The next part of our MotoGP mid-season review focuses on the first of the non Aliens in the standings: Maverick Viñales and Pol Espargaro:
5th: Maverick Viñales, Suzuki, 83 points
Is Maverick Viñales the next Alien? There are many who claim that he will be. Yamaha clearly believe he has the potential to become one, as they signed him as Jorge Lorenzo's replacement for 2017 and beyond. In 2016, Viñales has show real potential with some impressive performances. Yet at other times, he has been positively middling. The jury is still out at the moment.
The good? With enough extra horses to keep within spitting distance of the Yamahas and Hondas, and a seamless gearbox (both up and down), Suzuki have removed the worst weaknesses of the GSX-RR. Viñales has taken to the new bike like a duck to water, challenging for the podium on several occasions.
In Argentina, Viñales was running in the front group but crashed out, a minor mistake in a very difficult race. At Le Mans, he finally managed to bag his first podium in MotoGP, though it would be fair to say he had a lot of things going his way. The Spaniard finished nearly 15 seconds behind the winner, and had spent most of the race looking like he would come in fifth or sixth, never really posing a threat. One by one, riders fell ahead of him: Andrea Iannone, Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, putting him onto the podium for the first time. A stellar performance? Not necessarily, but every podium counts.
After a good showing in Mugello, Viñales' season has gone backwards. The Spaniard finished fourth at Barcelona, but was nearly 25 seconds off the pace. In Holland and Germany, in tricky conditions, he was invisible, struggling to get into the top ten. In all three races, Viñales pointed to one single issue: a lack of rear grip preventing him from generating drive out of corners. It was a problem which has existed since he first rode the Suzuki, Viñales told us. It may also explain why the Spaniard has chosen to switch to Yamaha, rather than persevere with Suzuki.
That decision was itself taken in a most peculiar fashion. At the start of the season, Viñales decided to split with his long-time manager (and respected team manager) Aki Ajo. It is rumored to have been a costly affair, with Ajo taking a cut of future earnings, as Viñales' contract dictated. The Spaniard is now managing himself, assisted by Paco Sanchez, the Spanish lawyer who advised him when he abruptly abandoned the Blusens Avintia squad at Sepang in 2012. There is a long history of riders managing themselves. I can think of only one case – Colin Edwards – where it has worked out well.
Opinions on Viñales are divided in the MotoGP paddock. On the one side, there are those who believe he falls just short of the requirements to become a fully-fledged alien, of winning races and challenging for championships. On the other, there are those rubbing their hands with anticipation at seeing Viñales on a Movistar Yamaha, and giving Valentino Rossi a hard time. There have been claims the two have been colluding during qualifying, giving each other tows to secure better grid slots. Those who are big on Viñales believe that will end abruptly next year, just as soon as he starts beating Rossi.
First, though, the Spaniard has to prove himself on the Suzuki. There are plenty of tracks coming up which suit the GSX-RR, and Viñales will have to start posting results at places like Silverstone and Phillip Island. If he can challenge for podiums there – or at least be close to the podium fight – then he might just succeed on the Yamaha in 2017.
6th: Pol Espargaro, Yamaha, 72 points
There has been a reversal of fortunes in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage. Last year, it was Bradley Smith who was the clear top satellite rider, putting in strong and above all sensible and consistent performances week in, week out, while Pol Espargaro kept trying to hard to get the Yamaha M1 to do things it didn't want to do, and either crashing or finishing well down the order. This year, it is Espargaro who has the consistency, while Smith is trying (and failing) to get the Michelins to do what he wants them to.
The biggest switch for Espargaro has been the tires. More rear grip from the Michelins has given the Spaniard the control he was looking for, able to brake better and use the rear wheel to help stop the bike and get it lined up for the next corner. That had never worked with the Bridgestones, but the Michelins have given him the confidence he needed.
The resulting confidence has allowed him to push harder yet more predictably, and close the gap to the leading group. He has gotten faster, but above all, he has become far more consistent, staying on instead of crashing out. That has allowed him to capitalize on the mistakes of others. At Le Mans, at Assen, at Barcelona, in Argentina, Espargaro finished in good position because others crashed out in front of him. His finish should have been better in Argentina, but he as pushed wide by Hector Barbera which let Eugene Laverty through.
Despite the results, Espargaro is still frustrated, however. His finishing position looks impressive, but the gap to the winner remains too big. The Tech 3 Yamaha man keeps finishing between 20 and 30 seconds behind the winner, way behind where he wants to be. The move to KTM is meant to address that: though Espargaro understands that the KTM RC16 will still need development, he will no longer have to wait in line behind other factory riders before getting upgrades.
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