.
But we need to look at the analytics, the numbers.
To me the main things would be, what are the social numbers across all the platforms, compared to Formula One or whatever? Then you need to look at the TV numbers. Then look at the spectator numbers, although these are sometimes subjective.
Having been a promoter myself [as CEO of Sepang], that’s where I would start. Once we understand those three main numbers, then you can see what works and what doesn’t work.
It’s easy to jump in and say, ‘we need to do this, we need to do more’. But to really pinpoint exactly what MotoGP needs, you need to take a deep dive and find out. And to me, we initially have to look at those numbers.