In 2021, the Yamaha M1 as the fastest motorcycle around a grand prix race track. The evidence for that is clear: 2021 MotoGP world champion Fabio Quartararo. Quartararo had five race victories, more than anyone else, and five race fastest laps. He also had five pole positions, one less than Pecco Bagnaia.
So the bike was good, despite the chaos elsewhere making it look otherwise. Quartararo was the only constant in 2021. Valentino Rossi never managed to get his head around the new construction rear Michelins, and despite his protestations, was never the same after he returned from his bout with Covid-19. Maverick Viñales won a race, got another podium and a pole, but also finished last, tried to sabotage his engine, and left Yamaha after Austria.
Franco Morbidelli snapped a knee ligament riding a flat track bike, missed much of the season, and was still not fully fit when he returned. And the Petronas team saw a veritable parade of characters taking Morbidelli's place, culminating with Andrea Dovizioso, who is still struggling to adapt to the Yamaha, and to the Michelin rear tire he has never liked.
The Yamaha M1 did have one glaring weakness. It was slow in a straight line. This is nothing new: the Yamaha has always been slow in a straight line, but it has generally been good enough to hold its own: the Yamaha has been the only bike to beat Marc Marquez to a championship when Marquez has been racing. Sometimes the lack of top speed has rendered the Yamaha uncompetitive, as happened in 2018. But it has usually been just fast enough to hang with the faster bikes to take advantage of its strengths.
Those strengths are well known: an ability to carry corner speed that leaves all but the Suzuki for dead. The fate of the Yamaha is usually decided on its ability to generate drive on corner exit, and to brake late before corner entry. That is exactly what the new Yamaha M1 introduced in 2020 did better, though it took a year of refinement before the bike was competitive everywhere.
What the 2021 Yamaha M1 did well was get drive out of corners early, a side effect of carrying corner speed, which meant that the bikes had a head start leading out onto straights, and left the faster bikes – the Ducatis especially – needing a much longer straight to catch them using their superior top speed. And what the 2021 M1 was particularly good at, especially in the hands of Fabio Quartararo, was braking and corner entry. The fact that Quartararo was not just competitive, but in with a shot of victory at both races in Austria was testament to the power of the bike on the brakes, making up top speed deficits along Spielberg's phenomenal straights.
More power please
So when it came to what Yamaha's riders were asking for from the 2022 bike, the answer was obvious: more power, and more top speed. And it looks like that is what Yamaha brought them. Unfortunately for Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli, however, the extra power Yamaha have brought is only enough to keep pace with the progress made by the other bikes, but not enough to close the deficit. The 2022 Yamaha leaves its riders treading water, rather than swimming for the shore.
"It's what we have for the season," Fabio Quartararo said at Mandalika. "I mean maybe we can find something but it's our standard, last year we were at average 9km/h, today we are at 9km/h. So, we didn't make any steps forward."
That has left the Yamaha riders somewhere between quiet desperation and resignation. After the first day of the Mandalika test, once the track started to clean up, Fabio Quartararo said, "Here as soon as the track was okay I understand it also, so at the end I would say that I don’t need time to see the situation of Yamaha. I know it and I know the behavior of the bike during the first test."
The more things change, the more they stay the same
The lack of power was a disappointment, something Quartararo has been plain about all through testing, from Jerez, where Yamaha brought the first real prototype of the 2022 engine, to Mandalika. "It's something really big that is missing, to be honest!" Quartararo said. But he was already focusing not on what he didn't have, but on getting everything out of what he did have.
"To be honest if I'm focusing too much on that, my mentality will not be the same," the 2021 champion said. "I go for the maximum. If the bike is not enough, I'm not an engineer. So at the end all I can do is to push myself to the limit and see what I can do to really fight for a championship and for victories. That for me is the most important thing, to fight for the championship. So to be honest we have not made the steps I expected."
Focusing on what they have, rather than what they would like, is the sensible way forward for the Yamaha riders. The prospect of more power for the first race at Qatar is illusory. There is no time for major upgrades, and no opportunity to test them. And even if there was another test, Yamaha would be unlikely to bring an engine upgrade. "For three months, we haven't received something special. In two weeks, I will not expect something amazing," said a phlegmatic Quartararo.
Special on Saturday
The way the Yamaha has traditionally worked around its weakness is by qualifying on the front row. With a good start, Yamaha riders are able to hold their own at the front, and once they get the lead, they can break away from the following pack. But a good start is much easier when you are starting at the front, especially as the holeshot devices front and rear have made the differences between the bikes off the line much smaller. That has made qualifying ever more important.
