Saturday at Assen only deepened the enigma that is Maverick Viñales. After being fastest in both sessions of practice on Friday, the Monster Energy Yamaha man added FP3 to his belt in the morning, then finished second in FP4. That result was a little deceptive, however: he started FP4 on a used soft tire with 15 laps, nearly two thirds race distance, on it, and put nearly race distance on it, ending with a couple of 1'33.7s. For context, the race lap record at Assen is 1'33.617, set by Marc Márquez on lap 4 of the 2015 race. Viñales' second run was on a new medium tire, assessing tire choice for the race.
Seven days ago, Viñales was just twelfth fastest in FP4, and qualified in 21st. The contrast could not be greater with Assen. Here, he qualified on pole position, smashing the lap record and becoming the second rider to lap the Circuit van Drenthe in under 1'32, after teammate Fabio Quartararo posted a 1'31.922 in his first run during Q2. Both Monster Energy Yamaha riders ended with laps of 1'31.8, Quartararo posting three 1'31s to Viñales' two. But it was Viñales who was the quickest of the pair, taking pole with 1'31.814.
It is quite the turnaround for Maverick Viñales. From penultimate on the grid in Germany to pole position at Assen. From dead last in the race a week ago to heading into the 90th edition of the Dutch TT as one of the two favorites to win. From the outside, it is hard to make sense of Viñales' transformation.
Even for his rivals. "Fabio looks quite strong. We'll see about the other one," Jack Miller said, refusing even to mention Viñales by name. "I mean, he was dead last last week, and decided to actually show up to the race this week, so that's good." There was a mixture of bewilderment and skepticism on his face as he said it.
When the levee breaks...
Then on Saturday night came news which merely added to the enigma. Maverick Viñales did not attend his media debrief on Friday, the reason given being a long technical meeting. (He did, however, attend his TV debriefs interviews. I incorrectly reported that he didn't last night.) The real reason was not a technical meeting, however, but it appears that it was to meet with top Yamaha management to discuss his future.
Spanish media sources are reporting that his future no longer lies with Yamaha. The Spaniard and Yamaha have mutually agreed to part ways at the end of 2021, Viñales getting out of his contract a year early. A contract he signed back in January 2020, after pressing Yamaha for a response to a prodigious offer from Ducati.
Instead, it seems, Viñales is off to Aprilia, to ride alongside Aleix Espargaro. A contract signed this weekend, as part of his separation from Yamaha. For Yamaha, they save a great deal of money – Viñales is reported to be the second-best paid rider on the grid, his salary in the high seven figures, according to AS.com. For Aprilia, they finally get a proven winner on their bike, to take some of the strain of development off the shoulders of Aleix Espargaro, who has been carrying the development load of the RS-GP ever since arriving at the Noale factory. And for Viñales, he trades money – a lot of money – for a chance to escape Yamaha, and to try to achieve success at Aprilia.
The repercussions of all this are sizable. If Viñales goes to Aprilia, then that means that 1) there is no room for Andrea Dovizioso, 2) Yamaha have at least one vacancy for 2022, and possibly two if Valentino Rossi retires, as expected, and 3) Yamaha have to decide whether Franco Morbidelli has done enough to deserve a shot in the factory team. If they do, they have to buy Morbidelli out of his contract with Petronas.
Then there's the question of Raul Fernandez. Does the remarkable Moto2 rookie abandon KTM for Yamaha? Is Yamaha willing to buy Fernandez out of his contract with KTM, the price being bandied about roughly half a million euros? Does he go to Tech3, taking the second seat along his current Red Bull Ajo KTM Moto2 teammate Remy Gardner? Or does he stay in Moto2 for another year?
In the qualifying press conference, Fernandez neatly dodged the question. "For going to MotoGP, everybody asks this, but at the end, KTM says they bring me the opportunity to stay another season in Moto2 and I’m really happy for this," the Spaniard said. "Also in the summer break I will speak with them, but at the moment I know that I will stay in Moto2 another season."
Note the use of the open-ended phrase 'at the moment'. 'At the moment' ends the moment the words left Fernandez' mouth, in the most extreme interpretation of the phrase. That doesn't mean that his situation will change, but by the end of the summer, it most certainly could have. Right now, Fernandez' plan is to stay in Moto2 with the Red Bull KTM Ajo team. But by the time we reconvene in Austria he could have signed to race in MotoGP either with Tech3, or with Yamaha.
A surfeit of talent
Fernandez' decision neatly illustrates the problems KTM face, though they are problems born of abundance rather than poverty. What Raul Fernandez has to decide is where his best chance of getting a factory ride lies. KTM have Brad Binder already signed through 2024, and on his current form, they would be foolish not to extend a similar offer to Miguel Oliveira. Fernandez would receive full factory support in the Tech3 squad, but being in a satellite team is never the same as being in a factory squad: the engineers come into the factory garage first, and only venture into satellite garages afterward.
