In depth: McPhee targets strong 2021 and Moto2 move in 2022

| | MotoGP
'I'm not a real welder...'
'I'm not a real welder...' Picture: GeeBee Images

John McPhee returns to the Petronas SRT camp for his third consecutive year in 2021, and despite the disappointment of losing out on his much-anticipated promotion to Moto2, his eye remains firmly on the Moto3 title.

Having developed a strong and successful relationship with the Malaysian outfit since 2019, the 26-year-old Scotsman is confident they have what it takes to put together a successful championship challenge, despite the ongoing unknowns the current global situation still presents.

2020 got off to a promising start for the number 17 rider, with a trip to the second step of the Qatar podium before the lockdown delay ensued.

Three subsequent rostrum visits and four front-row starts later - including his victory in Misano and a European pole-position - it looked like his season was fully up-to-speed but a disappointing end saw his championship hopes fade, with an eventual placing of 7th overall come Portimao.

Bikesportnews.com caught up with McPhee to reflect on last year’s battles and find out how he’s preparing himself for an important season ahead, so despite the rollercoaster second-half, how does McPhee describe his 2020 season?

“Strong but also definitely with areas we could improve. Looking back overall, my worst result was a P11, from all the races, but typically we were fighting inside the top-five, top-six in every single race,” said the man from Oban.

“We did have some bad luck with a couple of crashes where riders took me out and then similarly I made a couple of mistakes myself. With it being a shortened season - with only 15 races - there was no room to have these DNFs but I think our speed and consistency through the practices and the races were strong, so if we can just fine-tweak a couple of areas, we can look forward to a stronger ’21 season.”

A decade in the light-weight class has provided McPhee with an immense amount of skill and experience but until now, he was missing one ingredient, a consistent base. Moving year-to-year from one team to the other throughout his career, the Scotsman could never fully capitalise on his knowledge and the data garnered until he joined Johann Stigefelt’s squad.

“Staying with the Petronas team has been incredible for me,” he explains. “I think that’s been the biggest difference in my whole career. To stay with the same team for two years, and now a third, is incredible because until now I’ve never actually had two consecutive seasons where I’m with the same bike, the same team, the same crew.

“Everything’s the same, so with it being such a tight class and with everything going on with the testing restrictions and things, it will definitely help us going into the new season. To have all that data to reference off and to be able to hit the ground running every single weekend knowing that we have a base setting that will work with the bike.

“Obviously I had my heart set on going to Moto2 but for one reason or another it fell through. Political reasons, but I’m happy to have the opportunity to stay with such a strong team in Moto3 and fight one more year again for race wins and for a championship challenge, and obviously the target will be to finish Moto3 as strong as possible and then step up to Moto2 for 2022.

“Being able to work with the settings that we already have, we will be able to then fine-tweak and develop a couple of areas of the bike. There is one or two key points that we’ve noticed that I seem to struggle in the race, so we will try to work on these - I don’t want to say what they are but there are one to two things that we can improve.”

2021 also brings a fresh challenge in the form of a new, and at times explosive, teammate, Darryn Binder, but McPhee is relishing the new arrival.

“Having a teammate who is very fast will help us a lot when it comes to qualifying because one of my downfalls this year as been trying to do a lot of laps alone and when it comes to having that slipstream to get a couple of extra tenths and find yourself further up the starting grid, we’ve lacked in that area.

“So to have a teammate that I can work with in qualifying and both of us can start at the front of the race will be great and make my life a lot easier for the first few laps of the race.”

Moto3 is perhaps the most competitive class in the MotoGP paddock, with ten different winners and 15 podium-sitters in 2020 alone, so what does it take to put a title-winning season together?

“Looking back through my 2019 and 2020, we’re so close, we’re not far away, the speed’s there, the pace and the race craft is there, we just need to bring it all together, that last bit of consistency. Last season we had the consistency on track but like I explained earlier, we had a couple of DNFs that ruled us out of the championship come those last races.

“The year before we had the consistency with no DNFs throughout the whole season from my own mistakes but we missed a little bit of speed in one or two races. I feel like if we can put it all together, the speed and also the consistency - which we have ticked both of those boxes at times - if we can bring all that together that will put a strong championship together.”

