Is 2021 Yamaha's Year? Lessons From 2020

The 2020 MotoGP season was something of a schizophrenic affair for Yamaha. On the one hand, a Yamaha won 7 of the 14 MotoGP races last year, with Franco Morbidelli finishing second in the riders' championship, Yamaha finishing second in the constructors' championship, and the Petronas Yamaha SRT team ending second in the teams' standings.

On the other hand, Yamaha's most successful rider was in a satellite team on a 2019-spec bike. Of the 7 Yamaha victories last year, the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team had just a single one. Morbidelli took 5 podiums on the 2019 M1, while Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Fabio Quartararo scored just 7 podiums combined. The first factory Yamaha in the championship – Maverick Viñales – finished in 6th, behind the Suzukis, a Ducati, a KTM, and Morbidelli on the 2019 M1.

There was the valve saga which saw Yamaha have points deducted in the constructors' championship for using non-homologated parts – switching valves between suppliers, and thereby breaking the homologation rules. And there were the brake issues at the Red Bull Ring, where the Yamaha riders insisted on using the older, smaller Brembo calipers which suffered overheating and even brake failure in the case of Viñales.

Was 2020 a good year for Yamaha? Yes. And no. Most of all, it was an inconsistent year, with the M1 (especially in factory guise) either at the front or struggling to score points. The 2020 Yamaha M1 showed lots of promise. But it also had some serious, and painfully obvious, flaws.

What does 2020 portend for 2021? With engine development frozen for the coming season, finding significantly more horsepower looks like an uphill task. But the engine freeze also means that at least Yamaha know their horsepower deficit will not get worse, Yamaha Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis said at the launch of the Monster Energy Yamaha team's 2021 campaign.

"In terms of the performance level, in terms of pure horsepower, we know that we have a deficit to our competitors, so this will remain the same," Jarvis said. "But one of the advantages of this engine freeze situation is that the situation stays the same. If everybody was allowed to develop the engine, you could develop more horsepower. But maybe your your competitors can develop even more horsepower. So in this situation, I think it's fairly predictable how our performance will be, and let's see."

"Engine development is frozen, but it's just one element of the bike," Takahiro Sumi, Yamaha's MotoGP Project Leader said. "All other areas are open to development." Yamaha would use the parts not subject to homologation – exhaust, airbox, electronics – to try to improve engine performance.

Only KTM and Aprilia will have new engines for 2021, limiting the steps Yamaha's rivals can make. That gave Jarvis confidence, the Yamaha MD said. " I think we'll do fine. We won 7 races without having the same horsepower as our competitors, so I think we can do the same again."

Trouble brewing

Yamaha ran into problems at the very first race in 2020. At the Jerez round, both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales suffered engine failures, which would later be traced an issue with the valves used. The extreme heat of Jerez in July, coupled with a manufacturing process which created problems with durability, meant that the valves had to be swapped for items from the original supplier.

It later transpired that the Jerez valves were illegal under the homologation rules, as the valves from the original supplier were the ones they had homologated at the canceled Qatar round at the start of the season. Yamaha were later punished for that breach of the rules.

Will Yamaha face a similar problem, now that the engine homologation is frozen? Fortunately for them, the original supplier was able to produce sufficient valves for Yamaha for the 2021 season. "We were plagued by technical problems last year which showed up at the very first race of the season, even before the first race, and that was a problem for us to deal with," Lin Jarvis. "But fortunately for us, the valves in the engines that were homologated and the valves that we're going to be running in the engines this year are the good ones. So we're fortunate in that sense that we start the year with the valves that we know have no technical defect."

The sudden need to manage 13 races with just three – or in the case of Franco Morbidelli, two – engines had been extremely stressful, but also extraordinarily educational. Yamaha engineers and crew chiefs learned some very valuable lessons from having to cope with a reduced engine supply. Yamaha learned a lot about the durability of the engine, and how to minimize stress and wear on the engine using electronics and engine management systems.

