It was a strange day in Malaysia. Part of the strangeness was down to the weather. The familiar pattern of disrupted sessions as the rain fell, but not hard enough to allow the MotoGP riders, in particular, to spend much time on the track in the afternoon. There was a twist, however, a particularly Malaysian one at Sepang: the heavy shower which passed over the track at the start of the afternoon session for MotoGP left part of the circuit soaking, with water a couple of centimeters deep at turns 1 and 2, while the rest of the circuit quickly dried out almost completely. It at least added a little novelty to the disruption, along with the frustration of another wasted practice.
The real strangeness came at the start of the day, however. It took about 10 minutes for observers to notice that Maverick Viñales had not gone out on track and there was suspiciously little activity in the Avintia Blusens garage. Once they noticed, low-level pandemonium broke out: within seconds, a throng of Spanish journalists crowded out of the media center and hastened on their way into the paddock, to find anyone and everyone and learn what they could.
As they drifted back in, and as TV pictures started to appear showing an empty Blusens garage, Viñales walking through the paddock accompanied by his father and the Dorna media officer, and team managers Raul Romero and Ricard Jové gathered in discussions, it was clear that there was something very wrong. When it was revealed what that was - that Viñales had decided to quit the team with immediate effect - it sent a shock wave through the paddock. Riders quitting teams with races left in the championship is unusual; to do it while that rider is second in the title chance and still in with a shot at the championship is unheard of.
The sequence of events appears to have been as follows. On Thursday night, Viñales and his father had a meeting with the team, to tell them that the Spaniard would be leaving the team with immediate effect, and would not race for them either for the rest of the season, or for the following year, as stipulated by his contract. On Friday morning, Viñales had come to the track to give his side of the story, speaking to Spanish television and the official MotoGP website, and was on his way to leave again before he was persuaded to go and see Carmelo Ezpeleta, the Dorna CEO, to see if Ezpeleta could do anything to help patch things up. Ezpeleta could not, and Viñales headed away from the track and back to his hotel. From there to the airport, where he updated his Facebook status with a message warning other riders and sponsors to "be careful" of this team. And on Saturday, when he arrives home, he will appear on Spanish TV to explain his decision further. One significant detail: Viñales is to appear on the sports program of the Spanish national broadcaster TVE to talk of the problem. TVE had to give up the broadcasting rights to MotoGP at the end of last season because of budget cuts, the rights having now passed to the commercial broadcaster Telecinco.
That is the how, but the more salient question is why? What precipitated Viñales' hasty decision to abandon the team so late in the season and after so much success, and where does the young Spaniard go from here?
Answering why he decided to leave is a deeply complex question. It spans many things: Viñales' ambition, the competitiveness of the Honda, the level of support he felt he was getting from the team, the competence of the team, a dispute with his personal manager - who also happens to be the team manager - and a string of mishaps that have occurred this season. How justified Viñales' decision is depends on how much of his side of the story you choose to believe and how much of the side of the team. But it is clear that there was something fundamentally wrong with the situation, and that rightly or wrongly, Viñales did not take this decision lightly.
In his statements to the media he made a number of claims. That he had given 100% to try to win the title, and that the team hadn't. That the team was a 'second division' team, and that he did not believe he was able to compete for the world championship with the level of equipment and support he had been given. That he had talked to the team about leaving at the end of the season, but that the team had not listened. That the people in the team were 'mala gente', bad people. His post on his Facebook page implied much the same. "With this message, I want to warn any riders or sponsors to be careful because of what happened to me with this team.
Ricard Jové, Avintia Blusens manager and up until Thursday night, Viñales' personal manager, asserted that the team had done all they could to help the Spaniard throughout the year. "We are really sorry because it is not a situation created by us and we are confident we have given the maximum at all times," Jové told MotoGP.com, "but obviously there are days you win and days you lose, and you have to learn to win and you have to learn to lose." Viñales had already been told exactly what equipment he would have had for 2013, Jové said, but that it was a mistake to throw away in a few hours what could possibly have been fixed in time.
At the heart of the issue appears to lie Viñales' unhappiness with the competitiveness of the Honda engine, and with the updates the team have given him. He has complained of a top speed deficit all year long, and felt he has had to fight the KTMs with one hand tied behind his back. Unconfirmed reports suggested that he had pushed the team hard to switch from the FTR Honda to Kalex KTM, but Viñales reportedly had a contract directly with Honda, making that impossible. Buying out of that contract would have been expensive, with rumors suggesting the price would have been well over half a million euros.
