On a normal race weekend, you might see one or two minor updates in all of the garages collectively. Factories don't like to debut too many new parts at the same time, as there is not enough time to evaluate them effectively. And normally, you would test one part at a time and evaluate them separately, to try to understand what difference each specific part makes.
However, there was an official test here at Misano two weeks ago, and so teams had a chance to do the preliminary sifting ahead of the race. And that is why Valentino Rossi started FP1 with a new carbon-fiber swingarm on both of his Yamaha M1s, tested a new aerodynamic front wheel cover, and both he and Maverick Viñales had one bike each with the new double-barreled exhaust debuted at the test.
"It's positive, because it looks like that Yamaha is working stronger now and also working in the right direction," Rossi told us on Friday afternoon. "For me, from the end of 2016 to the Brno test, in reality everything we test is not clearly better than the old stuff. So technically speaking it was a very difficult period and in fact the gap to the other manufacturers increased. But now, from the beginning of the season something changed and have a lot of different people from Japanese especially but also Europe and it looks like now we start to see the effect."
There has been a major shake up in Yamaha's racing department back in Japan, with a lot of new names involved in the MotoGP project, as well as an expansion of the European side of the operation. A combination of being stuck in the middle of an era of Márquez domination, and constant public complaints from both factory riders about a lack of progress has spurred Yamaha into action, and for the first time in years, the Japanese factory is starting to get its feet again.
There was a clear split in the approach of the Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi spent all day using the carbon swingarms, and alternated between the new and the old exhaust, eventually favoring the new one. Maverick Viñales tried the new exhaust in the morning, before switching to the old one in the afternoon. Then tried the carbon swingarm in the afternoon, but setting his best lap and his fastest run on the old aluminum swingarm. Rossi was clearly working flat out on the future, Viñales preferring to be more conservative and gradual in approach.
Who was right? Maverick Viñales finished the day fastest, seven tenths faster than Valentino Rossi, and half a tenth faster than Petronas Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo. But there is more to racing than just a single day, so perhaps a few races down the road, Rossi could well be reaping the benefits while Viñales is struggling.
What do the updates do? I spoke to Maio Meregalli during FP2, and he explained that the carbon swingarm was aimed at giving a more precise feel on corner entry and better tire life, while the new exhaust gave a little bit more top end power and was a bit smoother off the bottom.
What was the riders' verdict? Valentino Rossi managed to avoid a direct question about where the improvements were, talking around the question rather than answering it. "The two days of tests after Silverstone were positive for us because we worked very hard, especially on the new stuff and at the end for me it was quite clear that the new stuff is better," he said. "So I decided to concentrate like this. But now the conditions are a little bit different because now the track has a lot less grip so we have to restart the work to try to set the bike for the weekend. But I think this is the way to improve and all the things I tried I like, more or less. It's not a huge difference but step-by-step. This is the way to improve."
Maverick Viñales was no more informative. "Well actually I think we need to do more laps to understand better what it does to the bike," the Spaniard said. "Anyway somehow I had a good feeling with the standard bike and I don’t want to change that feeling. We are very competitive. Already from the first lap. I don’t want to change that feeling because we are very competitive. From the first lap I could see myself among the first three places. We need to keep working but it seems here that with these hot conditions the bike was working quite well. That’s very positive for us."
Low grip and fast Yamahas?
Why are the Yamahas so competitive at a track which is supposed to be low grip? Normally, it is the Hondas which benefit from a lack of grip, but at Misano, there were four Yamahas inside the top five, Marc Márquez being the odd rider out. It seems that there are different ways a track can lack grip, and Misano was lacking it in a very specific way.
Danilo had an interesting theory explaining what was going on. "For me, [the Yamahas] have been fast all the test too," the factory Ducati rider explained. "The thing is that when we have a lot of grip, we are very, very fast, because we can brake harder and we can accelerate harder. Yamaha maybe is a little bit slower on the straights, but very, very fast into the corner."
