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 with six riders from Tavullia 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 huge step forward 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 Pons CEV Moto2 team paid for by the academy, 2015
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 the Forward Racing Team, joining fellow academy man Baldassarri. 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.
Bagnaia’s title-winning livery
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 Hona, 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. 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, plus Morbidelli was 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, Luca Marini was able to take second place overall in the Moto2 standings with teammate Marco Bezzecchi in fourth place in his first season with the team, their Moto2 campaign saw them reach the podium 13 times with 5 wins.
Franco Morbidelli impressed many with his three race wins in 2020
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 before going on to win 2 more races in Teruel and Valencia, finishing P2 overall in the MotoGP standings behind Joan Mir.
This is not forgetting Moto3, Celestino Vietti has recorded his first Moto3 race win at the Styrian GP, meaning the academy have a win across all three classes in 2020 with 2 runners up as Vietti finished the season in P5 overall, he steps up to Moto2 for 2021 with the Sky VR46 Team as the team withdraw their Moto3 efforts to concentrate on something much bigger, a MotoGP Team. Luca Marini will ride for the Sky VR46 Team in MotoGP for the first time in their history, he will be the third MotoGP class VR46 Rider and will be racing against his half-brother Valentino Rossi within his own team as Rossi becomes a rider/team owner.
It is safe to say that the academy has been unbelievably successful, adding to the legacy which Valentino Rossi has left behind as he has successfully developed the young talent into race winners and even world champions, achieving his goal of having a VR46 MotoGP team, they have come a long way and finally arrive in MotoGP with much to prove.
Featured images – www.motogp.com