The day before the MotoGP test starts at Sepang is not usually so hectic. There have sometimes been launches, but as often as not, it has been a matter of catching up with people you have not seen for a long time, and talking to the few riders scheduled for press debriefs. It is a good way of easing yourself back into the MotoGP season.
Not so this year. Three launches in one day, two of them with the biggest news stories of the off season. The Suzuki launch was interesting; the 2020 livery for the Suzuki Ecstar team is rather fetching in silver and blue, and a homage to the first Grand Prix bike Suzuki ever raced, 60 years ago this year. For more on Suzuki's history, see this outstanding thread on Twitter by Mat Oxley, and if you don't already have his book Stealing Speed, a history of how Suzuki acquired two-stroke technology from the East German MZ factory, you need to buy yourself a copy now.
The Suzuki launch set ambitious targets for Alex Rins and Joan Mir. "Our idea is to have our two riders potentially between the top riders, maybe in a a group of five or six or whatever. But two of that group should be our riders, and then see what happens," Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio said.
Alex Rins was aiming for more than the two victories he scored in 2019, he told us. Joan Mir couched his ambitions in more nebulous terms. "My target is to start with the performance we had in the test and the last races. But I will try to have more luck if possible and work to get this luck," the Spaniard said. How do work to get more luck? There is an old sporting adage, variously attributed to a number of professional golfers, which says "the more I practice, the luckier I get". That is what Mir appears to be referring to.
Suzuki had a fairly long list of test items to be tried at the test. "For here we have some new specs, some new chassis, new swingarms, new parts in the engine," Mir said. "A couple of interesting things but we have to try them really well in these next three days." Davide Brivio confirmed this list of new parts. "We have quite a long list of stuff to test," the Suzuki team boss said. "We have to go through it. We have chassis, swingarm, electronics, the new fairing, many small items that we have to choose this month."
The biggest problem facing Suzuki was qualifying, however, and that was one area they were focusing on improving, Brivio said. "It’s not a big secret that sometimes we missed a good qualifying position. This also compromised the race. We find now Alex is one of the fastest riders. He can be fast at every race. Last year we probably struggled at two or three circuits but not so much. I would say 80-85% of circuits we could be competitive, potentially on the podium. But the starting position wasn’t good, it was difficult to recover places. We learned. I mean, Alex learned. We try to put this experience in place and do better."
That the Suzuki was fast was visible in the fastest laps at each race, Brivio said. "If you look at all of the races last year, the fastest lap of the race Alex was always in the top four. But sometimes qualifying was 16th, 14th or 12th. That’s probably the first step we need to do – to be more balanced between these two performances. We find he is very fast, very competitive in the race, almost everywhere. So we have many good points. The rider is fast, the bike is behaving good, we are very gentle on the tyres, the engine is not the most powerful but we can defend in most situations. But we have to use everything and put everything together and we can do it. We have to try to do it. That’s the job."
Staying the same?
Suzuki have so far been untouched by the intensity of MotoGP Silly Season. Despite reports in the Italian press, both Brivio and Alex Rins denied that the Spaniard had already signed a new contract. The plan was to get a deal done soon, around the start of the season, Brivio said. "We've been talking for a long time with them. We are quite relaxed from this point of view, for the moment! I mean we didn’t yet sign an agreement but it’s quite clear Alex wants to continue with Suzuki, Joan is happy to continue with Suzuki. We are very happy to keep them because also we started quite a clear project with them two years ago when we decided to grow up a rider as a rookie like Alex. Then once Alex became in our opinion strong we did the same with Joan."
One question Brivio addressed was the matter of a satellite team. It was still something Suzuki wanted to do, Brivio said, but it would not be possible in 2021. The earliest we could expect a Suzuki satellite team would be in 2022, when the new contract period for MotoGP starts. But that would need either an existing MotoGP team to switch to Suzuki, or Dorna to allow a new team to enter, potentially to take the place of a team like Avintia. There is still a long way to go before that can happen, however.
Staying very much the same
The big media interest was in the Yamaha camp. Both the Petronas Yamaha team and the Monster Energy Yamaha team launched their new liveries (and only a trained eye can spot the difference with the 2019 color scheme of either team). But the journalists hadn't gathered to admire the pretty mixture of blue, black, and turquoise on show in the garages. They were here to hear how Valentino Rossi and Fabio Quartararo reacted to the news that the Frenchman would be taking the place of the nine-time world champion in the factory Yamaha squad. As a bonus, we also got a chance to hear from Jorge Lorenzo.
