I was supposed to have an interview with Yamaha Racing managing director Lin Jarvis this weekend, arranged well beforehand. That ended up not happening, unsurprisingly. Lin Jarvis had more important things to deal with than answering my questions. And my list of questions seemed a good deal less relevant this weekend than they had a few days earlier.
For this weekend was all about Maverick Viñales. Whether he, or we, wanted it to be or not. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider (but not for long) arrived at Assen after finishing dead last at the Sachsenring, topped both sessions of free practice on Friday, had an explosive meeting with Yamaha on Friday evening, secured pole with a blistering lap on Saturday, then found a way to only finish second on Sunday, well behind his teammate Fabio Quartararo. Oh yes, and there were the reports that he had signed for Aprilia for 2021 on Saturday night as well.
The last time we had a weekend like this was at Austria in 2019, when Johann Zarco announced that he had asked KTM to terminate his contract with immediate effect. But though that rupture was more dramatic, Zarco stepping away with immediate effect and leaving KTM scrabbling around for a replacement rider, at least it made sense from a results perspective. Zarco had had one top ten finish and one front row start, after three podiums in each of the preceding two years.
When Maverick Viñales requested separation from Yamaha, it came in the same season that he had won the first race of the year, and while he was sixth in the championship. He had had three front row starts from eight races, and two fifth places in addition to his victory. It also came after ending the first day of practice as fastest, and clear favorite to win the race, his main rival his teammate.
Zarco had quit halfway through his first season with KTM. Viñales was halfway through his fifth season with Yamaha. Zarco had been signed up to the KTM deal by his former manager Laurent Fellon, and handed a deal as a fait accompli. Viñales had phoned Yamaha himself at the start of 2020, after receiving an offer from Ducati, and asking for a response from the Japanese factory.
In short, Zarco's decision made sense in the context in which it happened. The decision of Maverick Viñales to leave Yamaha feels more like it came out of the blue.
Or maybe not, looking back. Maverick Viñales has been unhappy at Yamaha for a very long time. In fact, he was only ever happy at Yamaha when he won. Most other weekends, he was somewhere between miserable and frustrated. Attending his debriefs, real or virtual, was always a lottery, so much so that among the group of journalists I share the load of attending debriefs with, we would sometimes draw straws as to who would go. Would it be Mardy Mav or Mighty Mav who would greet us? His debriefs varied from informative to uplifting to spirit-sapping.
Replacing Ramon Forcada at the end of 2018 with a crew chief of his own choosing might have been regarded as understandable. Forcada is a fierce and headstrong character, as well as one of the best and most experienced crew chiefs in the MotoGP paddock. The relationship between crew chief and rider is the most important one in any team, as that is where the communication necessary for success stops and starts. If that relationship breaks down or doesn't work, then a change is the only option.
But when Viñales parted ways before Barcelona with Esteban Garcia, his hand-picked replacement for Forcada as crew chief, that was a sign of far more serious issues. Viñales hinted throughout that it had not been his choice to drop Garcia, but rather the choice of Yamaha. Paddock rumor hinted strongly at Garcia walking out, rather than being pushed. But it is also possible that Yamaha decided to replace Garcia with Silvano Galbusera, formerly crew chief to Valentino Rossi and now working with the MotoGP test team, as a last ditch attempt to respond to Viñales' complaints.
That attempted foundered after just two races. A crash in FP3 meant he had to go through Q1 at the Sachsenring. That turned into a disaster, qualifying in 21st, the worst grid position of his life. The race was even worse, Viñales finishing dead last, 19th of 19 finishers. Confusingly, in that race, he posted the fastest race lap of any Yamaha rider, and seventh fastest overall. In the early laps of that race, he was basically running the same pace as the top five in the race, despite being in last place.
Push to pass
His issue, he said, was a lack of power to be able to pass the Ducatis he found himself stuck behind. "I spent 15 laps behind Marini and Bastianini. I could not pass them. Impossible. So I prepared what I could but they had more power, they braked later. I’m sorry but that’s how it was," Viñales told us on Sunday night in Germany.