Does Fernandez have a better chance at ascending to the Monster Energy Yamaha factory squad if he signs for Yamaha? The most likely destination, should he sign for the Japanese factory, would be to take a seat in the Petronas Yamaha squad. Franco Morbidelli would be the obvious choice to promote to the factory team, though his results so far this year do not make that a certainty.
If Fernandez went to Petronas, he would have to weigh up whether promotion to the factory team is an option in the near future: Fabio Quartararo's 2021 season is so far going a long way toward cementing his future as the number 1 rider in the factory team for the foreseeable future. And if Franco Morbidelli could repeat his outstanding 2020 on a factory M1 in 2022, then he would justify a long-term contract there too.
On the other hand, what Yamaha doesn't have is a stream of talented youngsters already signed and angling to get to MotoGP. Yamaha, like most other factories, does not have a career ladder full of Pedro Acostas scrabbling to get into MotoGP.
Viñales signing for Aprilia also leaves Andrea Dovizioso out in the cold. Aprilia boss Massimo Rivola told MotoGP.com's Simon Crafar that they expected to announce their second rider in the next few weeks, though that may now be sooner rather than later. There were hints that Dovizioso had seen the writing on the wall in an interview with his manager, Simone Battistella. "There might be surprises, all contracts can be prematurely ended," the Italian told Corsedimoto.com.
Could Dovizioso take Viñales' place at Yamaha? An intriguing idea, given the history of the Italian with the Japanese factory. But Dovizioso's problem is his age. Would Yamaha want to sign a rider who will be 36 when he starts the season, or would they prefer to take a chance on a young rider, and hope they can develop into someone capable of challenging for a title? They already have one young rider capable of carrying the championship load for the foreseeable future, so they have nothing to lose by choosing youth over experience.
The bike is also pretty good, at least at Assen. And this, perhaps, explains more fully the roots of Maverick Viñales wild variations in competitiveness. Assen has always been a high-grip track, and the new surface has only added to that. Grip is the major variable in the equation determining Viñales' performance: at tracks where grip is plentiful, Viñales is fast. At tracks where it is missing, he can't turn the bike, get it to accelerate, and is slow.
"With grip I can be fast," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said in the qualifying press conference. "This is the problem that when we don’t have grip we are not able to improve. With this kind of bike when you don’t have grip, you can do nothing. I know this bike is great when you have grip. Without grip, sometimes it’s worse. As I said, for me the Yamaha bike when you are on the point when you have good feeling, when you can create that kind of thing, it’s a fantastic bike. You can do whatever you want with the bike on the track. The problem is that it happened four times in a year. This is the biggest problem."
On Thursday, Viñales had loudly proclaimed that he would simply be copying teammate Fabio Quartararo's settings. But so far, he has done nothing of the sort. "No, I didn’t try at the end because I didn’t want to lose the feeling I had with the bike," the Spaniard said when asked if he had tried Quartararo's settings. "I had three or four points in the track where I can be fast and I don't want to lose that. Also, I’m quite good on stability and this is very important here in Assen."
In fact, he had barely touched the bike since it had rolled out of the trucks after Sachsenring. He had started with the settings he had used in Germany, and just left the bike alone. "Honestly, I think it’s a race that I have been less in the box. Maybe just a few times to check a few corners," Viñales said. "Yeah, I had one bike like Fabio, but I have such a great feeling with my bike that I don't want to touch. I felt many positive things in some parts of the track where also keeps the tire in a good mode for many, many laps."
So far, leaving the bike alone was paying off handsomely. "I don't want to touch it. I don't want to lose the feeling. So, I don’t touch nothing. Just keep going," Viñales said. "I know I’m strong in a few corners where it’s nice also to overtake. We will see tomorrow. For sure, we have the chance to try it, but at the moment it’s not in the plan."
If Viñales is slow at one track and fast at another, surely he should be working harder to solve the problems he is facing? Working harder on himself, and on managing himself as well as the bike. Viñales responded to that suggestion with scorn. "What do you want, that I sleep in the box? No, it’s enough. We cannot wait for more races. It’s enough to have five, six races in a row which are really bad results."
The hardest thing was that he had not even been able to pull a single fast lap out of the bag even when grip was low. "Especially for me what is tough is normally even if I have a not good grip condition I was able to make one lap and be in the front, but the last races not even for one lap," Viñales said. "I crash once per race, when maybe I never crashed in all the season. To me it’s an indicator that we were far away. I cannot be more calm. I need to keep going. At least now my heart rate is a little bit more high and I can push more."
Yet a different approach may well be rewarding. Fabio Quartararo manages to be fast even when there is no grip, despite the fact the bike isn't working as well. "I think that in some areas it’s true that without the grip we are struggling," the Frenchman agreed. "In Sachsenring for me it was a really strange situation because at the beginning of the race in turn seven we were struggling so much. I don't know why, because normally with grip we turn a lot. When I had no grip, the bike was turning better in that corner. So, for me it’s difficult to check with Sachsenring because it’s a track that was so strange for us."
