For the Movistar Yamaha factory team, qualifying for the Austrian MotoGP round at the Red Bull Ring was an unmitigated disaster. Maverick Viñales qualified in eleventh place, while Valentino Rossi failed to make it out of Q1 and will be forced to start from fourteenth. It was the factory Yamaha team's worst dry qualifying result since Valencia 2007.
Comparing times from qualifying at Spielberg in 2017 with times from Saturday illustrate Yamaha's predicament quite clearly. Times for the front row riders between this year and last are pretty much identical, as were the times set by Johann Zarco in 2017 and 2018. But Maverick Viñales was half a second slower this year than he was last year, and Valentino Rossi was four tenths slower.
The problem is a familiar one. The factory version of the Yamaha M1 is difficult to control in acceleration, and uses up the rear tire too much. How badly that affects the bike varies from track to track, but the Red Bull Ring is the Yamaha's kryptonite: at a track where most of the corners are from low gear with hard acceleration, the M1 is losing out very badly.
Yamaha's poor qualifying performance produced a remarkable spectacle. In an act of commendable openness and honesty, Yamaha rearranged their normal media debriefs for Rossi and Viñales, to allow YZR-M1 project leader Kouji Tsuya to make a statement. It was a formal apology to the riders for the poor performance of the bike.
Yamaha's communications manager William Favero explained why Yamaha were taking this step. "We as Yamaha, owe our riders and also you an explanation," Favero said." A technical explanation about the difficulties we have been facing so far."
Tsuya's tone was contrite. "Today was a very difficult day for us," he said. "We are struggling with the acceleration performance, which means the power delivery, to adjust the power delivery more precisely. But this track we know is the most difficult track for us. Because we couldn’t achieve a more precise power delivery for our riders. That's why this is maybe the worst qualifying result for us. But then I have to apologize to the riders for our lack of acceleration performance today."
Maverick Viñales had suffered an extra problem, with a number of sensors failing on one of his bikes during practice. "Also for Maverick, today and on Friday as well, we have some sensor problems on our bike," Tsuya said. "We disturbed Maverick's concentration too much, so now still we are investigating how we can solve this problem for tomorrow."
"I just want to say sorry to our riders, to not [be able to] concentrate to go faster and to get a better result for qualifying. Also we have some technical problems with Maverick and are missing some performance now. So we are struggling and have to say sorry to the riders. Now we are working hard as ever to find the solution, so after this race we have a test in Misano, before Silverstone and also after Silverstone we have a test at Aragon to find a solution for these difficulties. But at the moment we will concentrate first of all for tomorrow to get a better result for our riders."
Close racing magnifies problems
After Rossi and Viñales had spoken to the media, I talked to Yamaha Motor Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis and Movistar Yamaha Team Director Maio Meregalli about the situation Yamaha find themselves in. Both men agreed that the closeness of the field made the problems with the M1 look much bigger than they are. "If you talk about last weekend, where we didn't make it to the podium, which was a disappointing result, but we were 2 seconds off the lead in the race. And we were leading for half the race," Jarvis pointed out.
The chassis and base setup of the bike is very strong, Jarvis said, as Rossi has repeatedly told the press. "This year with the chassis, the weight distribution, I feel very good, but now in the electronic side [Honda and Ducati] made a huge step, and this is the step that unfortunately with Yamaha we are not able to do," Rossi said. "For me this is the key. They have to understand which way to improve, because for me the rest of the bike is good."
That the bike is capable is clear from Yamaha's position in the championship standings. The two Movistar Yamaha riders are second and fourth in the title race, and Movistar Yamaha leads the team standings.
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