The signing of Quartararo has placed Yamaha under intense pressure, not so much from a publicity standpoint, as from the point of view of producing the necessary equipment. That was clear from the fact that Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo were shown on different bikes at the Petronas launch. For a full explanation of exactly which spec each of the Yamaha riders will have at their disposal, see the exclusive subscriber section below. But suffice it to say that with Quartararo signed to the factory Yamaha team for 2021 and 2022, it made sense to put him on the same bike as the factory riders for the coming season.
Out with the old, in with the new
The choice for Yamaha had been a while coming, and been a difficult one, Yamaha managing director Lin Jarvis explained. "We’ve been busy due to the fact the rider’s market is very competitive today," the Yamaha Motor Racing boss told the press conference. "You have six manufacturers that are hungry to plan their future. Everyone is hungry to capture the riders of the future. We faced the fact that especially in January this year, the market was already getting hot."
That forced Yamaha to make a decision, but it was not one the Japanese factory could take without first asking Valentino Rossi what his plans were. "We had our young riders pushing us, looking for a sense of direction and decision. In making that move we firstly consulted with Valentino to understand his direction and way of thinking about beyond 2020. He quite rightly said he wanted to spend time to see the level of his performance before taking a decision."
That was time which Yamaha simply didn't have, because if they had waited, they would have faced losing either Maverick Viñales or Fabio Quartararo, or potentially even both. "We were in a situation where we’d have lost some of our young talent. We took an advanced booking for 2021 and ‘22 with two of the youngest, most talented riders in our camp to make sure we could rely on them for the following two seasons. That was the main background for that move."
It was a decision which Valentino Rossi had seen coming since October last year, he said. "I was not surprised sincerely," the Italian veteran said. "I already thought this from October of last year. I remember when I was in Thailand because the performance of Quartararo changed the situation."
In October 2019, after the race in Thailand, Rossi had given an indication he knew what was coming. When asked how important it would for Yamaha to keep Fabio Quartararo, Rossi was clear. "Yes, very important," the Italian said last October. "I expected that he can be very fast because he was always very fast from when he was young. But nobody expected like this, so he did something special and it's great, and I think next year everybody will try to take Quartararo on their bike." Ducati tried, but Yamaha managed to keep both Quartararo and Viñales.
Did this mean that Valentino Rossi was set to retire? "My target is to try to continue next year," Rossi told the press conference at Sepang. "But if results aren’t what I expect, it becomes difficult. For this reason when I speak to Yamaha I was not ready to decide. Unlike the last contract that I signed when I was sure and I signed before Qatar . I don’t want to continue like this. If it’s like this it’s better that I stop."
The problem was simply that MotoGP had become more competitive, and the effort required to compete at the highest level was getting higher all the time. It is easy to make those sort of sacrifices when you are young, Rossi said, but it gets older with age. And when you are young, you can afford to be patient, and wait out a dry spell for a year or two. Rossi knows he is making decisions on a year-to-year basis, and cannot afford to risk losing a year.
The second half of 2019 had made him realize he needed time to decide, Rossi explained. "In the second half of last year I struggled very much. I did some good races like Misano or Sepang and also in Austria. I didn’t arrive on the podium but I was competitive. But in other races I suffered a lot. Sincerely, for me, I have been racing for 25 years, and I’m not young any more, it became very heavy. To stay at the top level you need a big, big effort. You have one month of holiday and the rest, 85% of your life is between training with the bike, testing, training at the gym, PR events, everything. To continue you need to have the right motivation. For me the motivation comes from the result. If I can fight for podium and I can be competitive I have motivation."
The length of the calendar is starting to take its toll on everyone involved, and perhaps it is hastening the end of Valentino Rossi's career. I put this to Lin Jarvis, but he didn't believe that the fact that the calendar was now 20 races (and potentially 21 races in 2021) had figured into Rossi's decision. "You can always race for a single year," Jarvis said.
But perhaps the length of the calendar is a factor in not signing on for two more years. It might be a factor in Cal Crutchlow's decision to retire next year: Crutchlow wanted to have surgery to remove the metalwork from his ankle, but there is simply not enough time to recover from surgery, and for the bone to grow back and fill in all the holes left empty by the screws which held it all together.
Speaking of the calendar, a major shakeup of the MotoGP schedule is on the cards for the 2021 season. More on that, too, for subscribers below.
Maverick Viñales made it clear why he had chosen to stay with Yamaha, and highlighted a side of racing which tends to get glossed over. It had not been an easy decision to make, the Spaniard said. "For sure it was difficult, but I think that now we have created a strong team," Viñales told us. "Every member counts a lot for me, and this makes a lot of weight in my decision, my young team. We created a good atmosphere, which I didn't want to break, because I feel really good inside the team, and I enjoy racing, which is most important. And that was one of the biggest reasons why I stayed in Yamaha."
