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12 days ago
By Matthew Birt

Can 2016 really be happening?

MotoGP™ commentator Matt Birt looks through the year so far after the #BritishGP

With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.

Am I dreaming and will I wake up soon, or have I just witnessed a Ducati win in MotoGP™, a Suzuki win in MotoGP™, a non-factory rider win in MotoGP™ and a British rider win in the premier class in the last five races?

I’m actually pinching myself as I write this column, just to make sure that what seemed like pure fantasy a few weeks ago has become startling reality in a truly a remarkable 2016 World Championship campaign. The history books are being torn to shreds on almost every lap at the moment and last weekend’s British Grand Prix was no exception.

Maverick Viñales won Suzuki’s first MotoGP™  race since Le Mans in 2007 and the Japanese factory’s first dry race victory since way back in 2000 when Kenny Roberts Junior won at the Twin Ring Motegi. After Andrea Iannone won in Austria, Jack Miller in Assen and Cal Crutchlow in Brno, Viñales became the fourth first-time winner in MotoGP™ in just five races.

That hasn’t happened since 1982. MotoGP™’s current golden era has seen seven different winners in the last seven races, and it is only the second time since World Championship racing began back in 1949 that such an incredible sequence has occurred. If anybody other than Rossi, Lorenzo, Marquez, Viñales, Iannone, Crutchlow or Miller wins this Sunday at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli then yet more history will be made.

No pressure on the likes of Dovizioso or Pedrosa then!

Four different factories have now won in this year’s MotoGP™ World Championship for the first time since 2007, fully vindicating Dorna’s drive to make the elite class an arena that’s affordable and easier to be more competitive.

Take Suzuki, for example. They were enticed out of their self-imposed three-year exile last season because concessions like no freeze on in-season development and unlimited testing convinced Suzuki that it could return with a genuine opportunity to break Honda and Yamaha’s domination of the premier class. Furthermore, the decision this season to implement the spec software further reduced the advantage held by Honda and Yamaha, who boast considerably more financial clout and manpower than the likes of Suzuki.

I’m obviously biased, but I think the events of the last few races provide indisputable evidence that MotoGP™ is the greatest motorsport show on earth.

Suzuki’s journey though back to the top step of the podium has not been an easy one. It’s new GSX-RR is a drop dead gorgeous motorcycle, but Suzuki’s return to MotoGP™ competition as a wild card in Valencia in 2014 was a humbling experience. Test rider Randy de Puniet blew three engines in just one weekend and that calamitous return put Suzuki immediately on the back foot for its full-time return last season. Technical staff back in Hamamatsu should have spent the winter chasing horsepower that the bike clearly lacked. The Valencia debacle meant the off-season became a pursuit of reliability, so engine performance development stalled.

Last year’s GSX-RR handled like a dream. Viñales and Aleix Espargaro were blessed with a rock solid front-end under braking and a sweet-handling chassis that turned on a sixpence and allowed them to carry unrivalled corner speed. But the lack of horsepower and the absence of must-need exotic technology like a seamless shift gearbox meant Suzuki rarely threatened for the podium.

Suzuki’s response in the winter prior to 2016 was swift and surprising.

An extra 15bhp was added to the motor without compromising reliability. The influx of power didn’t have an adverse impact on the chassis and the arrival of the seamless shift gearbox transformed the GSX-RR. Viñales was raving at the first test in Sepang in February and even he had to confess that he had underestimated just how significant the performance gains Suzuki were capable of making. The GSX-RR was suddenly a machine that was competitive on all tracks and in all conditions, though it’s main weakness remains a lack of acceleration grip in extreme hot temperatures.

Making big performances gains with the GSX-RR was essential for Suzuki. They had no choice. Suzuki was not oblivious to the hot rumours circulating for months about big interest from Honda and Yamaha in the signature of Viñales for 2017. Convincing him to stay was so high on the agenda that Suzuki management held more than one summit last winter to plot their strategy on how to keep him.

