Yamaha have been punished for an infringement of the MotoGP technical rules at the opening race of the 2020 MotoGP season at Jerez, and at the same time, their riders have dodged a bullet. After the infringement was finally uncovered, the FIM Stewards decided to deduct points from Yamaha in the manufacturers championship, and the Monster Energy Yamaha and Petronas Yamaha SRT teams have had points taken away in the teams championship. But crucially for the 2020 MotoGP riders championship, no penalty was given to Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, or Franco Morbidelli. That means that the standings in what everyone regards as the most important championship, the riders championship, are unchanged.
Details in the press release from the FIM and Dorna are thin, but enough can be gleaned from the press release, from sources in the paddock, and from some of the stories which have been circulating in the paddock, such as these at The Race, at Motorsport.com, or at the Gazzetta Dello Sport. The punishment has been imposed because Yamaha illegally changed the valves used in their engines after they were homologated ahead of the Qatar MotoGP round, and before the first race at Jerez. The MotoGP race at Qatar ended up being canceled after it became impossible for the MotoGP teams and riders to return due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The sequence of events appears to have been as follows. Yamaha submitted their engine blueprint to MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge for homologation ahead of the scheduled Qatar race, as required by the MotoGP regulations. Engine homologation is typically done on the basis of design specs, while a sample engine is submitted to Danny Aldridge as a reference ahead of practice. It would be impractical for Aldridge and his staff to strip and document each engine that weekend, however, and so design blueprints are accepted as homologation documents.
Time to think
But in the nearly four month layoff between the Qatar test and the first race at Jerez, Yamaha changed the valves used in their engines, using a different spec to the ones documented in the homologation papers submitted to Danny Aldridge. This is a clear breach of the technical regulations, caused by what the FIM press release describes as "an internal oversight," which resulted in "Yamaha Motor Company fail[ing] to respect the protocol which requires them to obtain unanimous approval from MSMA for technical changes."
This meant that all four Yamaha riders lined up on the grid at Jerez 1 with illegal engines. But the different valves used proved not to be able to withstand the heat and load of the scorching temperatures and pace of the first round in Jerez. Maverick Viñales suffered an engine failure in FP3 of Jerez 1, and Valentino Rossi had an identical failure during the race.
That created huge problems for Yamaha. They were forced to fly in new engines from Japan for all four riders for the Andalusia round, or Jerez 2, while the engines used at Jerez 1 were all shelved. Whether that solved the problem for Yamaha is still unresolved, as Franco Morbidelli lost an engine during Jerez 2.
The infringement was only discovered much later. Yamaha had submitted a request to MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge to change the design of the valves, to allow the Jerez engines to be unsealed and have the valves replaced. Such a request has to be approved unanimously by the remaining MSMA members, however, and when the MSMA requested more details of the change, Yamaha withdrew their application.
This appears to have triggered an investigation, or at least sparked some interest. But it was not until Valencia that the FIM Stewards had a strong enough case to impose a penalty. Rumors were circulating in the paddock on Wednesday, and the punishment was announced on Thursday.
The engine usage charts give a hint of Yamaha's strategy. The Jerez 1 engines have been shelved since that first race, though they were bought out at the Styria MotoGP round at the Red Bull Ring, or Austria 2. They only made a brief appearance there, with Franco Morbidelli and Maverick Viñales using Jerez engines. That round didn't end well for Yamaha either, Morbidelli finishing fifteenth, and Viñales crashing out of the race when his brakes overheated and failed heading into Turn 1.
That these are the engines being punished is clear from the points being deducted from the teams: Maverick Viñales did not finish at Austria 2, and so scored no points. Neither Fabio Quartararo nor Valentino Rossi used their Jerez 1 engines in Austria, and so had no points deducted there. But Franco Morbidelli scored a solitary point for fifteenth, which was added to the 11 points for fifth in Jerez 1, and Fabio Quartararo's 25 points for the win to add up to 37 points, which were deducted from the team standings.
Hoist by their own petard
It is remarkable how Yamaha's decision to "fail to respect the protocol" to inform the other MSMA members about changing engine spec has backfired. They changed the valves for the first race at Jerez, which promptly failed, costing them engines. It was immediately obvious that measures were needed, and so they appear to have reverted to the original design, as homologated before Qatar. This was at least reliable.
