The 2020 MotoGP season was something of a schizophrenic affair for Yamaha. On the one hand, a Yamaha won 7 of the 14 MotoGP races last year, with Franco Morbidelli finishing second in the riders' championship, Yamaha finishing second in the constructors' championship, and the Petronas Yamaha SRT team ending second in the teams' standings.
On the other hand, Yamaha's most successful rider was in a satellite team on a 2019-spec bike. Of the 7 Yamaha victories last year, the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team had just a single one. Morbidelli took 5 podiums on the 2019 M1, while Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Fabio Quartararo scored just 7 podiums combined. The first factory Yamaha in the championship – Maverick Viñales – finished in 6th, behind the Suzukis, a Ducati, a KTM, and Morbidelli on the 2019 M1.
There was the valve saga which saw Yamaha have points deducted in the constructors' championship for using non-homologated parts – switching valves between suppliers, and thereby breaking the homologation rules. And there were the brake issues at the Red Bull Ring, where the Yamaha riders insisted on using the older, smaller Brembo calipers which suffered overheating and even brake failure in the case of Viñales.
Was 2020 a good year for Yamaha? Yes. And no. Most of all, it was an inconsistent year, with the M1 (especially in factory guise) either at the front or struggling to score points. The 2020 Yamaha M1 showed lots of promise. But it also had some serious, and painfully obvious, flaws.
What does 2020 portend for 2021? With engine development frozen for the coming season, finding significantly more horsepower looks like an uphill task. But the engine freeze also means that at least Yamaha know their horsepower deficit will not get worse, Yamaha Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis said at the launch of the Monster Energy Yamaha team's 2021 campaign.
"In terms of the performance level, in terms of pure horsepower, we know that we have a deficit to our competitors, so this will remain the same," Jarvis said. "But one of the advantages of this engine freeze situation is that the situation stays the same. If everybody was allowed to develop the engine, you could develop more horsepower. But maybe your your competitors can develop even more horsepower. So in this situation, I think it's fairly predictable how our performance will be, and let's see."
"Engine development is frozen, but it's just one element of the bike," Takahiro Sumi, Yamaha's MotoGP Project Leader said. "All other areas are open to development." Yamaha would use the parts not subject to homologation – exhaust, airbox, electronics – to try to improve engine performance.
Only KTM and Aprilia will have new engines for 2021, limiting the steps Yamaha's rivals can make. That gave Jarvis confidence, the Yamaha MD said. " I think we'll do fine. We won 7 races without having the same horsepower as our competitors, so I think we can do the same again."
Yamaha ran into problems at the very first race in 2020. At the Jerez round, both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales suffered engine failures, which would later be traced an issue with the valves used. The extreme heat of Jerez in July, coupled with a manufacturing process which created problems with durability, meant that the valves had to be swapped for items from the original supplier.
It later transpired that the Jerez valves were illegal under the homologation rules, as the valves from the original supplier were the ones they had homologated at the canceled Qatar round at the start of the season. Yamaha were later punished for that breach of the rules.
Will Yamaha face a similar problem, now that the engine homologation is frozen? Fortunately for them, the original supplier was able to produce sufficient valves for Yamaha for the 2021 season. "We were plagued by technical problems last year which showed up at the very first race of the season, even before the first race, and that was a problem for us to deal with," Lin Jarvis. "But fortunately for us, the valves in the engines that were homologated and the valves that we're going to be running in the engines this year are the good ones. So we're fortunate in that sense that we start the year with the valves that we know have no technical defect."
The sudden need to manage 13 races with just three – or in the case of Franco Morbidelli, two – engines had been extremely stressful, but also extraordinarily educational. Yamaha engineers and crew chiefs learned some very valuable lessons from having to cope with a reduced engine supply. Yamaha learned a lot about the durability of the engine, and how to minimize stress and wear on the engine using electronics and engine management systems.
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