It has been such a bad day for Yamaha that I feel bound to start this report off with the highlight for the Japanese factory: Franco Morbidelli finished in the top three for both sessions of free practice on Friday at Valencia. He and Petronas teammate Fabio Quartararo are directly through to Q2, at least provisionally, dependent on the weather on Saturday morning. Garrett Gerloff, replacing Valentino Rossi in the Monster Energy Yamaha team on Friday, was very impressive, getting up to speed quickly in very difficult conditions, despite not having any experience of either MotoGP bikes, Michelin MotoGP tires, or the Ricardo Tormo Circuit at Valencia. And Valentino Rossi's second PCR test came back negative, meaning he can take over from Gerloff again from Saturday morning.
That was the good news. The bad news was pretty terrible, however, bad enough that it made even a cynical old hack like me feel sorry for Yamaha's PR staff. After yesterday's penalty for violating the engine homologation procedure, the reliability issues resulting from trying to race an entire season using just 40% of the original engine allocation, two engines out of five, finally caught up with Maverick Viñales. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider, currently 19 points down on championship leader Joan Mir, has been forced to use a sixth engine during practice, incurring penalty for infringing the engine durability rules. On Sunday, Viñales will have to start the Grand Prix of Europe at Valencia from pit lane.
As if that were not bad enough, later this afternoon we learned that a key member of Viñales' crew had tested positive for Covid-19, and was forced to self isolate. Four other members of the Monster Energy Yamaha team, including team manager Maio Meregalli, were determined to have been at risk after contact with the infected team member, and although they tested negative, have also gone into quarantine for ten days until Monday, November 16th, the day after the second round at Valencia.
It never rains but it pours
So in the space of two days, Yamaha have lost 50 points in the constructors championship, 37 and 20 points in the team championship for Petronas Yamaha and the factory Monster Energy Yamaha teams respectively, had one of their riders vying for the championship start Sunday's race from pit lane, and temporarily lost a large part of their staff to the coronavirus. We have had a deluge of press releases from Yamaha, and most of them have been filled with bad news.
On the other hand, if you are going to take a penalty for using an extra engine, then Valencia is the best track to do it at. Pit lane exit is close to the first corner, with a straight drag from the exit into Turn 1. Viñales will have to wait for 5 seconds after the pit lane exit light turns green, which happens after the last rider off the grid passes pit lane exit. When Pol Espargaro had to start from pit lane at Valencia for the same engine infraction back in 2017, he lost 10 seconds on the first lap. If Viñales had been forced to start from pit lane at Aragon or Le Mans, he probably would have lost double that.
"From Aragon I'm running out of engines, so we were managing the best we can," Viñales told us on Friday. "In the second race I only had one engine with a lot of mileage. So we just did a few laps. We managed the best we can because we made the whole season with two engines until now. The other engine was broken a little bit and it was not safe to run with the third engine because maybe I can get oil on the track and then the riders can have a big crash."
Costs and benefits
It hadn't been an easy decision, however. "Still yesterday we were discussing if to risk ourselves to go with the number 5 engine, doing just a few laps in practice and taking a risk for the races and hoping that it won't stop the bike," Viñales said. "But for me it's too risky, we are too far."
The problem, he explained, is that a friskier new engine would not solve the problems they are having. "I have a fresh engine, but it doesn't matter because finally the speed is the same," Viñales said. "But our problem is not that, our problem is we are not on the level. I don’t know why, after Misano we lost everything. We don't find grip, it's very difficult to ride the bike."
That was why it made no sense to try to eke more miles out of the old engine. They need the track time to try to find solutions to their problems, Viñales said. "If you were first with 20 points you can do that, but the case is that we don’t have the setting, the bike is not working and then we have to face it with old engines. So it was no meaning. We needed to put a new one."
