2014 did not go to plan for Yamaha. After the first four races of last year, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo trailed the Repsol Hondas by 76 points in the team championship, and Yamaha was 33 points behind Honda in the manufacturers standings. Marc Márquez was in the middle of an unbeaten run, Dani Pedrosa backing him up strongly. There were a lot of good reasons for Yamaha's troubled start. Yamaha was struggling to get a smooth throttle response from a liter less fuel, the new Bridgestone tires were less suited to the YZR-M1's need for high corner speeds, and Jorge Lorenzo arrived at the start of the season out of shape, after neglecting his training after surgery during the winter.
2015 looks like being the polar opposite. At the launch of their 2015 campaign, the Movistar Yamaha team looked forward with some optimism. Building on the progress made in the second half of 2014, the bike is much more competitive, Valentino Rossi arrives motivated by his strong season, and Jorge Lorenzo is lean and fit, having spent all off-season preparing. They are ready for big things.
With 2014 out of the way, one of the big sponsorship issues could also be addressed. When Movistar signed up alongside Monster, that caused a confusing clash on the fairing of the 2014 bike, with two large fluorescent green M logos on the bike. A redesign has given Movistar a little more prominence on the fairing, the logo now much larger, the text moved elsewhere on the bike. Key to the sponsorship is not just the visibility, however, it is also the ability to showcase technology. Movistar demonstrated an excellent 360° smartphone app at Aragon last year, which is the start of much more to come.
Three new sponsors have also joined the team. Fiat is back, though in a very small and limited way, as a link with their Abarth high-performance brand. The Abarth logo adorns the front of the fairing, and many fans will have their fingers crossed for a return of the Abarth livery which appeared at Phillip Island back in 2007. Cromax, a coatings brand, and Descente, a Japanese technical clothing (that's specialist outerwear, to you and me) will be supplying the team.
Valentino Rossi made his intentions plain in a press release interview, stating his aim of securing a tenth world championship. At the launch, he was a little more circumspect, anointing Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez as favorites for the title, but that should be viewed as false modesty. After a mediocre return to Yamaha in 2013, after his years in the wilderness at Ducati, his hopes for 2014 were modest. He far exceeded those, ending the season as runner up, and with wins at Phillip Island and Misano. His goal for this year, he said, was to score more wins during the season. Race wins provide an ideal stepping stone for a championship challenge.
To do that, he will not only have to beat Márquez, but also his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo has a lot to put right in 2015, after the shambolic and frankly embarrassing start to 2014. He is keenly aware of this, not just of his duty to Yamaha, but of his duty to his reputation, which was badly tarnished by the first part of last season.
His desire to regain his former glory was quite literally visible at the team launch in Madrid. The rider who took to the stage to present the bike was lean, trim and ready. 'I have never been this lean and wiry,' Lorenzo told Spanish media. He was as lean as his first season in MotoGP, back in 2008, and had spent the entire month of January training, having finally found a physical trainer he was happy with. Lorenzo told Spanish journalist Borja Gonzalez that he was 3kg lighter than last year. Given that Lorenzo's own father told reporters that Lorenzo had arrived at Sepang 1 in 2014 about 5kg overweight, that is quite a lot of weight he has lost.
How closely Yamaha have been following his preparations is a good question. On his Facebook page, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg posted photos of him skiing with Jorge Lorenzo, as well as some of Lorenzo's friends. Did Zeelenberg go because Lorenzo asked or because Yamaha asked him? Whatever the truth, Zeelenberg will have been in a position to see just how fit Lorenzo is.
The Spaniard was careful to temper expectations, pointing to Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi as favorites for the title. They had finished first and second in the championship in 2014, and so they should be regarded as favorites for 2015, Lorenzo reasoned. If he was to be regarded as a title candidate, then first he had to prove it on the track.
If he is to do so, and if he and Rossi are to challenge the supremacy of Marc Márquez, they will need some help from Yamaha. Development during 2014 saw the M1 already take several major steps forward, especially in the area of throttle response. The bike both Rossi and Lorenzo tested at Valencia continued that work, the riders praising the bike as being very smooth. That will be one key to success in 2015.
The bike's main weakness, though, was in braking and corner entry. Already vastly improved over 2013, the 2014 bike was still a little behind the Honda RC213V in that area. It was, Yamaha's MotoGP Group Leader Kouichi Tsuji said, the area they had been working on hardest, and where they had made some progress. The next step is the introduction of a new seamless gearbox which allows clutchless downshifts as well as clutchless upshifts, which the existing gearbox allows.
Lorenzo and Rossi have been pressing Yamaha for a new gearbox for many months now, but Yamaha have continually remained vague on when they would finally allow it to be used on track. The gearbox is especially sensitive, as its reliability has to be beyond question, without limiting performance. If an engine seizes up, the rider can pull the clutch in and roll into the gravel. If a gearbox seizes up, so does the back wheel, and the rider ends up in low earth orbit. That kind of risk is not acceptable when challenging for a championship.
Yet the seamless gearbox looks likely to be ready for the 2015 season. Yamaha's test team is currently on track in Sepang – alongside Casey Stoner, who his doing test work for HRC there – and the seamless downshift is one of the things they will be testing, ahead of the first official Sepang test which starts next week, on 4th February. Kouichi Tsuji told Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino that the new gearbox would not be ready for Sepang 1, however, with more testing still needing to be done. Lorenzo and Rossi are likely to get their first taste of the new gearbox at the second Sepang test, at the end of February. Conveniently, that test is far less well attended by journalists...
The difficulty, Tsuji told Pecino for Speedweek, is that the new mechanism is physically larger than the former version of the seamless gearbox. That meant more weight and complexity, which Yamaha then have to try to reduce. But reduce it too much, and you sacrifice reliability. That complex interplay of factors is what has caused the delay.
Once Yamaha have solved the problems, they should be in good shape to challenge the Honda. Tsuji said that in 2014, they had finished second behind a Honda by two seconds or less. Simulations and testing predicted that over race distance, the new gearbox would gain them the two seconds they lost.
Will the 2015 Yamaha be capable of matching the Honda? The prospects are looking good. Jorge Lorenzo managed to make a pointed dig at the Honda, saying that he felt Yamaha had an advantage at the moment, as the Honda was struggling a little during testing. 'We suspect that Honda has some difficulties,' he remarked, going on to say that he hoped that Yamaha could capitalize on the situation.
Can they? The bike looks good, there has been a lot of progress made in the right direction, and the new gearbox is finally on its way. The issues which plagued the bike during the first half of 2014 have been solved, and more improvements are on their way. Valentino Rossi is in form, and as motivated as he has ever been. Jorge Lorenzo is in better shape than he has been for years, and clearly out to clear his reputation. Things are looking promising. The truth, however, will only be revealed once the bikes hit the track. For that, we have to wait until next week.
Jorge Lorenzo in March, 2014
Jorge Lorenzo in January of 2015.