If you are a young rider from Italy, the dream is to land in the VR46 Riders Academy where there is a path to the MotoGP World Championship carefully planned out for you.
Of course, you still have to then perform on the track to standards meeting such a high profile organisation, but you are given the tools to perform by the academy who handle your life off the track. You have to adhere to their methods of training, marketing and language skills, and if you do not then you will no longer a part of the academy, as Romano Fenati found out to his disadvantage. Everything is taken care of in terms of where you train, the fees to ride for a team if there is one needed, helmet, leather and other personal sponsors (AGV, Dainese and Monster Energy are all but guaranteed) plus free mandatory English lessons.
It was announced in 2013 that the academy would be set up and active from 2014, six riders from Tavullia would be taken under the wing of Valentino Rossi himself, they were Franco Morbidelli, Luca Marini, Andrea Migno, Nicolo Bulega, Romano Fenati and Pecco Bagnaia. Of those riders, Fenati and Bagnaia would also feature in a team set up by Rossi in collaboration with Sky in the Moto3 World Championship, while Migno and Marini would feature in CEV for the Aspar Team. Bulega would feature for Laglisse in the Moto3 CEV championship while Morbidelli was already on the World Stage with ItalTrans Racing Team.
By the time 2015 had rolled around, Bagnaia had left the Sky team to join Aspar aboard the Mahindra machines, freeing up space for Andrea Migno to graduate full time after fleeting appearances as a stand-in rider for Mahindra the previous season. He was joined by the remaining Fenati who had hopes of winning the Moto3 world title, something he could not achieve despite taking the first win for the academy at Moto3 world level, and a final season appearance as a reward for Bulega, who brought the academy their first title by winning the 2015 Moto3 Junior World Championship. Morbidelli had taken a step in the Moto2 World Championship, taking podiums but not yet winning. More riders also joined the academy, taking the total number of riders up to 11, with Lorenzo Baldassarri, Marco Bezzecchi, Niccolo Antonelli, Dennis Foggia and Celestino Vietti joining, all riders ranged from Moto2 down to the Italian pre-Moto3, and all now given a clear path to chase their dreams.
Luca Marini riding for the VR46 supported Pons CEV Moto2 team, 2016
Come 2016, things went south for Fenati. He did not take to the academy controlling what he did, exiting the Sky team midway through the 2016 season after an altercation with Rossi’s right-hand man Uccio, he was released from the academy and his contract with the squad. He would be replaced in the team by future Moto3 World Champion Lorenzo Dalla Porta, though Dalla Porta would have no affiliation with the academy. This was the year plans were announced to expand the Sky team to Moto2, with Bagnaia and late academy signing Stefano Manzi, who had been in the Moto3 championship with Mahindra, and scored some good points. Marini had totally skipped the Moto3 World Championship and instead went directly to Moto2 with Forward Racing, joining Baldassarri in the team. The younger riders were all making waves in the lower classes in the CEV championship, and it was looking very good for the future.
2017 was the year where the academy really came of age, with Morbidelli taking their first major world title in the Moto2 class, dominating the field for the excellently run Marc VDS Team, Bagnaia stepped up with aplomb to finish as top rookie and 5th in the standings overall, taking a podium in only his 4th race. There was another title for the setup too, with Dennis Foggia taking the Moto3 Junior World Championship and confirming his graduation to the Moto3 team alongside Bulega for 2018.
2018 was the peak of excitement to be a VR46 rider, with Bagnaia winning the Moto2 title on the Sky Racing Moto2 bike, giving the academy their first title as a team, Morbidelli became the first rider in the setup to graduate to the MotoGP class with Marc VDS Honda, and Vietti would announce his arrival into the world stage in some style, taking a podium in his second race after he replaced Bulega from Motegi onwards due to injury. The Moto2 title win was something spectacular, with the team changing the entire livery of both the bike and Bagnaia to gold under a small tent in Sepang, this included literally the entire fairing and tail unit of the Kalex machine and all of Bagnaia’s safety gear (featured image). They nearly had a Moto3 title winner too, with Marco Bezzecchi stepping up in some style to challenge the entire season aboard his Prustel GP KTM, ultimately though he fell short of the title winner Jorge Martin dropping to P3 overall behind Fabio Di Giannantonio. Marini had swapped places with Manzi, arriving from the Forward Racing Team and Baldassarri took his first Moto2 win at Jerez.
2019 saw their second MotoGP class rider, with Bagnaia joining Pramac Ducati alongside Jack Miller. There were no title wins, but there were definite highlights as Marini started winning towards the end of the season, Baldassarri looked to be the Moto2 title favourite before they changed the tyre profile and he could not get to grips with it, and Morbidelli taking front-row starts aboard his new Petronas Yamaha. It was a lean season in terms of accolades, and the pressure seemed to cause them to downsize, with Baldassarri, Bulega and Foggia all announcing they would be leaving the setup for 2020 to go their own routes. Baldassarri would go under the wing of Andrea Dovizioso’s manager Simone Battistella, while Bulega would join Gresini Racing in Moto2 and Foggia would join Leopard Racing in Moto3.
MotoGP 2020 has been a complete and utter masterclass for the VR46 riders academy, the current Moto2 championship leader is Luca Marini, half-brother to Valentino Rossi and rider for the Sky VR46 riders academy team with teammate Marco Bezzecchi in third place, the pair have 7 podiums between them and three wins out of seven races.
In MotoGP we have seen similar performances, at Brno Franco Morbidelli took his maiden MotoGP podium, the first for the VR46 riders academy, this was before Misano when something incredibly special happened, the academy recorded their first MotoGP class 1-2 with Francesco Bagnaia and Franco Morbidelli taking the spots, Morbidelli taking his first MotoGP class win. This is not forgetting Moto3, Celestino Vietti has recorded his first Moto3 race win at the Styrian GP, meaning the academy has a win across all three classes in 2020 with the Moto2 title lead also in their hands. If Marini was to win the title, it would be the third Moto2 title for the academy and the second for the Sky VR46 Moto2 team.
It is safe to say that the academy has been unbelievably successful, adding to the legacy which Valentino Rossi has left behind, creating a pathway into MotoGP, from the CIV/CEV championship all the way up to MotoGP race winners and Moto2 titles.
Featured images – www.motogp.com