Fast forward a week later and that was pretty much what he was saying after finishing second behind his teammate, Fabio Quartararo, at Assen. But if anything, Viñales was as frustrated after finishing second as he had been after finishing last. "As Fabio said, with our bike it’s so complicated to overtake," Viñales told the press conference. "I just found myself behind Nakagami, impossible. I don't know what more to do. Outside, inside. I didn’t find a way to overtake until he lost the traction. As soon as he lost the traction, for me it was easy to overtake back and try to put a good rhythm." It had taken Viñales 13 laps to get past Takaaki Nakagami on the LCR Honda. It took Johann Zarco, who was following Viñales, about three corners.
Throughout his career at Yamaha, Viñales' complaints have had a few recurring themes. The first is a lack of horsepower and top speed, a common complaint among Yamaha riders and a consequence of Yamaha's design philosophy to build a bike that has strong corner speed and can change direction well, as well as being easy to ride. Viñales has also commonly complained of a lack of rear grip and drive, a factor which also affects top speed. And on occasion, he has also complained of a lack of feeling from the front of the bike.
What had frustrated Viñales most this season was a lack of answers from Yamaha. "The way things are going is that I don’t understand nothing and after that I don’t know what more," Viñales said at Assen on Thursday. But when he asked Yamaha engineers if they had any idea what was causing his problems, the answer was the same. "The problem is that when I try to find a solution the answer is the same and that’s ‘I don’t know’."
All that came to a head on Friday. Despite finishing fastest, Viñales did his TV interviews and then disappeared into a meeting with Yamaha, the outcome of which was that the two parties agreed to part ways at the end of 2021, a year early. That patched things up well enough for Saturday, in which the Spaniard shattered the pole record at Assen.
In the press conference on Saturday, Viñales spoke of being happy that the Yamaha M1 had grip at Assen, which had allowed him to be fast. "I have really high confidence on what we are able to do, just we don’t find the way to do it. Honestly, things are good. FP1 has been good. With grip I can be fast," he said.
Grip was everything for Viñales, he said. "In these MotoGP bikes you have to create grip. If you don’t have grip you have to have a bike that turns. Our bike, at least for me, when I have grip I can turn. Without grip it’s difficult. With this kind of bike when you don’t have grip, you can do nothing."
That positive atmosphere changed on Saturday night, when reports emerged that Viñales had signed for Aprilia. News of the split was not supposed to come out until Monday morning, with the press release. But the tension created by the Aprilia reports was tangible. Viñales appeared more detached from his crew than normal on the grid.
After the race, after finishing second and taking his second podium of the year, there were no celebrations. Viñales arrived in parc ferme shaking his head, complaining to his crew, detached from everything that was going on. He gave a disconsolate interview to Simon Crafar, and seemed to be going through the motions in the podium ceremony. Then spent the post-race press conference denying outright that he had signed for Aprilia, but not quite denying he had split with Yamaha.
"I read one tweet from one guy, he is totally wrong," Viñales insisted, when asked about the Aprilia rumors. But the rest of his answer, about his future, was far more ambiguous. "I don't know what to say. One thing is clear is that here I cannot take on my maximum. I need to find my line. Sometimes it is difficult. I need to find something that gives me the opportunity to give the maximum every lap, every race, every track."
What he did do was plenty of finger pointing at Yamaha. "I’m not disappointed because I didn’t win. I’m disappointed because I’m not able to take out all my potential," Viñales said. "That’s why I’m disappointed. That’s why I was very upset in Sachsenring because somehow here I’m not able to push at the maximum. Technically there is many mistakes a few times, and I’m not able to give the maximum."
"What is clear is that here I cannot take out the maximum I have inside," he reiterated later. "I’m desperate honestly to take out because in many races it is there inside and I really wanted to take out."
Good to say goodbye
When asked if he saw the benefit of leaving Yamaha, he hinted most strongly at his imminent departure, effectively implying there was no point in staying. "I think for sure benefit, it’s difficult to have benefit like this. I just get difficulties. Somehow I start to feel that when I come to the race it starts to be a nightmare. I have for three years the same comments, so they can take the notes and is exactly the same comment three years in a row."