However, it left the Yamaha riders with just 3 engines left to complete the season, or the remaining 13 races, where their rivals had 5 engines to last for those 13 races. In the case of Maverick Viñales, who was forced to use a second Jerez 1 spec engine after losing an engine during practice, it left him with just 2 engines for the rest of the 2020 season. To improve durability and ensure they make it to the end of the season without having to start from pit lane, Yamaha has reduced the maximum revs by 500 RPM.
So Morbidelli, Quartararo, Rossi, and Viñales have been racing with one hand tied behind their backs – or at least a few fingers taped inconveniently together – for the 2020 season. They have had to be sparing with track time, and juggle engines judiciously to manage. And with three races still to go this year, there is no guarantee they will be able to make it to the end without needing to use an extra engine and start a race from pit lane. With Quartararo, Viñales, and Morbidelli still in the hunt for the championship, that is not a risk they can afford to take.
Getting off scot-free
This may be the reason why the riders were spared having points deducted for infringing the technical rules. Yamaha have managed to inflict serious punishment on themselves and their riders, without the aid of the FIM Stewards. Had they stuck with their original design, it is entirely possible that they would not have had to decrease maximum revs, and give up top end at tracks like Brno and Austria, a commodity which was already in short supply for the Yamahas.
Had points been deducted from Quartararo, Viñales, and Morbidelli, it would have had a serious impact on the championship. The three Yamaha riders would have dropped from second, third, and fourth respectively to fifth, sixth, and fourth. Quartararo would have gone from trailing championship leader Joan Mir by 14 points to having a deficit of 39 points. Viñales would have gone from 19 to 39 points behind, and Morbidelli from a deficit of 25 to 37 points.
That would have benefited Andrea Dovizioso and Alex Rins. The Factory Ducati rider would have gone from fifth to second, his deficit reduced from 28 to 19 points, and Suzuki's Rins would have gone from sixth to third, though his gap of 32 points would not have changed, as he missed the Jerez race through injury. Dovizioso, however, would have been declared winner.
Will Suzuki or Ducati appeal and demand points be deducted from the Yamaha riders? For Suzuki, it seems unlikely – Japanese manufacturers tend to operate on a code of honor, and may feel that it would not be right to appeal. Ducati, on the other hand, have shown a determination to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law in search of an advantage. That remains pending.
However, it does set a rather dangerous precedent. In the modern MotoGP era, riders have neither knowledge nor, in most cases, understanding of the technical details of the bikes they are riding, and therefore cannot be held responsible for the spec of the bike underneath them. But it allows factories to get away with giving their riders an unfair advantage, while suffering in the teams and manufacturers championship only. Though those championships matter to manufacturers, the big marketing value lies in the rider championship. Should a Yamaha rider catch and beat Joan Mir in the 2020 championship, that title will be surrounded by question marks.
How was Yamaha's infringement not discovered earlier? When MotoGP bikes are scrutineered, they are generally only given an external check: weights are checked, seals are checked to see if they have been broken, and the bike is evaluated as to whether it complies with the rules. Engine internals are taken on trust, any changes visible if the seals are not intact.
The breach of the rules here took place between homologation and the race, and was only made possible by the long lay off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Normally, there isn't sufficient time to change parts between homologation and the first race. This time there was. And Yamaha have paid the price for violating the trust on which much of the cooperation between the MSMA members, and between manufacturers and MotoGP's technical scrutineering staff, is based. You would expect that they will face much greater scrutiny in the seasons to come.
The press release from the FIM Stewards appears below:
FIM MotoGP™ Stewards Notifications of Sanction: Yamaha Motor Company, Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP, Petronas Yamaha SRT
Thursday, 05 November 2020
Please find attached sanctions for Yamaha Motor Company, Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP and Petronas Yamaha SRT.
Due to an internal oversight, Yamaha Motor Company failed to respect the protocol which requires them to obtain unanimous approval from MSMA for technical changes.
For this reason, Yamaha Motor Company have had 50 World Championship Constructor points withdrawn. This is double the points earned whilst not respecting the protocol required for technical changes.
Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP have had 20 World Championship Team points withdrawn. This is the points earned whilst not respecting the protocol.
Petronas Yamaha SRT have had 37 World Championship Team points withdrawn. This is also the points earned whilst not respecting the protocol.
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