Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - ‘He was already world champion!’

MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.


‘He was already world champion!’

Maverick Viñales started this season as MotoGP title favourite. But he’s not won a race since May. What went wrong?

It’s been a strange year for Maverick Viñales. He has lived his first season in the shadow of the sport’s brightest sun – Valentino Rossi – and has become a shadow of his former self.

Since Qatar his gait has changed entirely, so much so that he looks a different man. Back in March he was all relaxed smiles, now he looks worried, haunted, defeated.

And with good reason. Preseason was a dream: Viñales and his Yamaha YZR-M1 topped all three tests, then he comfortably won the first race in Qatar and ran away with round two in Argentina. “He was already world champion!” recalls Marc Marquez, who had amassed just one quarter of Viñales’ points haul after the first two races.

But that’s when the nightmare began. Viñales crashed out at COTA. “I don’t know what happened, I did nothing wrong… I’m pissed off, because when you crash like this it’s not normal. You get confused.”

The confusion would only get worse. At Jerez, he slithered around in sixth place, 24 seconds behind the winner.

Normal service was resumed at Le Mans, where he won for the third time; except that this wasn’t normal service. A few weeks later at Barcelona he was 10th and then he crashed out at Assen. He hasn’t won a race since Le Mans.

At Barcelona, his M1 and the Michelins hated each other, so that every session he would shuffle into his garage, shaking his head in bewilderment.

“We’ve modified the bike a lot: more weight on the front, more weight on the rear, but the problem remains the same,” he said. “I have wheelspin all the time. The front feels okay but the rear is terrible. The bike isn’t turning and it’s moving a lot. I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been on a bike with no feeling.”

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

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Total votes: 82
Total votes: 128

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Ultimately Yamaha lost the rider's title by spending too many resources over Rossi's struggles, instead of going all in behind Maverick. They sacrificed the chances of their leading and most competitive rider in exchange for 1 win, sporadic podiums and consecutive humbling weekends. Zarco's end of season form only adds salt to the wound as it seems Yamaha have advanced very little, or nothing at all, after tremendous development wotk. And they might have also done damage to their relationship with Maverick, but for now that is something which can only be speculated instead of determined.

Sometimes it seems as if Yamaha are held hostage by Rossi. In 2015 his Sepang meltdown meant they could not even celebrate titles on what should have been a banner year. Then in 2016 they lost Lorenzo to Ducati while also letting the rider's title fall on Marquez's lap. Now they have made nothing of a very strong start to the season and seemed flummoxed with bike development. Rossi's grit at Phillip Island made it also very clear he did not spare a single thought on whatever title chances Maverick still had.

Come to think of it, the race at Phillip Island race was a perfect micro-cosmic example of what has been going on. Yamaha riders going at each other's throats with no regards to title battles or strategy, Marquez running away and winning.

Maybe they'll get it right in 2018.

Total votes: 169

They have not been a race team for many years. It's a glorified marketing department existing solely to sell Yamaha motorcyles.

Total votes: 121

MV knew what he was doing and I'm not certain we have seen sufficient evidence of that.  When the tyre changed he was lost; in the past a rider who could understand what needed to be subseqently modified on the bike or their own style improved while those who were a one trick pony (and no I'm not saying MV is one of these) just looked silly.

Think about this, Yamaha started with the seasons favourite as well as a stupidly proven adaptable rider in their factory team. After the tyres were changed neither looked like being a regular threat.  To me this means there is something fundamentally wrong that only riders like MM or the retired Stoner could ride around.

I'm not a big fan of 46 but he has a very impressive track record and particulary for being involved with bikes that come out as being rideable by more than one person.  As he matures I strongly suspect this talent improves rather than diminishes and compared to his frequent criticisms of JL in the past I think he has been very restrained in commenting/critisising MV.

So quick summary, in my opinion the riders styles/techniques are very different to each other and this is not helping a basic problem they inherited through no fault of their own.

Total votes: 126

What resources and effort did they put into Rossi and by doing so ignore Vinales?

Vinales crashed out of COTA and Assen, he struggled at Jerez and Barcelona (as did the other 2017 bike), this all occured before the chassis changes/evolution. The bike has been very poor in the wet under Rossi who in the past you'd usually say he'd have a good chance should the rain come and it's been no different to Vinales. As far as I'm aware none of the pre-season tests were wet.

I see very little evidence to suggest that Yamaha and/or Rossi have sabotaged Vinales effort in 2017. Vinales is a very strong character, if he felt Yamaha went against him, I have no doubt he would be outspoken. It's not a riders job or responsibility to be chummy with their team mates, but Vinales and Rossi both seem pretty content with one another from what I've witnessed.