"As I said, I just want to take out the maximum. I just want to come racing to really race and give everything I have." That was impossible in the current situation, Viñales said. "Right now it’s difficult. When I come to racing I just say, what problem am I going to have this race? This is a problem. I just want to come here, give the maximum, and see where we are."
He also admitted that leaving had been on his mind in Germany. "For sure in Sachsenring I wanted to go home on Friday already because it was a disaster weekend. I explained everything, but we were not able to improve," Viñales said. At a track with grip, things were a little better, but still not enough, he said. "So, here things are good, I had grip, the track is good, the track adapt a little more to the bike so I can be fast, but I am far from my full potential. The only thing I want to take out is my full potential."
As the press conference wound to a close, Viñales emphasized once again that his frustration lay with the technical development of the Yamaha M1, and Yamaha's failure to address the problems he complained of. "I’m more disappointed about the technical side, not about the human because finally we were good. I have to say in the previous years and then 2018 also was difficult. 2019 somehow we found a way, but then in 2020 again we changed everything, we change the bike and we start to lose the way again," Viñales told us. "Honestly, on the human side, I’m happy. I have to say that I appreciate a lot the guys in Yamaha. this is the important thing at the end. As I said before, Germany was very painful. Honestly, it was hard to eat that result. Very hard." So hard that it ended his relationship with Yamaha.
Sharing the blame
Is Yamaha to blame? There is criticism to be leveled at the Japanese factory. The 2020 bike was fast when they could find the right setup, Quartararo and Viñales sharing four wins between them. But when they couldn't find the right setup, they were a long way off. The fact that Franco Morbidelli ended the season in second place on the 2019 bike, with three wins to his name, was a clear sign of the problems with the Yamaha.
But Viñales also has problems which are very specific to him. His starts have always been poor, and he has always struggled with a full tank. So much so that he spent the daytime sessions of the Qatar test doing one practice start after another. It helped, his starts improved. But he still struggled.
His other weakness has been an inability to pass other riders. Some of that is the bike, but his teammate is showing that passing on a Yamaha is far from impossible. The classic outbraking maneuver at the end of a straight is hard on a Yamaha, if the bike is down on top speed. But there are plenty of sections of track where riders can use the superior corner speed to get close enough to pounce on corner exit and along the short straights that join the back section of most circuits.
In many ways, Assen was a prime example of Viñales' weaknesses as a rider in comparison to Fabio Quartararo. Viñales started from pole, and got off the line well enough, but as Quartararo started to catch him on the run into Turn 1, Viñales backed off and lost three or four places before the first corner.
In parc ferme he put his start down to burning out the clutch, but by the press conference, he had changed his line, saying that Quartararo's movement had caused him to back off the throttle "On the start [Fabio] crossed, so I needed to close the gas," Viñales said, though he didn't want to apportion blame. "This makes me go fourth, and then everything was more complicated, but this is racing. One time can happen to one rider, next time can happen to another."
Viñales then spent 13 laps behind Takaaki Nakagami and unable to pass. Watching the video on MotoGP.com, both from the helicopter view and from Viñales' onboard cameras, you can see him try. But he tries in the same way every single lap: trying to dive up the inside of Nakagami going into the Strubben hairpin, but not able to get close enough. Then trying to carry speed through the Ramshoek and sliding right to try to outbrake Nakagami into the GT Chicane.
The problem is that he rarely varies his line of attack. Once he manage to slip through on Nakagami at Meeuwenmeer, but Nakagami soon retakes the position. Otherwise, Viñales just keeps trying the same attacks lap after lap, and failing to make an impression. Only once Nakagami makes a small mistake can he get through.
Contrast this with Fabio Quartararo. The Frenchman found himself stuck behind Pecco Bagnaia on the factory Ducati, who was giving a masterclass on defensive riding. When Quartararo attacked, Bagnaia made sure he came straight back, trying to hold the Frenchman behind him all the way to the chicane, and able to use the acceleration of the Desmosedici GP21 to fire out of that corner on the straight and straight back past Quartararo if he was ahead.
