The setting for the launch of the WithU Yamaha RNF MotoGP Team was genuinely spectacular. From the stunning Philharmonic Theater in Verona, Italy, and featuring a couple of doses of opera – a refreshing change from the standard MotoGP diet of electronica or metal – the team walked through the presentation of its riders, its livery, and its team management. The launch was let down by technology – though the Facebook feed was pretty smooth, the YouTube video was stuttery and barely watchable.
Not that it mattered all that much. Team launches, especially of satellite teams, are mostly dog-and-pony shows aimed mostly at flattering the egos of sponsors, and generating a headline or two on a slow news day. In that, it was successful. There was plenty of chatter on social media over the launch.
Afterwards, the media got to talk to some of the protagonists over Zoom, a technology that looks set to stay in MotoGP for the foreseeable future. And that did lead to a few interesting insights, some about the team, some about the state of MotoGP, and what might change.
One of the biggest questions in the minds of many is just how long the RNF team will last, given that the team is on a one-year deal with Yamaha. However, both Yamaha and RNF have made it clear that this is largely a technicality. The deal is limited to a single year due to Yamaha's internal corporate governance rules, which dictate that long-term deals can't be done with newly-formed companies. The Petronas squad had already existed in one form or another since 2014 when they signed the deal with Yamaha for the 2019 season.
That doesn't mean that a contract extension with Yamaha is a formality, however. Team Principal Razlan Razali will have to prove that the team is viable over the medium term, at least. "I think for Yamaha it's all about stability in running the team," the Malaysian team founder said. "We do have a target in terms of on-track performance, of course, but sport is sport, and that includes motorsport with MotoGP. Anything can happen. So for Yamaha, it's more important about how we run the team as a whole for the year."
That was not something he was particularly worried about, given the past few years. "The good thing is we have the experience, Yamaha knows us, it's the same group of people. But still we need to show what can do in terms of running the team." RNF would know its future by the middle of the season, Razali said. "Yamaha will assess how we perform in June. And I'm confident that we can run the team well, so by June, they will look at extension beyond 2022. Whether it's for one more year or two more years is something we will discuss with Yamaha."
Empty nest syndrome
The team is not entirely the same group of people, however. When Valentino Rossi was moved into the Petronas Yamaha SRT team for the 2021 season, he brought with him crew chief David Muñoz and data engineer Matteo Flamigni. After Rossi's retirement, Muñoz and Flamigni departed to the VR46 team, taking several other team members with them.
"One side of the garage remains the same, which is Andrea's garage. The other side, we had to replace because the team that was from VR46 left. So the other side with Darryn, we had to replace with some people," Razlan Razali explained.
This is a common problem for teams when high-profile riders come and go. Back in 2012, when the Grand Prix Commission scrapped the so-called Rookie Rule, which prevented MotoGP rookies from going straight to a factory team, dropped to allow Marc Marquez to move from Moto2 straight into the Repsol Honda squad, one satellite team manager expressed their support for the change. They pointed out exactly this risk, that a rider would be airdropped into a satellite team for one season, along with their handpicked staff, forcing the team to part ways with staff who had often been with the team for many years.
Rossi's departure from the Petronas squad left a massive hole on one side of the garage, and RNF has had to assemble a new crew for Darryn Binder almost from scratch.
The most interesting things Razlan Razali had to say were about the future of the paddock, and of sponsorship. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive rethink inside MotoGP. Prior to the pandemic, the paddock was usually packed, with guest passes seemingly handed out to anyone who asked, as long as they were a friend of the sister of the uncle of the person who cut the hair of a Moto3 mechanic's brother's little girl. It was a reason the riders and teams loved races like Qatar, where there were far fewer fans present, and they could go about their business almost unmolested.
It also met with resistance from team managers and the commercial staff who were in charge of selling MotoGP to sponsors. They were trying to sell MotoGP as a high-value proposition, a difficult argument to make when their sponsors were being trampled underfoot in the general paddock crush of Misano or Jerez. There was a brief attempt to add value for satellite teams a decade ago, when the MotoGP part of the paddock was sectioned off from the rest. But that died an early death as impractical and taking away value from the Moto2 and Moto3 teams, who wanted to give their sponsors value by allowing them a tour of the MotoGP part of the paddock.
