Fabio Quartararo, the Andorran prince hoping to become MotoGP king
by Olivier LEVRAULT
At his home in Andorra, perched high in the Pyrenees, Fabio Quartararo has his sights set on an horizon far beyond the snow-capped mountain range and to "taking the last step" to become France's first ever MotoGP champion.
"I'm ready to win the title," says the native of Nice who graduates to Yamaha's factory team from the Japanese manufacturer's satellite outfit in a straight swop with nine-time champion Valentino Rossi.
"It's been a dream come true changing teams, and to have made that switch with Valentino (Rossi)," Quartararo tells AFP.
"He's been my idol since I was a little boy, so it's a really big deal."
Last year, in only his second season in MotoGP, Quartararo was quick out of the blocks, reeling off back-to-back wins in the opening two races to put himself bang in contention for the world title.
But then, "huge problems with the motorcycle" put a spanner in his championship challenge. He ended the Covid-19 curtailed campaign after securing a third win in eighth place behind Joan Mir.
"Last season was really challenging," he recalls.
"I started out strong, but then I experienced technical issues.
'McDonald's to celebrate'
"Unfortunately, it was only my second MotoGP season, so I didn't know how to deal with the problems properly."
Pandemic precautions inevitably put a dampener on marking his opening wins.
"I came straight back home. We ate McDonald's to celebrate!
"I would have loved to have been able to spend the evening with my parents, my friends and my brother but, unfortunately, I wasn't allowed."
He says the ever present threat of the virus was a draining backdrop to the 2020 campaign.
"Not being able to see anyone and having to wear a mask all the time meant it felt like a very long season.
"I really hope this season will be a little easier, because it's mentally challenging for a rider."
Quartararo himself has recovered from a nasty brush with coronavirus in December.
"I spent the most difficult week of my life, I was in a bed, on a sofa.
"Even to cook for myself tired me out, I didn't have the strength. It was incredible to see the power of this virus," the 21-year-old said.
After ending a run of 20 seasons since the last French MotoGP winner, Quartararo is comfortable with the weight of expectation generated by his three wins.
"When they call me the French motorbike prodigy I see that a little as a reality.
"I've got enormous potential, but you have to keep your feet on the ground and work hard like I'm doing."
With the season getting underway in Qatar on March 28 Quartararo is getting himself prepared for the battle to come far from the madding crowd - his home at La Massana is 1400m above sea level.
"The tranquility is impressive, I love it."
Here, atop a trail bike, he works on his balance, climbing rocks, slaloming artfully between trees, jumping or hurtling down vertical snow-covered walls.
The aim? "To improve every detail, all the minor movements of the handlebars that you feel during a MotoGP" to reduce the risk of a fall.
Living at altitude "is physically beneficial" too he suggests.
"Even when you sleep you are producing red blood cells" - a useful ally aboard a mechanical beast weighing over 150 kilos (24 stone) and capable of speeds of over 300km/h.
He works out in a garage housing a collections of cars and bikes, and a well used treadmill.
The doorbell rings. It's his neighbour, world rally driver Dani Sordo.
Quartararo makes the introduction: "Here's the expert car driver," he says of the Spaniard 16 years his senior.
Aside from all the physical preparation, Quartararo also works on the mental side of things with a psychiatrist.
"At first, three years ago, it wasn't easy to talk about seeing them. For me, it just wasn't done, but it's someone who has helped me enormously. I have an extraordinary relationship with my parents, but it's my psychiatrist who has made me change."
He feels now is his moment.
"I'm ready to win the championship.
"In 2019, I made the podium, last year some wins, all that's missing is the final step, to be champion of the world."