I also find the comments regarding Rossi's riding in Philip Island hard to agree with, he's already said that if the championship is close he would consider helping, the championship wasn't close and coupled with being in a 6(?) bike melee in Philip Island, Rossi would have had very little control over who finished where in that group... he could have easily ended up 6th with Vinales 5th if he had tried to hold people up, etc. It was probably the safer, more sensible option in my opinion to ride his own race and do nothing unpredictable.

Total votes: 120

... you're overlooking that until a few races ago, Rossi was himself competing for the title. Why would he (or anyone else in similar circumstances) make way for a young gun. Rossi is running out of time. To me he looks like he could still just pull off another title if the stars align, but no longer do it on pure ability. He'll need lady luck on board throughout the season and ill fortune to befall his rivals. He'll also need the bike to be best for him and no-one else. On the other hand, at 22 years of age, MV probably has a decade ahead in which to win titles. Over the course of time Yamaha will almost certainly regain their mojo and, provided he sticks around, Maverick will get his time.

As for the politics and influence; the guy has been the most successful rider they've ever had, both in terms of race performance and marketing. He is usually only a fraction behind MV on pace and sometimes ahead of him. We're not talking about a has been here. If I was Lin Jarvis (and he's no fool) Rossi would have my ear until Vinales showed me that he can get substantially more out of the bike than VR. And that day doesn't yet seem to have come. Though it surely will.

Total votes: 136

Seems from the article the main down turning point for Maverick was the change of front tyre spec..
Nothing to do with Rossi wrestling for control or Yamaha backing either one alone.
(Although he was one of many that voted for the different tyre.)

Total votes: 104

The move to Michelins was an obvious blow to Honda, their bike so developed towards smashing the stiff Bstone front and grabbing everything the braking zone could proffer. They got something very wrong in 2015, and it wasn't until midway of 2016 that they started to have a nominally ok bike. Now we can see someone like Crutchlow doing the business well with it. A full season and a half of utter shite that bike!

The Yamaha engineers had their turn for 2017. But in preseason it was not apparent. The rear end sucks. Traction sucks. In most conditions. Zarco illuminates well the performance gap between the two bikes. Yes, he is riding REALLY well, and Tech3 is doing a great job, but it is a much better package.

I don't see it as being about Rossi so much, the Yamaha development mis-step. He is a "conventional" style of rider, it is Lorenzo that skewed the bike towards an atypical 250 style. They just got it wrong. Badly.

Both Yamaha and Honda have gotten quite a setback in the electronics department. Their previous strength was over relied upon, the championship electronics leave them with a struggle. And struggle they have been - attempts to get power down to take advantage of the Michelin rear tire grip bias have been a glaring failure.

Vinales managed to squeeze every bit of performance and more out of the "conventional handling" Suzuki. And, strangely, this Yamaha in preseason conditions and level of demand on the bike to perform.

I question Yanaha's structure of only 2 factory bikes on the grid. While I am sure Zarco has enjoyed his 2016 ish mishmash bike this season, I highly recommend that they get him a full factory one. 3x the development could mean quicker gains. The rationale against it must seem decreasingly relevant.

Ducati sure got the electronics best when we got unified. And the aero. This is what adjusting to a leveled playing field looks like. Yamaha will get it back on track, but everyone else is moving forward too. Ducati and Dovisioso have had a real go at a title. The venerable Maverick Vinales and Factory Yamaha have not. Interesting times indeed.

Total votes: 118

All too obvious what the combination of a bad RC213V and Márquez's results say about his talent and skill. smiley

As for Ducati getting the electronics the best, they pulled a fast one by getting Dorna to choose what Ducati was already using as the spec software/ECU.

Total votes: 121

Agreed, but - Ducati did something the opposite of sneaky re that. It got them a jump primarily for the outset in the adaptation stage. It isn't a magic fit for their bike to the exclusion of competitors, and is a lesser functioning package than they ran previously too. The Gigi bike had a lot more going for it than just an advantage w the electronics. The Michelins even made the pre-Gigi bike's front end problem better. A bunch has been going on.

^Dunno who gave you one star Oink, not me and I gave up pondering them a while back. Good comment.

P.S. DOVISIOSO AND DUCATI ARE CHAMPIONS whether they are second or first Sunday. They have done a heroic triumphant performance. Both arrived with less an arsenal than what we know Honda and Marquez have.

#4 in #2 is #1 in my book.
;)

Total votes: 132

its very shallow to blame Rossi for Vinales's 2017 woes. Vinales's team has a wealth of experience with the M1, he smashed everyone in the pre-season and won the first two races fairly easily.

