Yamaha have kicked off the 2017 MotoGP season. The Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team were the first to present their bike, their riders, their team, and most importantly, their sponsors and color scheme to the world.
Launches being what they are – a show primarily put on for the benefit of their sponsors – there was nothing radical to see. The bikes on display had been painted in the correct colors – the Yamaha blue a little darker, the Movistar M a lot bigger, Monster's sponsorship being visually demoted a little further, the green claw M looking a little too much like Movistar's M – but they were not the actual 2017 bikes, the eagle-eyed MotoGP technical blogger Manziana spotted.
That is unsurprising, if a little disappointing. It makes little sense for Yamaha to fly new bikes halfway around the world from Japan to Spain just to put them on display, then pack them up again to fly them back to Sepang for the tests. More disappointing is the news broken by GPOne.com, that Ducati are to present what is basically a GP16 in 2017 colors.
The Ducati launch is in Bologna, in the factory, and the real bikes are just a few feet away. However, Ducati are being extremely secretive about the new fairing, hiding it away to prevent their aerodynamic secrets slipping out early. According to GPOne, the race fairing may not actually appear until Qatar, Ducati keen to keep a lid on any copying of the aero ahead of the 2017 season. The IRTA tests will be done with the old fairing – legal for use in 2017, without giving up one of the two homologated fairings allowed for the coming season – with the new fairing only to be tested in a private test, with no media present. The 2017 Ducati fairing will make its first public appearance at the first race of the year.
Whether the bike was a 2016 or 2017 machine was irrelevant, once you read between the lines of the launch. The 2017 bike, Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Kouichi Tsuji told us, looked almost identical to the 2016 bike, yet was changed in almost every part. The aim, Tsuji said, was to return to the traditional Yamaha character. "A Yamaha bike has good braking, can carry corner speed, and has good agility." That is the hallmark of every Yamaha since they have been racing, so how it would differ from last year's bike is a bit of a mystery.
The one place the Yamaha was weak in 2016 was in top end power. That, it appears, is due to Yamaha turning down the engine a little and cutting a few revs after the two engine blow ups at Mugello. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo lost an engine at the Italian Grand Prix, both expiring in a cloud of smoke. Informed paddock rumor said they had turned the engine up a few revs to hold off the Ducatis, and paid the price for doing that. After Mugello, they erred on the side of caution, and Yamaha were never quite as competitive after that race.
The results of testing were positive, all concerned repeated. Team boss Maio Meregalli told the Italian media that they had made steps in most areas. "In braking, in corner entry, and in rear grip," he said. The weak point was the middle of the corner, where improvement was needed to allow better corner exit. But it was important that the focus remained on tire wear in the second half of the race. The combination of Michelin tires and spec electronics have caused problems for everyone there, and it remains the key to success.
The most interesting fact we learned was that Maverick Viñales was faster at the private test at Sepang than Valentino Rossi was. Unofficial times leaked showed the two very close together, with Rossi a fraction faster, but Maio Meregalli let slip that Viñales has been considerably quicker than Rossi. That bodes well for a fascinating season next year. Caution suggests we should wait until the official test at Sepang for confirmation, of course.
Lin Jarvis emphasized the importance of retaining the team which had helped Jorge Lorenzo to three world titles. Only Juan Llansa joined Lorenzo at Ducati, meaning that Viñales slots into a stable and highly experienced environment. A heartening part of the presentation was the two videos put together featuring the mechanics for both riders, welcoming Viñales and wishing Rossi the best. It is good to see Yamaha turn the spotlight on the people who play a far bigger role than they get credit for. Though they do not seek the attention, they deserve the praise.
Both riders stated that their aim was to win the championship. Viñales said that the thing that had impressed him the most was that the bike provided great acceleration when he picked it up on corner exit. The M1 was better at this than the Suzuki – Viñales did not say this, but it was clearly implied – and he believed this was an advantage. The one thing Viñales consistently complained off throughout 2016 was a lack of drive coming out of the corner, and that is something the Yamaha has more than the Suzuki GSX-RR ever had.
This bodes well for the development direction of the Yamaha M1. The riding styles of Rossi and Viñales are closer than those of Rossi and Lorenzo. Both the 2017 riders like to pick the bike up earlier and drive out of the corner, where Lorenzo would carry more corner speed all the way to the exit, and use the extra speed mid-corner to generate more speed on exit. Team boss Meregalli made it clear that they got the same feedback from both riders. That makes following a development direction a little easier.
Above all, what came through from the launch was that Rossi and Viñales have a better relationship than Rossi and Lorenzo ever had. Rossi insisted that he and Lorenzo had got on perfectly well until things went sour in 2015, but that is either disingenuous or a case of failing memory. Many different sources close to Yamaha have indicated that the relationship between Rossi and Lorenzo was never comfortable, tension between the two starting before Lorenzo even arrived in the garage. Colin Edwards was insisting privately that he would be Rossi's teammate in 2008, well after Yamaha had made up their mind to replace him with Jorge Lorenzo. The relationship started off fraught, and went downhill from there. That is why Rossi left for Ducati in 2011, and Lorenzo has left for Ducati in 2017.
Yet Viñales and Rossi are getting along a lot better. The two shared space in the wings during the launch this year, something which Rossi and Lorenzo were incapable of at the 2016 launch. There were no signs of the balancing act Yamaha had to go through to avoid favoring one rider over the other, both riders apparently happy to share a stage.
Of course, that is only because they have yet to race against each other this year. Once the season starts, and one starts beating the other, the relationship will quickly become less amicable. That is the lot of a MotoGP team which has two riders capable of winning the championship. It is good for the team, and good for the sponsors, but it means that friction is inevitable. That makes us look forward to the 2017 season all the more. It's going to be a good year.
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