That was where the difference was being made, Petrucci believed. "At the moment, we are missing some corner speed, and so we are trying to fix in other parts, we are trying to improve the bike in other parts, because in that part, we understood that we are not fast inside the corner. And Yamaha is very, very fast in that part, always. We cannot really enjoy or use the acceleration, because there is not so much traction. And carrying the speed inside the corner is the key to being faster. If you gain 2 km/h inside a 60 km/h corner then it's better than being 2 km/h faster at 300 km/h. You improve a lot of time inside a slow corner when you can carry the speed."
Finding the limit
Maverick Viñales was receptive to that theory. "I really don’t know because also in banking it’s very difficult for us," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "It’s very slippery. Last year the grip on the track was much better. I think we made a good improvement in the slow corners during the test. In the slow corners we are quite competitive now. We know in the fast corners the Yamaha is always very good. But in the slow corners we made an improvement. For sure in the corner speed and better turning."
Fabio Quartararo was particularly spectacular, nearly losing the front a number of times, including at Curvone, the terrifyingly fast Turn 11. That had been deliberate, Quartararo said. "Today I had many small moments with the front, and at the end the positive is that we feel that we are losing the front," the Petronas Yamaha rider explained. "It's not just really aggressive and I immediately crash. So today I was pushing to try to let's say brake really hard and try to feel the limit on the front. I felt it so that's something really great. We don’t have grip but I feel the limit."
Having that feedback and understanding is a huge advantage. Knowing where the limit is means that Quartararo can push hard, as he demonstrated with his pace. Quartararo and Viñales were the fastest of the pack, capable of running in the high 1'33s on used tires, where the rest of the field were in the 1'34s. It is of course only Friday, and the times on Friday don't mean all that much, but the young Frenchman could be on course for his maiden victory.
Petronas Yamaha SRT team manager Wilco Zeelenberg believes Quartararo is ready to start winning races, but does the Frenchman feel the same way? "It depends on the circumstance but I think that if we have a good position in qualifying, good pace, good start," he reflected. "I think to win the first race we need to be 100 percent of everything. Then, why not? I think we need to learn every time more about the rear tire, but I think we are quite fast. So I think we are not fully ready but, if we have the opportunity, almost."
Sat amid the four fast Yamahas sits Marc Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider very happy to be where he was. "Since Brno, all the Yamaha riders are riding in a very good way, but then on Sunday for some reason they are struggling more or less," Márquez said. "But here already in the test they were very very fast, and it looks like here Yamaha and Suzuki, for some reason they are working in a very good way, and in some types of corners, some types of circuits, they have very strong points. Of course they have weak points too."
More important than just Friday's result was the fact that he was consistently quick at every track, Márquez explained. "The most important thing is, yes, there are four Yamahas in the front, but we are in the middle. And this is the most important. Some circuits, there are four Ducatis in the front but we are in the middle, sometimes it's four Yamahas in the front but we are in the middle. This is the most important, trying to find this consistency."
In a nutshell, Márquez summarizes why he is leading the championship. When your bad days consist of finishing second, that suggests you are in good shape.
On his good days, Márquez has spent all year leading races, but this has a downside as well, he explained. "Today I followed a Suzuki, I followed a Yamaha … of course I'm not going out from the box looking for them, it's just that if they are there, I try to follow them," Márquez said. "Luckily for us this year, we lead a lot of laps in the race, and are always in the front. This is good, but on the other side, you cannot compare where your weak points or you strong points are with the other bikes. Now we are working a lot, the Japanese staff are starting to work a lot on the 2019 bike, to be more precise in the comments, to understand better the weak points, sometimes it's better to follow some bikes because then you can realize where you are faster and slower."
If you spend all your time leading the race, then you never get a chance to see what your bike does better than the others, or what your bike does worse. You only find out when the other bikes start catching you and beating you. But by that point, it is too late.
The real advantage which Márquez has is his confidence in qualifying directly for Q2. The Repsol Honda rider used just two sets of tires in two sessions, not bothering to fit new tires in pursuit of a fast time. That gives him more time to work on setup, and more laps to assess tire wear, rather than worrying about Q2. And that gives the reigning champion a head start on Saturday, and less work to do for the race.
But this is only Friday, and much can change between now and Sunday. We will get a much better view of whether the Yamahas are as competitive as they seem on Saturday afternoon in FP4. There is still plenty of time.
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