In contrast to Viñales, things have been going very well for Quartararo. "In general, I can’t say I had many issues this year," the Frenchman said. Though data was shared, Quartararo only looked at the data of Viñales when he was slower than his Spanish teammate, so he had no real idea where Viñales' problems might lie. "I try to manage on the best way as possible, but with Maverick I’m not checking when he’s struggling. I’m checking where he’s faster than me to try to improve myself."
The Yamahas have no real problems at Assen, however. Sunday's race looks like being utterly dominated by the Monster Energy Yamaha team, both Quartararo and Viñales a big step ahead of the rest. Even Valentino Rossi is having a reasonable weekend, closer to the top ten than he has been for a while.
On the face of it, Sunday's race looks set to be a battle between Viñales and Quartararo, with Quartararo the favorite based on FP4 pace. The only hope for their rivals is to try to get ahead at the start and hold up the Yamahas in the hope of disrupting their game plan.
That is especially true of the Ducatis. "If Pecco's able to get a decent start, which he should be able to do from third place here," Jack Miller said of his teammate Bagnaia. And with Pramac rider Johann Zarco starting from fifth, they should be able to mount an assault. "I think Johann's on second row, I'm on third, so we should all be able to get a decent start and hopefully try to disrupt their rhythm in the beginning. And hopefully that should be able to give us our chance for the end of the race, but we'll have to wait and see."
According to the lap time analysis by ex-crew chief Chris Pike, Bagnaia has the best chance of being able to achieve that. The Italian showed the strongest pace of the Ducatis, having fixed his issues from Friday. But Zarco was confident too, as the Pramac team had found a small change in suspension which gave him a lot of confidence. "In FP4, we also keep trying things and really there is a run that just a small modification on the bike gave me a lot in feeling," the Frenchman said. "So, this is kind of positive. Because I’m sensitive, as soon as I’m feeling good I can enjoy a lot on the bike."
Zarco had been used for a tow by Marc Márquez in Q1, as the Honda rider attempted to make it through to Q2. Far from being upset by it, the Frenchman chose to take it as a compliment. "It’s almost pleasant to have Marc trying to follow or just waiting for you to follow. It’s better to take it in this way," Zarco said. "Marc remains Marc. He won in Sachsenring. He is the champion for me. In that way, it helps to get some self-confidence, I would say."
It had not helped Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider crashing out at the end of Q1 while on a fast lap, and now forced to start from 20th. That is tough for the Spaniard, as his pace is surprisingly strong, close to the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir, and a tad better than Pecco Bagnaia.
That was a relief, after a massive crash in FP2 on Friday that left him badly battered and bruised, and with a slight limp he was doing his best to disguise. "It’s true today I started this morning and the first thing was, will it be possible to ride the bike?" Márquez told us. "Because the crash from yesterday I had a lot of pain in the right foot and I was not able to push. With the right arm I’m not able to push a lot. Then it was very difficult. This was in the morning. Then in the afternoon I felt better. This makes me happy because it looks like now is in a better way and tomorrow will be even better to ride fast alone and behind."
Márquez was not just happy with the way he had reacted, but also with the work which Honda had done. The Repsol Honda rider had complained that the traction control settings were not up to scratch on Friday, and that was one of the reasons for his big crash. "Honda is working in a good way. This is the thing I want to see," Márquez said. "Here they bring a chassis. It’s working a little bit better. Yesterday I complained about the TC. Today I received a new solution for the TC which was much better and was working safe. So this is Honda and what I need from the team. They’re working really hard I’m happy for that."
Márquez has a lot of ground to make up before he can be competitive. He has two problems, the first being that his injuries are still hampering him from pushing as hard as he could when he was fully fit. The second is that the Michelin tires are working exceptionally well at Assen, with all three rear compounds raceable, and very little drop in performance in any of the tires. That limits any chance of managing tires to save performance for the end of the race.
That is also the issue faced by the Suzukis, even though both Alex Rins and Joan Mir look to have the pace to lead the group chasing the Yamahas. The two Suzuki Ecstar riders start from the third and fourth rows, but will have to fight their way forward, rather than waiting for everyone else's tires to drop and simply using the Suzuki's superior tire conservation to ride right past them.
"I think Suzuki was strong in the final part of the race before," Alex Rins explained. "Now, we are struggling more to overtake, we are pushing the tires more, and we arrive at the end of the race more like this, more on the limit. I don't know, it depends on the temperature whether we will choose the soft or the hard. But it's true that the disadvantage that we had before, now it's more close."
The other disadvantage the Suzukis have is the lack of a rear ride height device, the hydraulic piston which lowers the rear of the bike on corner exit and for the starts. Rins quantified just how much of a disadvantage that is. "0.2, 0.3 seconds?" Rins told us "Yes, we are losing, this is true. Suzuki calculates how much in every track. For example in Sachsenring, we were losing 0.4 seconds, and here, I don't know exactly, we are losing 0.3."
Suzuki are expected to bring their ride height device to either the first or the second race in Austria. Once they do, that should put Joan Mir and Alex Rins firmly back into contention. Until then, they will have to hope to find a way past the competition at Assen, and to take the best result possible.
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