Maverick Viñales has always looked like the real deal, with the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo. He immediately grabbed attention when he first arrived in the paddock in the 125cc class in 2011 because of his unusual Christian name. His father was an avid fan of the Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun and named him after the main character, played by A-list MotoGP™ fan Tom Cruise. He was also signed to a team that had backing from billionaire socialite and reality TV star Paris Hilton.

So you can see why he instantly aroused people’s curiosity.

It quickly became obvious that he was something special on track. It took him just four races to start from the front row and win at Le Mans, and he kept his nerve in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a final round title decider against Alex Rins and Luis Salom to capture the 2013 Moto3™ title in Valencia. He was then an instant hit in Moto2™ in 2014, and that was when his journey to the top step of the podium in MotoGP™ with Suzuki began.

Suzuki boss Davide Brivio is one of the most astute operators in the paddock. He was influential in helping orchestrate Valentino Rossi’s shock move from Honda to Yamaha at the end of 2003 and commanded huge respect in the paddock. Brivio was alerted to Viñales from the very first moment he turned a wheel in anger in Moto2™, on his debut in the intermediate category in Qatar at the start of the 2014 campaign. He came from 14th on the grid to miss the podium by just three-tenths. But crucially, he set the fastest lap of the race and Brivio was immediately hooked.

When he demolished the field at the long, fast and technical Circuit of the Americas in only his second Moto2™ appearance, Brivio knew there and then in Texas that he had to have Viñales for Suzuki.
What I liked about Viñales was that while Suzuki was willing to take a risk on moving him to MotoGP™ after one season in Moto2™, he was equally willing to gamble on them too. He wasn’t interested in sitting tight in Moto2™ and waiting for Honda and Yamaha to come knocking.

Suzuki was a factory that desperately wanted him when he hadn’t really registered on the radar of any other factory at that time. He knew the GSX-RR would need time to evolve as a competitive force but he wasn’t scared of swallowing a season that at times would be frustrating and difficult. His decision has been fully justified, even if it has proven ultimately to be to the detriment of Suzuki.

It was inevitable he was going to be hot property in the rider market for 2017 and when Yamaha came knocking for him to replace Jorge Lorenzo, he couldn’t say no. Viñales agonised over whether to reward Suzuki’s faith and loyalty to him, but he couldn’t reject the chance to ride a YZR-M1 and test himself against Rossi on the same equipment.

You can certainly never question the ambition of MotoGP™'s most recent winner . Any Independent Team that enquired about his services for MotoGP™ in 2015 was given a quick rebuke. He would only sign for a factory team and that was non-negotiable.

Cast your mind back to 2012, too, when his ambition was perhaps overtaken by the petulance of youth. He sent shockwaves through the paddock when he quit the Blusens Avintia Moto3™ team on the eve of the Sepang race in Malaysia. He branded them a ‘second division’ team before flying home from Kuala Lumpur to Spain in protest. His exile was short-lived and less than a week later he was back in Australia, after issuing a contrite apology. He has learned from and moved on from that unsavory affair and his career has gone skywards ever since. Viñales is now the consummate professional, as well as frighteningly fast, and Suzuki’s loss is Yamaha’s gain. Long-term nemesis Lorenzo may be departing the scene for Ducati but Viñales is going to be another Spanish headache for Rossi in 2017 and 2018.

He won’t be popular next season if he begins to beat Rossi. He certainly won’t be popular if he gatecrashes Rossi’s home party in Misano this weekend and takes a second Suzuki win. Vinales, though, is undoubtedly a big star of the future. At just 21 he is a history-maker by becoming the only rider to win in 125s, Moto3™, Moto2™ and MotoGP™.

MotoGP™’s new Top Gun is flying high - as is MotoGP™. Long may it continue.

Right, I’m off to Misano because I feel the need, the need for speed.