Then there was the problem with having Jové represent him. The Avintia Blusens manager had also spoken to both Aki Ajo, who runs the factory KTM program in Moto3, and with Jorge Martinez at Aspar, and both men had expressed an interest in signing Viñales. According to Viñales' entourage, he never got to hear of the offers made by either Ajo or Aspar. According to Jové, Viñales was present at the meetings with Ajo and Martinez where contracts were discussed. Having the same person acting in two different capacities, as team manager and personal manager, paves the way for clear conflicts of interest, and gives such an individual an opportunity to act in their own best interest, rather than the interest of their riders. There are plenty of instances where this does not cause a problem - Marc VDS Racing boss Michael Bartholemy is also personal manager to Scott Redding, but Bartholemy clearly made every effort this year to move Redding up into MotoGP, with or without the team. Whether this is the exception or the rule remains to be seen.
Finally, there is the level of competence. One of the ugly truths of racing is that the paddock does not consist solely of the brightest and the best in their field but also of those who are willing to make the sacrifices to work long hours for low pay, and are chosen on that basis rather than their ability. (The very fact that I manage to make a living at reporting on MotoGP appears to confirm that this is clearly true for journalists). There are teams full of men and women who are dedicated to being the best, and operate at an incredible level of competence. Then there are individuals and teams who, despite giving it their best, fall woefully short of the same level of skill displayed by the best teams. And then there's the chancers, hustlers, hangers on and other assorted types who lurk in the paddock, either looking for the main chance for themselves, or looking to find a way to remain in the paddock hoping the glamor of MotoGP will rub off on them.
Where the team fits in among the sliding scale of competence is hard to judge from the outside. Clearly, they were not guilty of the gross incompetence that some of the teams have shown in the past. But there have been problems, the worst of which came at Aragon, when Viñales' bike packed up completely on the warm up lap, putting him out of contention for the championship. Viñales himself must carry his share of the blame as well: the Spaniard crashed out two corners from the end at Indianapolis, in a desperate and frankly unrealistic attempt to save a position. A wiser head may have elected to settle for points, and hope for better next time out.
Viñales' accusations against Jové are shared by Aleix Espargaro, currently riding for the Aspar team in MotoGP and previously managed by Jové. When Espargaro posted a rather strange tweet on his Twitter feed using the hashtag #acadacerdolellegasusanmartin - from the Spanish phrase "A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín" meaning that one day your misdeeds will catch up with you - he was queried by a Spanish journalist about it. Espargaro immediately made it clear what he thought of Viñales' manager, posting in Catalan "I had the same manager as Mack [Maverick Viñales' pet name in Spanish] and the same thing happened to me." He then went on to add "It ended badly with me, with [Toni] Elias, with Pablo Nieto, with Pol [Esparagaro, Aleix' brother], with [Julian] Simon... ALL OF THEM!" There is no one quite as vindictive as a rider scorned, to paraphrase a great writer, so Espargaro's statements should be treated with care.
Whether Viñales did the right thing by leaving the team or not is open to debate, but he has undoubtedly made his life much more difficult. Viñales faces a number of challenges before he returns to the grid. While there is plenty of potential interest in Viñales from other teams for 2013, he first has to break his contract with the Blusens Avintia team open. That may end up being a purely financial question - though if the figures being bandied about for the price he will have to pay are anywhere near accurate, he will be one of the most expensive non-MotoGP riders in the paddock - but there may be a loophole for the Spaniard. On January 12, 2013, Viñales turns 18, the age of majority in Spain. Spanish law says that adults cannot be held to contracts they sign as children, meaning there may still be a way out of the contract for Viñales.
Getting out of the contract is one thing, securing a new one is another. The interest is there - despite the price tag - but the problem is that any rider who leaves a team cannot ride for another team without a letter of release from his original team. The measure is put in place to prevent rich teams from poaching riders from poorer teams without some form of compensation, but just occasionally, it can be counterproductive. If Viñales finds a way to have his contract annulled, then denying him a letter of release may provide a way for the Avintia Blusens team to control his future. He would be unable to race in the Grand Prix paddock, though doors may open for him in World Superbike.