It’s not just Petronas that has provided support and structure to McPhee’s career in recent years, ex-GP racer and British Supersport Champion, Michael Laverty, has been firmly on hand, whenever his endurance racing and TV schedules allow.

“MLav has been a massive help over the last few years, starting from 2016 when I went out to Spain and did my pre-season training with him. He really showed me a lot away from the race-track as well, in terms of preparing yourself, the way you should structure your training and structure your race weekends. So he’s been a fantastic help over the years, I’ve definitely missed having him trackside this last year and I’m looking forward to having him back at the track this season.”

While the winter months provide a break from official competition, it can be anything but quiet for racers, with the majority upping their training regimes in the bid to retain their fitness, regain their muscle mass and keep their reactions sharp in preparation for the new season ahead.

The past 12 months have thrown further complications into the mix with restrictions on individual movement alongside access to facilities so what does a typical winter schedule look like for the 26-year-old and how is the current situation affecting his progress?

“Obviously having so much time away this year, I’ve not been in the UK for more-or-less the whole year so I spent most of December with my family, with my girlfriend, back home in Scotland. I did as much training as I could during the lockdown but more importantly caught up with all my friends and my family, but we didn’t do an awful lot because of the restrictions.

“I’m based in Andorra but I do tend to go home for Christmas and New Year, like I did this year. Obviously with the restrictions this year it’s been a lot harder to get valuable bike time but I am lucky that where my parents are based, in Oban, in Scotland, that I’ve been able to ride quite a lot of Enduro, a lot of mountain bike.

“Generally December is fairly chilled, we just ride motocross with friends and try and keep exercising on bikes as much as possible without having to follow heart-rate zones or times in the sessions, we just do it purely for fun.

“Come January, back in Andorra, we then start putting it into blocks, so we will do different blocks throughout the months, working mainly on base-fitness throughout the whole of January, trying to get the base-fitness up, as well as doing some longer, lower intensity runs on the motocross bike and endurance bikes and even supermoto and things like that.

“Then in February we will step it up, doing a little more high-intensity training, more based on trying to go down the route of superpole or qualifying strategies and then we will do some short, sprint races as well on the mini bikes and the supermotos.

“It’s quite hard to get me to switch off because I love riding bikes and I love being adventurous. In Andorra, you really don’t get much time to wind down because there is always something going on, whether it’s racing-related or not. You end up skiing or snow-boarding, we do cross-country skiing and hiking as well, I like to do a bit of indoor rock-climbing - that’s not really winding down either.

“When I’m back in Scotland I like to do a lot of hiking - ‘Munro bagging’ we call it - so winding down isn’t something I do very often but when I’m really not doing anything it’s just spending time with family and friends because the opportunities you get to do that throughout the year are very few and far between, so I try and catch up with them all as much as I can possible can.”

Last year’s reduced calendar saw the majority of races concentrated within southern Europe, but 2021 looks hopeful about a return to a more normal routine, with the added excitement of a number of new locations potentially making the cut. With that in mind are there any venues that McPhee is looking forward to experiencing and any that he missed out on last-time-round?

“The only one I’ve really seen an onboard lap of is Finland. It would be great if we could get to some new circuits, obviously the end of last season we went to Portimao and that was incredible. I really, really enjoyed the track and enjoyed the country as well so if we got the chance to go to any of the new tracks I’d be delighted and look forward to the new challenge.

“The circuit I missed the most was Philip Island, because it’s my favourite circuit on the calendar. It’s great fun and it’s one of those tracks that every rider loves, not only being at the track but the atmosphere there, the country itself, going from one race to another, with Japan, Australia, Malaysia, I missed that whole trio trip. Australia is probably the track that is the furthest away from home but that feels kinda the most like home so fingers crossed we can get back there this year.

“My ideal 2021 would be, first of all, to be able to get all the races. Obviously last year missing the first half of the season and then cramming the whole of the year, or the majority of a year into just a few months was quite hard going for everybody involved.

So to have a normal season, as much as possible and to get to every race having the little gaps in between, even if it’s just one weekend off, is always nice to refresh the body and the mind. So ideal season would be to get the full year, and be as strong as possible - that goes without saying - on track. I’m looking forward to the year ahead.”