They had a choice to stick with the 2017 frame, they had both options Yamaha seemed to be doing all they could, Rossi was not holding a gun to their head. Rossi was however very right about the 2017 M1 in the pre-season. As soon as they rocked up to the tricky Europeon rounds the wheels fell off and were being beaten by both of the 2016 sat bikes. Can't blame Rossi for this-its was the same bike Vinales was easily dominating in the pre-season.

I think the 2017 M1's problems were enormous from the start and it wasn't the frame, problems being hidden by grippy tracks in testing and opening rounds. Rossi knew the bike was heading for disaster-we can at least credit him for knowing a little about the M1. In Yamaha's push to improve acceleration and tyre life, the 2017 engine has some serious flaws which couldn't be controlled by the spec electronics. This is why the change in frame has done nothing in wet or dry. Unfortunately a product of the silly engine rule, which is so ridiculous and irrelevant now anyway.

And I do believe that Honda and Marquez were also pushing very hard for the new front tyre, didn't their season turn around when Michelin changed the allocation... 

Total votes: 128

I was really curious to read this piece by Mat, hoping to find some answers. Instead, i find it rather poor and misleading. If it's an opinion piece, well,  then he should just say in clear words what he hints at in the whole article:  MV is the innocent talented casualty of the "bad" powerful old guy on the other side of the garage. If, on the other hand, this is an article, then I would like to see more infos relating to the very bad season of Yamaha.

instead, we read some not so subtle, nor veiled, comment that every change was imposed upon Vinales from the powerful teammate... which in turn feeds the utter lunatic crap posted by some readers on Motorsport who seem to have one purpose in life: debase anything remotely yellow with a vengeance. I've stopped reading because it often borders the ridiculous.

Back to the content of the piece: i disagree that Mav lost it with the introduction of the "70" Michelin. Yes, he did not like it and prefered the "06" like a couple of other riders, but his problems, rather Yamaha's problems, came into full light since Jerez. If i remember correctly, the tech 3 guys (or at least Zarco) were way ahead of both Yamaha team. And the same in Barcelona again... I think that even a child would agree that the same bike who fared so well in preseason testing with MV, was not this good after all when facing poor grip conditions... Well before a new tyre was introduced and way before the italian side of the garage stepped in. Moreover no chassis was "imposed" upon MV, he could choose, and guess what? each time he chose the one favored by the teammate...

I would have liked to read some technical explanations about the debacle : how and why they struggle with the electronics. a comparison with the 2016 bike (no matter how good Zarco is, there is no way he can possibily give 20 or more seconds to both guys of the official team), why they are going backwards compared to Ducati and Honda, ....

but no, just some basic comment on how Yamaha must find a solution, and Maverick depicted as almost a prisoner in hostile territory... I'm very disappointed.

Total votes: 138

around MV, the front tyre malarkey, and the angst over Yamaha taking onboard more of Rossi's feedback.

From Mat's direct quotes above MV seemed completely lost once the 2017 M1 proved to be a finicky one trick pony.

From MV as early as COTA, on his preferred tyre and chassis: "I don't know what happened, I did nothing wrong...I'm pissed off, because when you crash like this it's not normal.  You get confused."

At Catalunya: "We've modified the bike a lot: more weight on the front, more weight on the rear, but the problem remains the same."  I have wheelspin all the time.  The front feels okay but the rear is terrible.  The bike isn't turning and its moving alot.  I don't know what to say.  I've never been on a bike with no feeling."

At Assen: "the strangest crash of my life".

At sepang: 38s off the pace in 9th "We have no feeling in wet, the bike no traction"

All I would ask is that people stop and think: how is this remotely helpful to Lin Jarvis/Yamaha?  What else could they do but turn to the old dog and start writing stuff down?

Note, that from the above MV doesn't seem to have a problem with the front tyre per se, I have the feeling that he has a problem with his rivals being faster on it rather than himself being slower. 

But the front tyre stuff is just a tangent, all the issues with the M1 seem to revolve around rear tyre grip and rear tyre wear.

If Jarvis/Yamaha are smart they'll put eveything 2017 related in the crusher and start with the 2016 bike as the base...and if Tech 3 are smart they'll be supervising Jarvis at the time.

 

Total votes: 124

No fan of Rossi, but to blame him for Vinales poor second half of the season is a stretch. You only need to look at MMs body language, and hear him speak to realize he has no where enough mental fortitude to win the championship (yet). He has the riding skill, so the other things he needs, he can develop with the right coach.

Total votes: 115

This is an area where I take my hat off to Marquez. I don't have a particularly high opinion of him but in the face of adversity he digs very deep indeed. More so than any other top 4 or 5 rider I've watched over the past 20 odd years, and some of those were awe-inspiring.

I suspect that even in top echelon motorcycle racing, it's still all about 10% talent and 90% blood sweat and tears.... in other words, grit.

Total votes: 129