In this, Viñales may find his nationality is working against him. Contrary to popular belief, Dorna no longer favors Spaniards in the paddock, being all too aware that the dominance of the Iberian nation is turning off TV viewers elsewhere in the world. With the Spanish economy in crisis, boosting income from TV rights in Spain is impossible. Dorna need viewers in Northern and Western Europe, in Australia, in America, in Asia, and having a podium full of Spaniards - as happened in MotoGP at Motegi, and as has been a regular occurrence in Moto2 for the past couple of years - does not help them in their cause. It may be more productive for Dorna to have Viñales switch to World Supersport or World Superbike, to help them promote the series in Spain, especially useful now that the series is to be broadcast by TVE, the national broadcaster.
Viñales' biggest problem may well be with Honda, however. The Japanese factory does not take kindly to outright criticism of there bikes, and especially to public displays of displeasure. When Viñales kicked his stricken bike at Aragon, that image went down very badly with HRC. Adding a sudden withdrawal from the team, citing the desire to be riding a KTM rather than a Honda, and implying that the Honda is just not a fast enough bike will not endear him to HRC. And HRC have very long memories: after Max Biaggi criticized the RC211V one time too many, he was blacklisted by the company, and was forced out of motorcycle racing altogether for a year. After some trenchant criticism of Honda in his autobiography, Valentino Rossi was never considered as a serious option at the factory Honda team after Casey Stoner's premature retirement. The most HRC were willing to do for Rossi is provide him with a satellite bike, an offer which was of no value to the nine-time world champion.
Given that history, it seems unlikely that Maverick Viñales will ever ride a Honda again, or at least not one with serious support from HRC. That, whatever the background of Viñales decision, is a very bad career move.
In fact, Viñales' decision reflects badly on everyone, on himself, on the team, on the sponsors and on the series. MotoGP does not look like a top-level sport when its premier athletes are pulling out of teams and accusing them of incompetence and an unwillingness to help. The image of the sport has already been tarnished: apart from the spat between Honda and Dorna over the technical regulations, the inability of the series organizer to grow income for the sport is one of its major weaknesses. The burden of sponsorship has passed from the teams to the riders, a switch which has seen an unprecedented 43 rider changes in all three Grand Prix classes this season. That does not look like a premier class racing; that looks like subsistence farming, of teams and riders living hand-to-mouth from race to race.
Those previous rider sackings brought support from other quarters, with the victims of those previous rider swaps speaking out on behalf of Viñales. Xavi Fores, who lost his ride with the Aspar team in the middle of last season, wrote on his Twitter feed "From my point of view, Maverick Viñales paid back the teams who don't respect rider contracts in their own coin." David Salom voiced a similar opinion: "When the teams do this to the riders, nobody makes much fuss."
The issue does raise the matter of whether some form of professional association is needed to protect the interests of the riders as a whole. Such competitors' associations exist in many other sports, including motor sports such as Formula One. The lack of money in MotoGP makes it difficult to organize such a thing, but then so does the relative youth of so many competitors. Persuading a lot of young, single-minded, fiercely competitive, highly ambitious young men and women, all acutely aware of the danger of the sport and the possibility that injury could cut their careers short at any time, put aside their short-term interests and work towards a longer term future could be very tough indeed.
There was support for the idea, however, especially among the top MotoGP riders, all of whom are much older than the young men slugging it out in Moto3 and Moto2. Dani Pedrosa suggested that a union, set up to protect the rights of riders when teams severed their contracts, might be a good idea for MotoGP, and Valentino Rossi was broadly in favor. The proposal would have to come from the riders in the support classes, however, Rossi stipulated, but if such a proposal were made, he would be broadly supportive.
The drama surrounding Maverick Viñales' departure from the Blusens Avintia team and the cesspit of paddock politics, money and power it opened rather overshadowed the on-track action at Sepang. The good news on track - Malaysian wildcard rider Hafizh Syahrin topping one of the Moto2 session, record crowds expected for the race, Casey Stoner proving to be a good deal fitter at Sepang than he was at Motegi, and threatening to take points from Jorge Lorenzo and spice up the MotoGP championship - rather paled into insignificance when set against the goings on around Viñales. But the affair should be good for MotoGP in the long term: for once, the balance of power shifted from the teams to the riders; and much that was hidden has now been put forcefully on display.
What MotoGP badly needs is a breath of fresh air, to sweep away some of the foulness which has accrued in the past few years. The sport is still magical, the athletes are still admirable, and the people are still, for the most part, wonderful. Millions of people follow the sport religiously, and watch every chance they get. MotoGP needs to retain that passion, that spirit, but to do so, it needs to clean house every now and again. Maverick Viñales may have helped to do that just a little. The impetuosity and unreasonableness of a seventeen-year-old may well prove to be a very good thing for the sport.