Yamaha MotoGP Project Leader Takahiro Sumi On Where Yamaha Struggled In 2019, And How They Will Fix It In 2020

In 2019, Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP rider Maverick Viñales won two MotoGP races - the Dutch TT at Assen and the Malaysian GP at Sepang - to finish third in the championship. His teammate, Valentino Rossi was seventh in the championship, with two second-place finishes: at the season opener at Qatar, and at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, Fabio Quartararo from the newly-formed team Petronas Yamaha SRT team put on an amazing rookie performance, with six pole positions and seven podiums, ending the season in fifth place in the championship. Teammate Franco Morbidelli crossed the finish line inside the top six on seven occasions and finished the season in tenth overall.

On Christmas day, we visited Iwata in Shizuoka prefecture to ask Yamaha Motor Company’s MotoGP Group GL (Group Leader) Takahiro Sumi about how their 2019 season had gone, what the objective for 2020 would be. First of all, Sumi-san gave Yamaha's perspective on the disappointing first half and the hopeful latter half of the season, before moving on to an exclusive interview.

Franco Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi at the 2019 Misano MotoGP round

“Before starting the development for the 2019 season, we discussed with engineers, teams, and riders about what we have been lacking and what we would have to concentrate on. Although people say turning is one of the Yamaha’s strong points, we couldn’t take advantage of it enough in 2017 and 2018. Obviously, we don’t have the same top speed as Ducati, so that our objective was developing the bike that is the strongest in the 100 meters before and 100 meters after the corners. You may assume that we improved chassis, but we didn’t do that very much. What we concentrated on was improving the engine in order to be more competitive in the corners.”

Their approach to catch competitors in corners in order to compensate for their lack of top speed means they needed better acceleration to reach their top speed as quickly as possible. It also means they needed a smooth exit from the corner as well as high corner speed. And to make that happen, they needed better deceleration. As a consequence, each separate section of the corner is closely related to the others.

According to Sumi-san, Rossi complained a lot about exit, while Viñales pointed out that he had to struggle at entry.

“Although Valentino said he has a problem in acceleration and Maverick said he struggled in braking, when we improved Maverick’s setup in entry and tried it with Valentino, it worked for him, too. Both riders’ complaints looked different, but the treatment for one rider worked well for another, which meant what we had to do for them was quite similar between the two riders. As a result, both riders’ bikes were almost identical and there were no big differences.”

Rough start

Although Maverick Viñales took pole position at the season opener in Qatar, he only managed to finish the race in seventh place. In Texas, he crossed the line in eleventh. In Le Mans, he had to start the race from eleventh on the grid. Obviously, he could not display his potential in the beginning of the season. However, after the victory in Assen, he seemed to be getting back some of his consistency. After the summer break, Viñales started taking front rows and podiums in many races.

“At the beginning of the season, we were very nervous, until we won the race in Assen, to be honest,” Sumi confessed. “We are always trying to improve our engine power, but in the 2019 season, Honda acquired as same top speed as Ducati, and KTM became faster, too. Which means the Yamaha became slower compared to them, and it made our riders struggle more than ever. We had to do something, but as the technical regulations stipulate, we cannot improve our engine to gain more power during the season. Consequently, we tried to improve our chassis and setup little by little, and set an objective to win races where we wouldn’t have a big disadvantage in top speed.

At the Catalunya GP, although neither of our riders could score a good result due to the multi-rider pileup on lap 2, they had a good feeling before the crash. That setup helped Maverick to win the race in Assen. In the second half of the season, he got back his rhythm and was able to follow Marc in many races.”

Gaining confidence

Viñales recovered his competitiveness because of the improvement of the Yamaha, and it allowed him to regain confidence again.

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Fantastic read. My favorite part is when they throw shade on Honda's bike with this line: "Now, we are working very hard to win back the championship title from Marc"

Incredibly insightful read, i'm very happy with my new subscription! :) I love how specific Sumi-san is about each rider: Vinales' needs for psychological stability, Rossi's unending hunger to get better, Quartararo's fearless riding, Morbidelli's insightful feedback. It sure puts a cap on all the tin-foiled-hat nonsense about last season, painting a picture where the riders weren't trying to find excuses (Rossi for his decline, Vinales for his not winning again, and so on), but there rather were a few key issues to address, within the variability of each rider's style. To hear the material used, and on track issues, were so close between them despite riding styles, is enlightening.

One of the clearest, concise and most understandable interviews of a motogp factory technical staff that I have ever read. Sometimes I find it hard to understand what they are really saying, but in this interview the questions and responses were very clear. Thanks.