The MotoGP puzzle that has to rise in Catalonia

MotoGP did not have a quiet week between the Italian and Catalan Grand Prix. KTM has established the rider market for 2022 by extending factory rider Brad Binder’s contract to 2024 and promoting Moto2 championship leader Remy Gardner to Tech3, while Pramac re-signs Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin.

But the most important step came from the Yamaha stable. On Thursday, the Japanese brand confirmed by mutual agreement that Maverick Vinales’ two-and-a-half-year-old crew chief Esteban Garcia had been pushed aside and the former crew chief of Valentino Rossi, Silvano Galbusera, had been called in in his place.

All of this is down to a difficult run for Vinales since winning the championship opening night in Qatar in March. Since then, he hasn’t managed to disrupt the podium while his teammate Fabio Quartararo has taken three wins (and arguably should have taken a fourth at Jerez if there hadn’t been a problem with the arm pump) to a 24-point lead in the Championship. In qualifying, Vinales only beat Quartararo once in 2021 – the average gap between the two on Saturdays when analyzing the first six laps is a whopping 0.411 seconds.

Once again, Vinales looks lost after such a promising winter. It’s a story all too well known but also without an excuse. Both Vinales and Quartararo had a difficult 2020s on board an inconsistent M1 package. Yamaha has made significant strides in this regard over the winter, improving the front of the bike and finally using its own front holeshot device at the Italian GP in Mugello last week – which Quartararo made excellent use of to only manage one position on the run Losing from Pole to Turn 1.

Quartararo also spent the winter working on himself and spending time with a sports psychologist, his accomplishments as a driver being in perfect harmony with the improvements made to the M1.

In his defense, it could be argued that Vinales’ fights pale in comparison to those of Petronas SRT rider Rossi on the same motorcycle. But Rossi’s form has been in decline for a few years and retirement is certainly imminent. What further invalidates this argument is the fact that Vinales was deemed necessary right at the start of 2020 to support Yamaha’s own plans to co-sign a two-year deal with Quartararo through the end of 2022.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing crash

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

In pre-season preparations, Yamaha hinted at the efforts it had made to help Vinales become more confident in their own abilities. And supposedly this change in crew chief was a decision by Yamaha.

“For three or four races I haven’t felt well, I don’t feel my maximum potential,” said Vinales on Thursday in Barcelona about the situation. “So basically I talked a lot with Yamaha and Yamaha decided to counter that with a different strategy, namely to change the crew chief.”

The word “alleged” is used because there were rumors to the contrary that Vinales himself initiated the swap – and even Garcia felt the need to move on. Whatever the truth, Vinales had a strong personal relationship with Garcia and admitted that the move “hurt” him – despite “trusting” Yamaha’s judgment.

But it’s for good reason that some have expressed doubts about the Vinales official line about the move, as this isn’t the first time. When Vinales joined Yamaha in 2017, he was matched with Ramon Forcada, who helped Jorge Lorenzo’s three world titles. But that relationship deteriorated when Yamaha’s form collapsed in the second half of 2017 and throughout 2018. As a result, Vinales asked to bring Garcia – with whom he won the Moto3 crown in 2013 – while Forcada was sent to Petronas SRT as a partner to Franco Morbidelli.

“If the bike works and I can get the most out of it, I can win the race. So that’s the fact. We have our teammate who wins every race and we’re in the top 10 so something’s not working,” Maverick Vinales

Vinales is now five seasons in his Yamaha career and is now crew chief number three. If he’s already been under fire for his results on Quartararo, now with this latest crew chief change that Yamaha has made – if we accept the official line – he has absolutely nowhere to hide for believing that it would benefit the Spaniard.

Vinales recently received a couple of beatings for handling his poor results. He has often spoken of being satisfied with the bike and the performance despite an average result – that was the case at Mugello when he was 17.239 seconds behind victorious team-mate Quartararo in eighth place.

Vinales hit it back on Friday in Barcelona – after finishing the day eighth – saying that claims he is not self-critical as he believes no one is tougher on himself than he is. And happily, when he was asked by Autosport on Thursday whether his latest crew chief change meant that he now had no more excuses, he resigned.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“I honestly never had excuses,” he said. “I only have facts and the fact is when the bike works and I can get the most out of it to win the race. So that’s the fact. We have our teammate who wins every race and we are in the top 10, so something is not working and for example I start in Mugello in FP1 fast, normal, I felt good. And then, step by step, I got worse and worse.