And as I said before, the Yamaha is a very fast bike around a circuit, and qualifying plays into its hands. So the changes to the bike which appear to be causing problems in qualifying trim have to be a concern. On Saturday at Mandalika, Quartararo was worried. "I don’t feel so great at the moment for qualifying. That's what I'm more worried about because on the pace I'm not worried," the Frenchman said.
Race pace was good, but that speed disappeared when he put in a new tire for a time attack. "I can go super super fast with the used tire and everything, but with a new tire and one lap I miss some compared to last year. So this is the biggest difference and I feel like to improve that area."
That improved on Sunday, the final day of the Mandalika test. "So this morning I was pretty fast, but not feeling so great. So I was not happy. And this afternoon, the conditions were really similar to the afternoon, so I was happy. Because more than the lap time improving, my feeling with the bike was much better."
The problem, however, is that he felt he had reached the limit of the bike. "We arrived to the limit, unfortunately. I felt on the limit everywhere, and the lap time was good, but I expected a little bit better. But let's see."
This seems to be the biggest problem facing the 2022 Yamaha M1. It is a fast bike around a circuit, and can post a competitive lap time, but it also appears to already be close to its full potential. "To be honest, I don't know where were we can improve," Fabio Quartararo said. "You know, when you start to feel the front moving everywhere, the rear is spinning at the limit, yourself touching the elbow everywhere, it's difficult to find more."
This is where Yamaha need to be focused, Quartararo insisted. "For me what is important is that the team, especially Yamaha, work a lot in this area to find whatever, to have more speed to feel myself less on the limit. Because to be honest, to ride at this pace, every time I go on track, I need to push so much. At the end, it's something that for sure every rider is on the limit, but it's quite tough for us."
No more to come?
If there is a lesson from the 2022 preseason tests, it is that there looks to be little room for improvement for the Yamaha M1. The bike is fast, but it is already pretty polished, and while there might still be a few more hundredths to be found, the tenth or two that Honda and Ducati can be expected to gain over the 2022 season will require some drastic ingenuity from Yamaha. Yamaha made the same step as their rivals over the winter, but what they really needed to do was to close the gap. And the step that they did make, appears to have been in further refining the package they already had, rather than creating new potential with new development.
There is another problem which Yamaha faces, which was also apparent from the tests, and is in part a consequence of the chaos which Yamaha faced last year. So far, testing and development has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Fabio Quartararo, as the only stable factor in Yamaha's 2022 line up.
Franco Morbidelli is still recovering and gaining strength in the knee he had surgery on last year. It will be a couple of races before he is fully up to speed and showing just what he can do with the bike.
Andrea Dovizioso continues to adapt to the Yamaha, which requires a radical change in style compared to the Ducati he spent eight years on. "Still I am not happy 100%," the Italian veteran said. "I’m improving. These 3 days have been much better than Malaysia. We changed the set up. We changed the fairing. We tried different things. My feeling was a bit better. My adapting was a bit better. In others still no. the final result is not what I want because I want to be more in front."
The good thing to come from the test was that he had figured out how to brake with the Yamaha, Dovizioso said. But that on its own was not enough. "About the braking zone, for example I am much better. In some areas I’m braking even better than Fabio and Fabio is braking really good. So I’m really happy to find that way to brake. This is very positive. But I’m losing a lot in some other areas. And too much."
While Dovizioso continues his process of adaptation, his input on development and the direction of the bike is limited. He may prove valuable to the project – his long experience of Ducati and its technological advances was a major reason for Yamaha to hire him, Wilco Zeelenberg told me at Sepang – but while he is still adjusting his riding style and trying to wrap his head around the Yamaha, his input will be limited.
Yamaha's fourth rider is rookie Darryn Binder, riding a 2021-spec Yamaha M1. Putting a rookie on a year-old bike makes a lot of sense: Binder's biggest issue is adapting to the power, the brakes, the electronics, the riding style needed to go fast on a MotoGP machine. He has a lot of learning to do before he can assess whether a particular swingarm provides a better balance between drive grip and cornering stability. The fact that he is coming directly from Moto3, rather than from the far more similar Moto2 class, leaves him even more work to do. And while his progress has been solid – he ended around half a second behind fellow rookies Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez, moving up from Moto2 – he still clearly has a lot of work ahead of him before he can provide useful input.
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