He had been open to explore options outside Ducati – Viñales had an offer from Ducati, but turned it down in favor of Yamaha – but the environment had been created which was crucial to his success, he said. "I said previously when I finished the championship, this year is a good opportunity for me. Because we have improved a lot, I have my team, and I am fully committed to be able to fight for the championship. I feel now that I'm ready. Physically, mentally, with the team, I think we can do it."
"I was not thinking too much about whether to leave or to stay, I was just focusing on myself, trying to be better," Viñales continued. "To be around the people who will help me improve, and I was not really thinking about moving or not moving teams. Finally, I was thinking, if Yamaha prefer this, I will move. If Yamaha don't prefer this, I will wait. But finally, somehow I felt good support from Yamaha and we went to the factory, we saw very positive things, and after we signed the contract. And now I have three opportunities to win the title, to try as hard as I can. So I'm going to take advantage of this, and we're going to be fully committed to do it."
Testing serves racing
The important thing was that Viñales was now in a position to dictate both development, and the main points to focus on during testing. There was little point trying to be quick over one lap, if it meant preparing the bikes to be ready for the race at Qatar. "For me, the most important thing is to prepare ourselves for the Qatar race," Viñales said. "Being the fastest now means nothing, it has zero meaning to be fast now. It's important to prepare ourselves and to give ourselves the maximum number of ways to be first. If there is no grip, maybe find a setting to be fast in this test when there is no grip. Or with a full tank, or without a full tank to prepare one lap. All these kinds of situations, we need to be ready, and for me, if I finish first, or fifth or sixth here, it doesn't mean anything."
That would be the focus until he felt he had all bases covered. "Until I feel we are doing a good job, to prepare well for the first race. And I think you will see that I will work really hard, especially for the first laps, which I think is the most important thing with our bike, because after lap ten, we have the rhythm to win the race. But always from lap one to lap ten, we always struggle a little bit. So we will try to improve that, and then we will concentrate on lap times. For sure, if I feel good, I will push, I will make a time attack and for sure I will try to stay in the top three. But if I feel we are still not ready, we want to concentrate on the race and try to improve those things. Because for many years we didn't focus so much, like last year, we didn't have the time to focus on the start. And it has been one of the crucial points this year, because in many races, if I can start in the front, I have the chance to win, because later, if you look at the timesheets, I always close the gap to the front. So that's the main point, to improve in that area. I will be happy if we can improve there."
Between the ears
In the end, it was the atmosphere in the team which had been decisive for Viñales. The fact that he had built a group of people around him he could work with, a feeling that Yamaha trusted him, believed in him, had faith in him to deliver results. He knew that he was expected to try to win a championship, but he took that as a positive encouragement, a sign that Yamaha believed that he could do it. It was pressure, but the kind of pressure which he could turn into positive motivation.
So much of motorcycle racing revolves around ideas and concepts which are regarded as stereotypically masculine. The idea that hard engineering and following a punishing training schedule was enough to succeed, the idea that going fast was something that takes balls, both metaphorically and, by inference, literally.
But the lesson of recent years is that such qualities which are regarded as male will only take you so far. With the gaps between bikes tighter than ever, the riders hungrier and fitter than ever, success is revolving ever more around less traditional character traits. Intelligence has always been the difference between success and failure at the very highest level, but we are also seeing how much the more touchy-feely side is starting to make the difference. It is about support structures, acceptance, emotional security.
Heart, as well as head
You can see this in garages up and down pit lane. Viñales only started to succeed in Yamaha once he had gathered the right group of people around him, and created the right atmosphere. Valentino Rossi has swapped his older crew chief for a much younger one in David Muñoz, in pursuit of a better feeling inside the box. The Petronas Yamaha team has been so successful because the atmosphere in the team has made everyone go the extra mile to succeed. Marc Márquez has his crew around him, with whom he spends most of his free time.
Conversely, bad feelings in the garage can create friction, and bring about failure. Although nobody doubted Ramon Forcada's ability – the veteran crew chief has amassed plenty of world titles, most recently with Jorge Lorenzo – the atmosphere between Viñales and him was always difficult, and Viñales' performance suffered as a result. Johann Zarco went from a team where he felt comfortable, to a team where his attitude to the bike rubbed everyone up the wrong way, and opened a rift that would never heal.
The most important six inches in racing in the old adage does not refer to the equipment which defines a rider's biological sex, but to the gray matter between their ears, the place where their hopes and fears, thoughts and emotions live. It takes stereotypically masculine traits to get to the top of motorcycle racing. But it takes stereotypically feminine traits – feelings, social skills, trust, commitment – to win it all.
- What each Yamaha rider will be riding in 2020, and how Yamaha decided who would get what
- The big calendar shakeup for 2021 and beyond
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