“The only thing I can say is that Yamaha reacted quickly, I didn’t expect that and I trust the team very much. I will trust this change and trust the path, because in the end the level is clear, the bike is fantastic and we cannot miss this opportunity because you don’t have this fantastic bike every year. “

To his credit, Vinales’ demeanor after difficult races recently can be traced back to 2018 and 2019, when his debriefings could be quite grumpy when things didn’t go according to him. And this was something that, with Garcia’s help, he vowed to eliminate himself as he felt he always needed a positive attitude.

And Galbusera – who worked with Rossi between 2014 and 2019 – certainly seems to have brought a positive atmosphere to the Vinales garage in Barcelona on Friday: “To be honest, I was pretty quiet during the day. I understand our job, it feels very good. “

The way Vinales works has also changed with Galbusera. The main goal on Friday in Barcelona was to regain the confidence of the front-end. The mission was “accomplished,” said Vinales, who admitted that the means to do this – namely, “try out lots of different bikes during FP1 and FP2” – was something he was not used to. While there are “other issues”, fix yet, the Vinales / Galbusera relationship is already showing signs of justification on the part of Yamaha.

After Friday’s race, Vinales still has a lot to do to deal with Quartararo, who once again looks like one of the favorites to win after showing “great pace” on new and used medium rear tires in FP2.

Quartararo – who finished third overall – did five laps in the low 1: 40s on a new middle tail that ranged from 1: 40.066 to 1: 40.272s. In his second run on the same tire, he managed four laps between 1: 40.455 minutes and 1: 40.641 minutes. There’s a small drop, but most riders found that the tires tended to lose a bit of lap time between runs after getting back into their blankets.

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

For runner-up Franco Morbidelli on the two-year-old SRT M1, this was true, if not so dramatically for him on the hard rear tires. The SRT driver praised it as his best Friday of the year and clicked off a few high 1:39 seconds before diving back into the low 1:40 seconds in an 11-lap first run in FP2. Although he only drove three laps on the same used hard rear tire in his second run, an effort – which was ultimately canceled because the track limits were exceeded – was 1: 40.435 minutes.

A number of drivers have shown good performance and durability, saying they will take a look at the hard rear for evaluation on Saturday.

Vinales’ first run in FP2 on a middle tail ran over seven laps and six of them in the 1: 40s, between 1: 40.370 and 1: 40.755. He managed three 1:40 minutes in a second stint of four laps on the same medium-sized rear end – a 1: 40.823 minutes, a 1: 40.927 and a 1: 40.903 minutes. The potential is there, but Vinales’ lap time wasn’t his main goal on Friday. In almost Jedi fashion, he “concentrated more on feelings” on the bike.

When you consider that Quartararo has won six races in his last 20 with Yamaha, Vinales’ batting average just isn’t good enough for a rider of his caliber. The current gap of 41 points between them in the championship is also not great

But that will be a job that could pay off well on Sunday. Grip levels on the Catalunya circuit are of paramount importance, with the Hondas and Ducatis in particular being more affected by the lack of available grip. Francesco Bagnaia joked that the Barcelona surface felt more like Rossi’s dirt track on his famous VR46 ranch, while LCR driver Takaaki Nakagami said it felt like he was on wet tires in FP1. The exception for Ducati riders was Zarco, who led the case – although he felt it wouldn’t have happened without Quartararo’s train.

Low-grip situations have typically stumbled Yamaha in the past, but this has not been the case in 2021. However, Vinales notes that he is currently fighting on the right side of the tire in the last sector – his gap to Morbidelli more than three tenths in this split alone. If he cleans that up, Vinales will find himself in the ballpark.

In 75 races as a Yamaha factory rider, Vinales has only won eight times. Well, eight wins in MotoGP are not to be sniffed at. But considering Quartararo has won six races in his last 20 with Yamaha, Vinales’ batting average just isn’t good enough for a rider of his caliber. There is also no current gap of 41 points between them in the championship.

Whatever the real reason for the Vinales crew chief to move ahead of the Catalan GP, ​​it is clear that it must give way to tangible progress. If not, serious questions need to be asked about how Vinales fits into Yamaha’s future plans …

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images