Quartararo soon wised up to Bagnaia's game, however. The Frenchman changed his lines, trying outside and inside at the Strubben, to little avail. When he realized that getting past at the Ramshoek or into the GT Chicane was too late, he altered his lines through Mandeveen and Duikersloot to carry more speed through to Meeuwenmeer, to pass Bagnaia well before the chicane and eke out just enough of a gap to prevent Bagnaia from blasting past on the straight. Once past, he was gone.
This has been the story of Viñales' career. One of the most talented riders on the grid, when everything works, he is unstoppable, able to do whatever he likes with the M1, either winning comfortably or able to fight off challenges to the line.
Viñales' problem, however, is he struggles to come up with a back up plan if his initial plan fails. He cannot regroup mentally, try a different approach, and think up an alternative plan of attack. So he finds himself stuck, banging his head against a wall.
To Viñales, it must feel like the wall he is banging up against is one of technical limitations. There is merit in that, but great riders, champions, accept that is part of the game, and find a way to ride around those limitations, finding strengths elsewhere. Viñales lacks the ability to do that.
It is perhaps his ambition and his will to victory which prevent him from doing that. He gets an idea in his head, figures out a plan, and sticks to it come what may. He believes it should work, and refuses to believe when it doesn't work.
In it to win it
It is hard to overstate the size of Viñales' ambition. A few years ago, Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio told me about Viñales' first MotoGP race in 2015. It was Suzuki's first full-time race in MotoGP in the year of their return, and the Spaniard's debut in the class at Qatar. He finished fourteenth, three places behind his then teammate Aleix Espargaro.
Viñales was in tears afterward, Brivio told me. He had been convinced he would win the race, and couldn't understand why he had not. Rookies winning their first race in the premier class is a vanishing rarity, but to do so on a brand new machine is virtually unheard of. That was not a concept which had occurred to Viñales, however.
This steadfast refusal to face the idea that the problem might be him is what stands in the way of success for Maverick Viñales. His bike talent is unquestionable: you do not smash lap records if you cannot master a MotoGP machine, and you don't win MotoGP races if you have no racing talent. But his lack of mental flexibility, of putting things into perspective, of thinking up different ways of reaching a goal, is what holds him back.
Coming up short
His record reflects this. Viñales won his first two races aboard a Yamaha, then added a third in a memorable battle with Valentino Rossi at Le Mans 2017, his fifth race for the factory. But in the 73 races since then, he has won only 5 more races. Like Dani Pedrosa at Repsol Honda, he wins one or two races a season, and sometimes competes for a championship, but never really gets close to winning one. In two and a half seasons with Yamaha, Fabio Quartararo has amassed seven wins, one shy of Viñales total with the Japanese factory in twice that period. That suggests it isn't just the bike.
That is the problem Viñales faces in his next challenge. If, as rumored, he goes to Aprilia, he will find a bike that is far from perfect. And given that first Cal Crutchlow and now Andrea Dovizioso have turned down the Aprilia ride due to a lack of confidence in the organizational ability of Aprilia, things don't bode well for Viñales if he joins the Noale factory and demands changes to the bike.
Rumors of a switch to the VR46 team are also circulating, from sources within a factory in a position to know. That seems unlikely, given Viñales' view of himself as a factory rider. He wants to win a championship, and believes, like most riders, that that can only be done in a factory team. Whatever the level of support promised at VR46 – and Ducati are famous for supporting riders in their satellite teams – the focus will always be the factory squad.
The comeback starts now?
The final option, and least desired, is to take a year off, and try to come back in 2023, when all of the rider contracts are up for renewal. That is risky indeed, as Andrea Dovizioso is finding out. Once you're off a MotoGP bike, you are quickly forgotten, as the paddock marches on inexorably toward the future. Team bosses look forward, not backward, and by 2022, 2021 will be history.
Johann Zarco salvaged his MotoGP career because he was willing to take a chance with the poorest team on the grid, with support from Ducati, and use the chance to prove his mettle. Maverick Viñales' future may depend on him being willing to do the same thing.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.