What a difference twelve months has made for Yamaha in MotoGP…
After three rounds of the 2021 MotoGP World Championship season it had done the triple, once with Maverick Vinales and twice with Fabio Quartararo, who set off on his route towards the 2021 title with success in Qatar and Portimao.
Roll forward to now and Yamaha not only finds itself in trouble as the European leg of the 2022 MotoGP season kicks off, but it could potentially be plunged into full crisis mode depending on the outcome of the next race.
Indeed, alarm bells were already ringing at the Qatar opener as Quartararo labored to a distant ninth place finish around a circuit he was victorious at a year earlier.
A podium in Indonesia steadiest the ship but that was in the wet before an eighth in Argentina and a seventh in COTA reduced Quartararo to bit-part roles clearly not befitting of the effort he is putting in and the skill he evidently has.
The Frenchman has kept his emotions in check thus far, but one could interpret this as a worse indictment towards Yamaha than if he was fuming. Indeed, he isn’t so much frustrated or worried, but more resigned… or put another way, he’s not angry, just disappointed.
“I’ve gotten used to this performance deficit a bit since the first races. In the end you have to fight with what you have,” he said after his Texas race. “I gave everything today. And to be honest, even though it’s a P7, it was my most important seventh place.”
A pivotal Portimao MotoGP race up next
It’s what makes the next round in Portugal so crucial as it will provide a perfect barometer for Yamaha to determine the trajectory of its competitiveness compared with last year’s two MotoGP races held in the Algarve.
In April, Quartararo waltzed to a dominant win by almost five seconds from pole position.
In November, he suffered a rare slip off as he pushed the limit to recover ground from an unusually lackluster qualifying effort that left him seventh on the grid and scrapping against bikes that negated his advantage in the corners by just easing past on the straight.
Fittingly, it was at this round in Portugal where Quartararo – with the 2021 MotoGP title safely in his pocket – felt compelled to speak up and warn Yamaha the M1 risked being left behind by its rivals if the manufacturer didn’t change its philosophy of incremental development updates – aka. It needed to find more power and do so quickly.
Now, in April 2022, Quartararo’s worst fears appear to have been realized with his run to seventh in the USA noted for his dogged determination to make up the time he was haemorrhaging at full throttle.
If Portimao #1 was a clear victory and Portimao #2 was the first flag raised, then what is awaiting Yamaha at Portimao this time?
Why Yamaha should have seen this coming
In some ways, Yamaha perhaps shouldn’t be surprised it is lagging behind its rivals at the moment because its performance has been off for almost a year now.
Of course, Quartararo won the title but as time goes on, the more evident it is that the Frenchman is doing a herculean job dragging top results out of the M1… something his stablemates haven’t been doing for a while now.
Franco Morbidelli’s anonymous form has been one of the more curious tales of the year, the Italian nowhere near the results that took him to the 2020 runners-up spot. He’s endured a difficult road to recovery following knee surgery, but he’s barely challenged the top ten for some time now.
Over at RNF Racing, while it is clear there is less of a collaborative closeness between Razlan Razali’s new team and the factory now, it is still surprising to see a rider of Andrea Dovizioso’s experience and ability languishing at the back of the field.
The rhetoric from the Italian is not promising either, saying he is wearing himself out trying to find an optimum set-up and then slugging it out on the races to make up for the M1’s speed disadvantage.
Concerningly though, Morbidelli and Dovizioso’s results aren’t terribly different to what Yamaha was achieving in 2021 once you took Quartararo out of the mix.
Indeed, while injury woes and a carousel of different riders played their part, Yamaha’s three other bikes achieved just 46 points between them during the second-half of the year (nine races), or around 15 points each. This compares with the 122 points Quartararo achieved on his own.
With this in mind, did Quartararo flatter to deceive so much on the M1 in 2021 that it has lulled Yamaha into complacency for 2022…?
Will Portimao result decide Fabio Quartararo MotoGP future?
It’s no secret Quartararo has been unhappy with Yamaha’s rigid attitude when it comes to developing the M1, though he certainly isn’t the first to feel aggrieved with the likes of Vinales and even Valentino Rossi airing similar concerns..
Of course, it was the 2021 MotoGP World Champion so it certainly knows what it is doing, but Yamaha has been stung harder than expected by nearly every rival taking a step forward in the one area it is lacking.
It puts greater pressure on Quartararo and co. to ensure a lofty starting position, but at a time when FP3 is as important as Q2 now and factors like yellow flags, traffic and tows are throwing in added variables, a lot is being left to chance for the riders to get that seemingly pivotal front row.
Fortunately for Yamaha, Quartararo’s alternative options offer drawbacks too. He’s likely to baulk at an offer from Honda to be Marc Marquez’s team-mate, while there is no room at the inn to join Ducati. Aprilia is unlikely to appeal and it would take a particularly attractive offer from KTM for Quartararo to go there.
As such, Suzuki is emerging as a top tip for him. Like the M1, the Suzuki GSX-RR was developed around the concept of handling over speed, but – unlike Yamaha – the manufacturer has added a healthy dose of the latter to this year’s package. It’s not perfect yet, but it looks like a stronger all-rounder than last year.
Whether Suzuki will be willing to free up some cash reserves to get his signature remains to be seen but if it was ever tempted to do so, now would be the time…