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Honestly I feel like Mr Jarvis' use of the English language is a lot more agile than at least 3 of last year's M1s. For example, he calls the engine freeze an advantage cause it eliminates the possibility that competitors won't increase their horsepower advantage. 1. I don't think that an ongoing disadvantage can responsibly be turned on its head and called an advantage. 2. That's a vote of confidence the factory is unlikely to enjoy. He called the 2019 bike 'performant' a word I could not find in my dictionary. I do think that the performance (that is in my dictionary) of that bike might have a lot more to do with one Mr F. Morbidelli than any other piece of this puzzle. And finally the talk of a huge load of new parts might have an upside but it might also carry the risk of more endless tinkering with said parts (inadequately tested perhaps...). Of couse Mr Morbidelli's success last year was often attributed to his getting a stable tech set up and working it and his own form to an outstandingly high level. So I think that Yamaha's prospects are pretty much as up in the air in 2021 as they were in 2020. It's a lucky dip.

Though there seems to be an ongoing debate about it's use. Either way, I still hate it, reminds too much of the shite some people come out with at work when they too are trying to find new ways of saying nothing useful.

It's a super useful word when you're in the business of making a videogame frame run at 13.89ms or faster

In other words, not useful. 

Thanks for the enlightenment tpnewsk - I did say it wasn't in my dictionary (i.e. literally...) though, rather than it didn't exist. My broader argument that the commentary offered by Yamaha was tripe, and as you say yourself in another comment logically 'self defeating'. 

1987 yzr500, Yamaha adds large fairing ducts to increase cooling and enable improvements in power in an attempt to even the power deficit to Honda. The bike suffers aerodynamically and the power increases are offset by drag. The song remains the same!

Yep, it irritates me too when people invent new words as a means of obfuscation, his contributions are annoyant. As to Yamaha's chances, it strikes me that they have two of the fastest riders in the factory garage, but both are fragile and unpredictable, whereas over at Petronas they have a rock solid underdog and the most experienced, most successful rider ever. 

Whilst it was fascinating to read Ramon Forcada's explaination of how they got around their engine issues, in doing so hasn't he just handed his rivals the information on how to squeeze out a few more RPM from their engines for free? Now everyone can be more performant!

As an aside, does anything look better than a MotoGP bike in full black carbon testing mode?

So, they didn't have enough ofthe original valves to equip, what, fifteen (sixteen, if Jorge got one) "A spec" engines for last year because the supplier stopped making them, meaning they had to use unhomolgated valves in the first couple of engines they used, but, miraculously, they *do* have enough for all fifteen engines this year? Plus some for Cal, too, presumably.
Perfectly plausible.

Move along, nothing to see here.

The logic of that whole explanation is absolutely self defeating, but I still don't believe Yam was seeking an advantage (they tried to get an independent lab to verify the identical-ness of of the different suppliers didn't they?). My guess: supplier A jacked up the price and they tried to get someone else to make the same thing for cheaper, and failed spectatularly. They can't even find the funds to give their best championship contender the right equipment so that really wouldn't surprise me.

I have some hopes for Fabio this year, none for MV, high for Franky and sad for Vale. The story about the valves is so plausible that every movie studio turned it down for unbelievability, another Jarvis Production of Obfuscation, Misdirection and Glib Smuggery. I seriously question whomever is making personnel decisions what they are seeing in Maverick. I just don't get it. I'm glad they saw it; I was afaid he'd stay with' Suzuki and just get in the way with his snits, moods and body language.

I believe Yamaha are doing what Ducati does: throw 188 parts at a rider to evaluate and before anything can be developed or the rider has a chance to adapt they throw 200 more parts at him. Franky showed last year what development and seat time can do as opposed to redesigning every part 4x/season. If I recall correctly, the '19 bike wasn't well-loved by the factory boys in '19. Incremental development and rider familiarity with a consistent set-up coupled with a rider willing to adapt himself can achieve better results than the latest and greatest in the hands of a diva who expects the bike to come to him instead of meeting the bike where it is and just riding the hell out of it. Heck, you could put Marc on a CBR and he would never finish as low as 14th.