The pandemic changed all that. Though the 2020 season was something of a wasteland, with no one granted admission except for those who actually worked in the paddock, 2021 saw a return of guests and sponsors, on a very limited basis. It transformed the paddock, leaving it easy to navigate, while giving sponsors a sense of exclusivity. That gave them a reason to put their money, hard earned or otherwise, into MotoGP.
A new, better normal
Razali highlighted this dilemma. "I think we would like for the paddock to return back to normal, of course, but at the same time, we also like to see actual value guests, rather than friends and families, mainly friends," he said. "I think the paddock needs to reinvent itself to make itself more valuable."
Giving sponsors a sense of exclusivity was key, Razali said. "It is important for the paddock to be a little bit unrestricted, but at the same time we need to control to make sure that the right people have the passes, the right clients, because we really need to make sure that we need new money in the sport, rather than fishing in the same pool. How can Formula 1 attract a lot of investment and MotoGP struggle a little bit? So that's something that the whole paddock and Dorna need to think about, because things are hard, for motorsport especially, but I think MotoGP is valuable enough for us to do more to attract more sponsors."
Finding new sponsors was something the RNF team was trying to do, but it was also a task that faced all of the paddock. And that required ingenuity. "In terms of new money, teams need to find ways to reinvent themselves and find ways to get new money. We are in the process of doing that," Razali explained. "Of course, I have limited time to promote myself to get new money, but slowly we are getting new sponsors. Small at the moment, but eventually they will grow if the situation goes well."
Help from Dorna would also be welcome, Razali said, though he insisted that teams couldn't rely on Dorna to do the work of sponsorship acquisition for them. "I don't want to put too much emphasis on Dorna, they have done quite a lot already, but any kind of help from them to attract new investment, new sponsors, I'm sure the teams are open for that."
Looking at the livery of the WithU Yamaha RNF MotoGP Team bikes, the sponsorship quest is clearly visible. RNF has managed to retain and expand the role of several of their sponsors from the Petronas Yamaha SRT period. But the sponsor-stacking on a busy livery can detract from the proposition.
In a case where there are so many different sponsors involved, the approach taken by Lucio Cecchinello at LCR Honda looks more attractive, offering title sponsorship and maximum exposure at a set number of rounds, and minor sponsor status at others. It makes for a cleaner look, and an easier upsell. But it is not my place to criticize the efforts of others at selling sponsorship.
Results matter for a team's ability to obtain sponsorship, and the WithU Yamaha RNF MotoGP Team rider line up presents some challenges in that respect. On one side of the garage, they have Darryn Binder, the rookie promoted directly from Moto3 amid a storm of criticism. On the other, Andrea Dovizioso, championship runner up from 2017 to 2019, but who struggled to adapt to the new Michelin rear tire in 2020, and who is having to make the transition from the Ducati to the Yamaha, two radically different machines.
The elevation of Binder to MotoGP is a risk, Razali admits. "Yes, it's a big risk for us, and for Darryn especially. But we have capable, experienced people around him, around the team, experienced enough to guide him properly." With Wilco Zeelenberg as team manager and Torleif Hartelman as rider analyst, Binder is in excellent hands.
"For me it's a dream come true," the South African said. "Everybody wants to race in MotoGP one day so to get given opportunity like this, you can't refuse it. It's the greatest opportunity I've ever had in my life, so I grabbed it with both hands."
Chasing a dream
Binder was all too aware of the criticism. "Obviously there were mixed feelings and lots of different comments and stuff, but I mean I would be stupid not to accept my life's dream. I've worked towards this my whole life and if somebody gives you this opportunity you take it and make the most of it."
To assist in the jump, Binder had spent a lot of time riding a Yamaha R1 on track, getting used to the feel of a much bigger and heavier bike. He had also adapted his training, working more on strength and worrying less about his weight, the bane of every Moto3 rider.
But he was realistic about the challenge ahead. "It's definitely a big risk to jump straight to MotoGP," the South African said. "It's not always about how fast you can get to MotoGP it's about how long you can stay there. It's the pinnacle of the sport, you want to get there and stay there for as long as possible. It is a big risk but at the same time I could never reject this offer and it doesn't really bother me. It's been my dream my whole life to ride a MotoGP bike. It's a lot of people's dreams and a lot of people that don’t ever get to live that dream. So I'm going to go there and do my absolute best and as long as I know I gave my absolute all and I believe in myself that I have enough to do well. I'm going to go there and do what I can."