Viñales tried to gloss over the damage starting from pit lane will likely do to his championship, but his frustration still came through. "You can imagine the feeling I have," he said. "Every year we are throwing away the opportunity to win the title by mistakes. So for sure my feeling is very bad, but I have a perfect situation at home, I have a perfect life, I don’t want to be angry any more. I want to be happy. So if I don’t have the chance this year, I will have the chance next one or the next one. Still I have two more years with Yamaha and we can do something great."
The longer view
Viñales, and the other Yamaha riders, have reason to feel some frustration. More details came to light about the course of events which led to the penalties being imposed against Yamaha, and left the riders struggling to manage with their engines. I laid out the main details in this story about the penalties yesterday, but a few further points were cleared up on Friday, after various figures outside of Yamaha, including Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio and Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti briefed the media.
What we learned was that Yamaha had switched valve suppliers for the engines raced at Jerez, and though the valves were externally the same – same physical dimensions, same weight, same finish and treatment – the composition of the material used to produce the valves was different.
This was the detail which Yamaha had refused to provide to the MSMA at Austria, when they withdrew their request to replace the valves in the engines used at Jerez. When the valves were initially examined by MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge, they were found to be identical. But the stubbornness with which Yamaha studiously avoided using those Jerez engines raised suspicions among the other five MotoGP factories. That, combined with Yamaha's statements at MSMA meetings gave them food for thought.
Eventually, an investigation was instigated, and the FIM sent the valves off for to a leading Italian university for physical testing. There it was determined that the composition of the titanium valves differed between the Jerez engines and the samples offered for homologation ahead of the canceled Qatar race. That was what triggered the penalty.
The MSMA were consulted on the penalty, and an agreement was reached. At minimum, the other five MSMA members insisted, Yamaha would have to lose their team and constructors points, as it was especially the manufacturers who had been disadvantaged by Yamaha's infraction. Yamaha had failed to notify the MSMA and request permission, and so it was as a manufacturer that they should be punished. If that condition was met, there would be no appeal.
The other factories have good reasons for not wanting to appeal. First and foremost, they did not want to drag what is an already troubled season out beyond the final round at Portimao. Any appeal would take time, to gather evidence and to hold hearings at the FIM CDI, the International Disciplinary Court. If the matter hadn't been settled by Portimao, it would leave an unsatisfying end to the championship, the question of the title left hanging until after the case had been heard.
At first glance, Suzuki would be the team with the most to gain by appealing against the punishment, and demanding that the three Yamaha riders who scored points at Jerez and Austria 2 have those points deducted. But team boss Davide Brivio pointed out that Suzuki had more to gain by not appealing those points.
His reasoning is as follows: if Suzuki appealed the punishment, and Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Franco Morbidelli had points deducted, then it would detract from any championship win by Joan Mir. Critics could point to the fact that Mir had won in part because the Yamaha riders had had points taken off them.
Mir and Suzuki have far more to gain by not appealing against the penalties, Brivio reasoned. If Joan Mir won the title and beat the Yamahas, then the title would have been won despite Yamaha having broken the rules. If Mir didn't win the championship, and it was won by a Yamaha rider instead, then the valve affair would cast a pall over their championship.
Were Fabio Quartararo to win the 2020 title, media and fans would forever append an asterisk to it, as the title won in the year when Yamaha broke the rules. If Mir wins the championship on a Suzuki, then Yamaha's rule breaking lends the title extra weight. For Suzuki, the situation is a win-win.
Carefully chosen words
Riders tend to see the situation a little differently, of course, though most were extremely circumspect in their comments. Many just flat refused to comment, or had press officers inform the media before the debriefs started that their riders would not be answering questions on the subject.
Joan Mir, the rider arguably most affected by this all, fell into the former camp. "About the penalty, I don’t want to make any opinion about that," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. It fell into a broader pattern of controversial decisions by the FIM Stewards that were difficult to understand, he pointed out. But not penalizing the riders gave Mir a chance to win the title fair and square. "The only thing I want to say is If I make a good end of championship - you know what this means - I want to do it with everybody on track. I didn’t want to win this championship with all these things. I prefer this. I want all the rivals on track."
