Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Story by David Booth//
December 15 2020

Joan Mir is the 2020 MotoGP world champion, Suzuki’s first since 2000, when Kenny Roberts Junior followed Senior’s footsteps to become MotoGP’s only father/son world champions. And, just so you know it wasn’t a fluke, it looks like (God and Alex Rins willing) the gang from Hammamatsu will also win the team and constructor’s championships as well. That’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that was, until three years ago, perennial backmarkers. Congratulations, Suzuki!

But – and let us not forget this – this was as much about Yamaha losing a championship as Suzuki winning it. Indeed, at the beginning of the season, a Yamaha triumph seemed almost inevitable. Their main obstacle, Marc Marquez, was out of the running since crashing out spectacularly during the first race. His heir apparent, Fabio Quartararo, had been elevated to the factory Yamaha squad. And Yamahas – in the hands of Quartararo, Maverick Vinales and, occasionally, Franco Morbidelli – literally tore up preseason testing. Throw in an aging but still dangerous Valentino Rossi and you had motorcycle racing’s “dream team.”
Nor did Yamaha’s preseason turn of speed seem illusory, said domination extending through the first few races early in the calendar. Quartararo won the first two races going away, Vinales backing him with a couple of solid runner-up podiums. Even Morbidelli was higher up the rankings than before. A Yamaha sweep seemed inevitable.

Then, it all went away. Quartararo’s pace dropped off, Vinales did his usual disappearing act and Yamaha’s M1 engine valves were acting like they were made of Plasticine, two engines failing in the first two races. By the race in Austria, not only was the team obviously painfully slow in a straight line, but they were also going to run out of engines before the end of the year. To paraphrase an age-old adage: what the M1 lacked in speed, it more than made up in fragility. Worse yet, the company from Iwata also had flouted homologation rules – they switched valve manufacturers midseason – just to achieve that seemingly pitiful level of speed.

And the Yamahas really were dreadfully slow. No one can keep up with Ducati’s rocket ship in a straight line, but at least Honda – and now Suzuki and KTM – can stay in their draft. The M1 can’t even do that. Various excuses have been proffered, from Yamaha’s preference for tractability – although not one rider has complained that Duke’s GP 20 is “peaky” – to the oft-repeated red herring that an inline four is inherently disadvantaged versus the V4s. (I think Suzuki’s latest GSX-RR pretty much puts paid to that myth.) Truth be told, it’s doubtful that the M1 could keep up with a WSBK Ducati superbike in straight line.
“But, but, but,” I hear you sputtering, Yamaha won the most races this year – seven as this column was going to press. Not even championship leader Suzuki has managed more than two.

Unfortunately, those wins masked huge deficiencies in Yamaha’s MotoGP development program. Yes, Yamaha riders stood atop the podium more than anyone else this year. But they could only do so in absolutely perfect situations. If the track was seriously twisty with no long front straights – highlighting the M1’s advantage in edge grip while limiting the damage of its lack of power – the team could turn a fast lap. And, were they on the front row at the start line and “hole-shotted” away quickly, the race was theirs to lose.

But said superiority evaporated in pretty much any other situation. If the track surface was abrasive, then all their famed cornering speed chewed up tires and they’d fade like the Toronto Maple Leafs on a playoff run. If the Yamaha riders didn’t get out front right away, they couldn’t generate the speed to overtake. And, if they did get stuck midpack, either they overheated the front tire – those massive pressure spikes – or they crashed as the riders attempted to compensate too much on corner entry for what their engines lacked in exit acceleration.

Most problematic is that these issues are not new. Rossi has been calling for more motor for years now. Ditto Vinales and now Quartararo. Only Morbidelli seems nonplussed, mainly because he resigned himself to riding last year’s supposedly inferior bike. And yet, in Valencia, both Vinales and Quartararo vociferously voiced their preference for the 2019 M1 over their factory-spec bikes – the latter going so far as to say that moving to the factory team and the 2020 M1 “was not the correct choice.” And Morbidelli rubbed salt in that wound by eking out an impressive victory on the 2019 bike.

However, even Morbidelli needs to win from the front, his three wins all coming from pole or second place. In fact, all seven of Yamaha’s victories (so far) this season have been from pole or second position on the grid. Contrast that with champion Joan Mir’s average starting position of ninth.

Worse yet, there’s not much chance that Yamaha can stop this downward spiral. As a result of COVID-19, engine specifications are frozen for next year, so the M1 is likely to continue to be the slowest bike on the MotoGP grid. Suzuki will maintain its advantage in race pace; KTM’s momentum, under the guidance of test rider Dani Pedrosa, is unlikely to wane; and, more ominously, Marc Marquez will be back. The chances of Yamaha winning the 2021 world championship are not good.

And that won’t be because Valentino Rossi is old, Maverick Vinales is, er, a little fragile or that Fabio Quartararo has somehow forgotten how to ride. It will be because Yamaha steadfastly refuses to deliver the motorcycle their riders (ever more stridently) keep asking for.

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