Naturally enough, Binder saw Jack Miller, who moved straight from Moto3 to MotoGP in 2015 as a role model. "Look at other riders like Jack who jumped straight to MotoGP and made it work. Yes it took quite long but very different circumstances for him. There's been riders that have gone through Moto2 in one year and jumped to MotoGP and been good."
Seeing what Raul Fernandez had done in Moto2 also gave Binder hope. "It also gives me confidence when I look at Raul Fernandez. Yes he was very strong at the end of Moto3 but up until then he hadn't done anything crazy. But then he jumped to Moto2 and did amazing things. I've always felt I suited a bigger bike better and that I struggled in Moto3 with my weight and size a little bit, so I feel I suit a bigger bike better, should be more comfortable. I've literally got everything I could ask for in a motorcycle, I've got all the tools, I just need to learn how to use them in the correct way. I believe that I can do that and I’ll be able to go fast."
Teammate Andrea Dovizioso also has work to do, though he comes from the opposite side of the experience spectrum. In Dovizioso's case, the challenge comes from below, as it were. He has to adapt to a Yamaha, which requires a totally different riding style, and to the rear Michelin introduced at the start of the 2020 season. The combination of the two means Dovizioso will have to work on his riding style.
"The new rear tire casing that arrived in 2020 changed the way you have to brake especially and also with the Yamaha it's the same, you have to use the balance of the two tires in a different way," the Italian veteran explained. "And still I think I can use that balance in a better way. Still I don’t feel comfortable when I'm braking I don’t feel that I'm using the potential of the tires and the bike."
He had made progress at the end of 2021, he felt, when he took over at Petronas from the Misano round. "I was improving a lot in the last two races of last season, but I changed completely in the way I was braking, compared to Ducati, because the Yamaha requests different things. And it also helped me to adapt to the new casing from 2020." That wasn't easy, though. "In the way you have to ride the Yamaha, at the moment it is not natural for me. But I think it's not easy but it's possible to adapt and use a bit of your style."
It is a big change, because he has to change the way he thinks about riding. "I think I have to adapt more for sure, because when you have something big about the DNA of the bike you have to follow the characteristic of the bike. But I think you have to keep a few things of your strength, so still I'm working on the small details to try to mix these two things."
The lessons of Lorenzo
Dovizioso took his lead from his former teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, who had made the opposite journey, from Yamaha to Ducati. Lorenzo had struggled in his first year on the Desmosedici, but figured it out in his second year and ended up winning races, ironically right after Ducati had let him go.
"What Jorge did, Jorge started to be competitive when, in my opinion, he changed his mind, his approach and he rode in a different way than the Yamaha, and didn't try to ride like at Yamaha," Dovizioso explained. "But he took something of his riding style. That's why I told you before I think it's very important to adapt because the MotoGP of today – tires, brakes, electronics, chassis – it's quite clear what you have to do in every bike. But every rider has different talent and different experience. And everybody has something special."
Dovizioso's goals for the year are modest, despite the high hopes Razlan Razali has for him. Fighting for the championship, as Razali wants, is a very tough proposition, the Italian said. "I think it would be difficult because the level is so high and you don’t know - still because we have to do the tests – how the situation will be for our bike compared to the other bikes. Because the rules are now open again for engine, for everything. So everything can happen and nobody knows. So I don’t want to say 'yes'. I'm here to try to do that - and I don’t think I will have this year to use like a learning year!"
There was one nugget of information which Andrea Dovizioso let slip, which pertains to his sponsor Alpinestars. In recent years, Dovizioso has been a stalwart of Suomy helmets, and raced with a Shoei in 2021. But in the photos for the team launch, he appeared with a helmet without logos.
"I don’t have a helmet brand because I did the deal with Alpinestars for everything," Dovizioso responded when asked. That is no surprise, given that Dovizioso is also a long-time Alpinestars athlete. The curiosity comes with the fact that Alpinestars do not, at the moment, have a road helmet in their line up, only MX helmets. That would suggest that Alpinestars are on the verge of announcing at least a prototype of a road racing helmet, a rumor which has been doing the rounds for a while.
The Sepang test starts on February 5th, so we should get confirmation by then. Darryn Binder takes to the track earlier, joining the Tech3 KTM duo of Raul Fernandez and Remy Gardner, and the Ducati riders Marco Bezzecchi and Fabio Di Giannantonio at the shakedown test on January 31st, together with the test riders from each of the MotoGP factories.
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