Andrea Dovizioso had a lot to gain from a Yamaha rider penalty, but like Joan Mir, refrained from too much comment. "I don’t want to say too much. I would like to understand a bit more," the factory Ducati rider said. "It’s very strange. I don’t understand. But I want to be more involved about that and understand what happened because it’s a bit strange. It's just I want to understand a bit more from Ducati what happened. Because nobody spoke to me."
Alex Márquez, a rider on the outside of the dispute, was a great deal more open about the penalties, and his dissatisfaction with them. "When you cheat, you need to accept and Yamaha accepted and they said they cheated, and they were with the MSMA," the Repsol Honda rider said.
His main objection was that the MotoGP championship should be a role model, example for others to follow. "You know, we are the World Championship, MotoGP, everybody is looking at us," Márquez told the media. "We try to be the reference for the young riders, for young kids and we try to be an example with everything we do here. I think this is not the best example for everybody."
Just taking points away in the constructors championship was not enough, Márquez argued. "For me it's ridiculous because in the end the constructors, maybe next year everybody will remember who won that title this year but in two years they will forget. The most important thing here is to win the rider’s world title, and for me it's not a fair penalty for Yamaha. They also benefited in Jerez. It's a ridiculous penalty in my opinion."
Beyond the Yamaha valve controversy, the action on the track, while thrilling, was fairly meaningless. A wet morning and a drying afternoon meant that times set will have no bearing for qualifying, if FP3 is as dry as is forecast. And the track was never dry enough to able to assess race pace.
Team America, WorldSBK
The riders did come away impressed with Garrett Gerloff, however, the American rider filling in for Valentino Rossi on Friday, while the Italian awaited the results of a second PCR test for Covid-19, to see if he would be able to take over his bike again for the start of FP3 on Saturday.
"Really good," Jack Miller said. "Really good. Me and [rider assistant] Tom were in there laughing, because he was having a dig, you know. It's really good to watch, it's great to see another American. I'm a big fan of Garrett's, and to see him jump straight on it, a lesser man would have been daunted, but he jumped straight in, in the worst of conditions, and he did well. And he didn't make any mistakes, he just did his own thing, he did really well, I think. Massive boots to fill when you're replacing someone like Rossi, and never ridden one of these GP bikes, big hats off to him."
His first year in the WorldSBK series had taught him a few important lessons which had helped him on Yamaha's MotoGP machine, Gerloff told us. "At the end it’s all the details that makes the biggest difference. That's what I have learned this year in WSBK, we have found small places to improve but over the whole race distance it makes a huge difference. So for me to feel something like this and to know it's giving me this much here, here and here, it makes a lot of difference after a full lap."
Conditions had conspired against him when it came to finding the limits of the bike, Gerloff explained. "I felt like there was still a bit of margin. The only place where I felt like I was on the limit is when we had to cross over the wet patches in the track, and for sure I had a couple of moments when I was doing that. But as far as, in general, when I was in a dry area of the track, I felt like there was still quite a bit of margin, and I was just trying to work into it little by little. For sure the conditions were not ideal. It would have been nice to have two session in the same conditions, so if there was rain in the morning, it would have been nice to also have it in the afternoon, just to get a better feeling for everything. But to go from rain to mostly dry, it felt like I was riding two different bikes. "
From Saturday, Gerloff hands the bike back to its original rider, Valentino Rossi returning to action after an enforced layoff. But Gerloff holds out hope of a second chance at some point in the future. "I know that I would definitely enjoy to ride the M1 again," the American said. "So I will have my fingers crossed that maybe they could use my help in the future. I really enjoyed the experience, I will never forget it and for sure this is where I want to be one day, I want to be in MotoGP, and I feel like I can do it. So it would be nice to have another opportunity."
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