... about is the new (for 2020) Michelin rear that the 2019 M1 bike was certainly not designed for, but with which Frankie and Ramon obviously worked wonders with last season. We know this tire is a lot different than the '19 rear tire (witness the implosion of the factory Ducati squad in '20). So I've wondered if it's another factor why the 2019 M1 worked so well in so many cases last year.

The technical details contained in this article are very enjoyable. Thank you, David.

It's interesting to hear how Morbidelli's team adjusts the gearing to help the engine from reaching the soft limiter most of the time which increases engine durability and presumably makes Morbidelli's job slightly less difficult. The Yamaha/Forcada/Morbidelli/Team/Petronas synergy gels.

Again, there was a subtle reference to the golden chassis that Yamaha perfected during the Lorenzo/Foracada era that Neil Spaulding has spoken of in recent years.

Jarvis's words that the performance deficit will remain the same in 2021 are optimistic, in my opinion. The same measures that Yamaha can employ in modifying the exhaust, airbox and electronics to increase engine power are available to all manufacturers.

Short of developing a cross plane crankshaft in the early 2000's, what innovations have Yamaha brought to the table? Not aero, not ride height launch devices, etc. They have just been late to the game when others have thought outside of the box. They have, in my opinion, been surpassed by the smallest Japanese manufacturer on the grid. They have held onto Rossi for way too long, and also I'm finding it hard to justify keeping a headcase like Vinales around. He's fast for sure, but he's also his own worst enemy on track.

After all the performance improvements for 2021 Jarvis discussed, he said:

"So I don't think that Frankie will have any big disadvantage". Not showing a lot of confidence in the new bike!

Fabio can grow up, but I'm not sure Maverick can get smarter. 21 looks to be the 2021 Yamaha favorite in my book.

Hearing Jarvis say this on the PPPodcast clips felt pretty positive. They are going to have the "good" valves. Reliability should be fine. Wick back up all the way. Chassis returning to form. More on tap getting power and traction from this motor. 

Jarvis is a tactician. Not thinking of likeability here, more about effectiveness. Looks like he is steering things well now, and has pulled off a difficult political/public relations move re valves. 

I think Yam brass did well pushing Vale to Petronas when and how they did. Last thought, holding out that we have not seen the most nor last of Maverick. He has been  inconsistent, yes. He struggles against the grain when the bike is an insufficient tool. Which it HAS been. I don't think Yamaha needs to apologize or justify having Vinales where he is at all...but DO about the bike they put under him. Consistency can come for him. 

Look at what Yamaha has established. The fantastic Petronas program including another Factory bike. Nailing down this solid squad of riders. Plans/funds and logistics for a European Test Team. Cal Crutchlow, Test mule extraordinaire and very fast rider, signed. Bike back on track. 

Outright engine power is the ONLY outstanding concern left on my radar. Hope to see a small step forward early this year. Expecting disappointment yet again in Winter Test 2022. But Yamaha? They are back. Watch. 

I have both Factory Yamaha riders taking a step forward. Quartararo back to form. Morbidelli staying where he was, which is impressive indeed, but joined by a handful of riders. Valentino I am looking forward to seeing enjoying himself, relaxed, having a couple of good races, and planning for his next move after riding. This is his last season. Watch how quick Cal gets quick on the black Yamaha (the ONLY one that should be black btw). And his demeanor, he will be smiles and reflect appreciation for rideability and handling. 


How do Yamaha manage to keep screwing up their preseason testing program? Honda found a way to get bikes and riders to Jerez. Sure, maybe not all 188 parts were ready, but test the frame while you have time to incorporate feedback! Get riders to Sepang or someplace hot and have them ride nose to tail in a race simulation.

So frustrating. Something self-defeating has taken hold in the culture there.