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If there is a pivotal moment in Yamaha's path to 2020, it is Saturday, 11th August 2018. Maverick Viñales had qualified in eleventh, over a second behind polesitter Marc Márquez. Valentino Rossi hadn't even made it into Q2, and would start from sixteenth. On Saturday afternoon, before Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales started the debriefs with the press, Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Kouji Tsuya made a public apology, to Yamaha's riders, and to the media. The M1 wasn't good enough, and Rossi and Viñales deserved better.
"Austria was the lowest point, let’s say, where we faced the brutal reality of where we were," Yamaha Motor Racing managing director Lin Jarvis told me at Valencia last year. "But I don’t think that Austria was the trigger point, it was the collective result of that season that was the trigger point. What it really came down to is we had been talking a lot prior to Austria and after Austria about needing to change something. What we were doing was not working. We needed to find a new solution."
The Yamaha obsession: engine and top speed
The winter of 2018/2019 saw a lot of changes, especially behind the scenes. Project leader Tsuya made way for Takahiro Sumi, and more engineers came on board back in Japan. New faces popped up in the Monster Energy Yamaha garage all through the 2019 season. At the tests, you couldn't move for people in navy blue Yamaha jackets. Yamaha brought a new engine to the test in Brno, and an update to the test in Misano, then another update to the Valencia and Jerez tests in November.
The progress was visible in the results as well. After the race at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmeló, the best-placed Yamaha rider was Valentino Rossi, in fifth. Teammate Maverick Viñales was down in eleventh, 100 points behind the leader, Marc Márquez. Yamaha riders had amassed a grand total of four podiums from seven races. By the end of the year, there were three Yamahas in the top seven of the championship, more than any other manufacturer. Maverick Viñales was third in the championship, with two victories, and Yamaha riders had racked up a grand total of sixteen podiums, one less than Ducati. The mood had changed completely.
A lot of factors helped to make that change. Changing crew chiefs for Maverick Viñales had helped the Spaniard work better, and in the second half of the season, Viñales stopped playing around with the bike much and left it pretty much alone from race to race. Focusing instead on getting everything he could out of the base package. It was a successful strategy: he won the race at Sepang, nearly won at Phillip Island, had podiums at Silverstone, Misano, Buriram.
Underlying that improvement was also the phenomenal debut of Fabio Quartararo. The young Frenchman was sensational all year, on the lowest spec of Yamaha M1. He set the fastest lap of the race in his debut at Qatar, took his first pole at Jerez, round four, ending the season with six poles in total. He nabbed his first podium in Barcelona, but would have one at Jerez, if his quickshifter hadn't broken. He ended the year with seven podiums, and pushed Marc Márquez to the limit at Misano and Thailand.
Quartararo's success pushed the other Yamaha riders to dig deeper. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider showed what the bike was capable of, despite its weaknesses. He forced the others to find ways to go faster. And he brought hope to Yamaha once again.
Viñales' thoughts on the 2020 Yamaha project
The Yamaha had one big weakness in 2019, however. When Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport interviewed Valentino Rossi, there was one thing he asked for from the M1: "A Yamaha that is 10 kilometers per hour faster on the straight, which is as fast as the Honda and Ducati. I know, that will be difficult…" The M1 was devastating through corners, but as soon as it got out onto the straights, it struggled to stay in the slipstream of the faster bikes. Top speed is an absolute priority, if you are a Yamaha rider.
Have they addressed that in 2020? The results of the November tests look promising. Maverick Viñales ended both the Valencia and Jerez tests as fastest, with three Yamahas finishing on top at Valencia. Yamaha had a new chassis to help with grip, and a new, more aggressive engine with more power. They were still down on top speed, but the gap was a little smaller. But above all, all four Yamaha riders were positive about the progress being made.
Probably the biggest issue facing Yamaha in 2020 is not what happens on track, but in secret meetings between managers behind closed doors. Yamaha is in the luxury position of having arguably the strongest rider line up in MotoGP. Valentino Rossi's credentials – and nine world titles – speak for themselves. Maverick Viñales has finished in the top four for the past four seasons, and was the only rider to beat Marc Márquez by a significant margin in 2019. Fabio Quartararo made an astonishing debut in his rookie season. And former Moto2 world champion Franco Morbidelli was closing on the front runners by the end of the season, once his crew chief Ramon Forcada had gone back to the setup they started the year with.
The strength their line up is both a blessing and a curse. First, they have three riders all deserving of a seat in the factory team. Second, other factories are sizing up their riders and trying to tempt them away. Not only do Yamaha have to find a way to keep both Viñales and Quartararo – at 25 and 20, they could form a partnership to dominate the championship for years to come, and pose a serious threat to Marc Márquez, but they also have to give Valentino Rossi enough time to make up his mind about his future.
That Rossi deserves the time to decide whether to retire or continue is beyond question. Not just for his unparalleled success and status inside Yamaha and MotoGP, but also based on the strength of his recent results. 2019 was Rossi's worst season since returning to Yamaha from Ducati, but The Doctor still managed to finish second twice, and end the season just two points behind sixth place, and eighteen points behind Fabio Quartararo.
What do Rossi and Viñales think of the 2020 M1?
The prospect of a tenth title seems ever more distant, but Rossi still seems capable of winning races, especially if Yamaha give him some of the horsepower he is hoping for. And perhaps his new crew chief, the youthful David Muñoz, can bring him the spark of motivation to return Rossi to winning ways. Rossi has insisted he will wait until after the first few European rounds of MotoGP before making a decision on retirement. That means a decision will be at Mugello at the earliest, but it could come at Barcelona, or even Assen.
That leaves Yamaha caught between a rock and a hard place. Mugello is the seventh round in 2020, at the end of May. That gives Ducati, or possibly even Suzuki or KTM, four months to try to coax Maverick Viñales or Fabio Quartararo away from Yamaha. Ducati has deep pockets, and a burning desire to finally win another title. They have already made overtures to both Yamaha riders, and will use Yamaha's hesitation to pressure them into a decision.
Maverick Viñales is the highest profile target for other factories, and Yamaha have only one way of persuading him to stay. Viñales came to MotoGP to win a championship, but so far, that has proved elusive. If Yamaha can give Viñales a bike that allows him to contend with Márquez, then he will stay. The changes to the crew have put him in the right frame of mind and right environment. A faster bike is the last piece of the puzzle.
Fabio Quartararo is a bit more of a risk for other factories to sign. The Frenchman has been phenomenal in his rookie season, forcing the other Yamaha riders to up their game. He is already a target for Ducati, and obviously deserves a factory Yamaha ride. Yet it is equally obvious that he fits perfectly in the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. The triumvirate running that team – Johann Stigefelt, Wilco Zeelenberg, and rider coach Torleif Hartelman – have created exactly the environment which Quartararo needs to succeed. Quartararo may deserve a factory ride, but it is not a given that he would perform any better there.
Quartararo's rookie season stunned both the fans and his rivals, but if anything, it made us eager to see what he can do in his second year. In his first season, he really took the fight to Marc Márquez. With a year of experience under his belt, what could he achieve? Truly a mouthwatering prospect.
The arrival of the Frenchman in the Petronas Yamaha SRT team rather overshadowed his teammate. Yet Franco Morbidelli started to show some of the potential which earned him a ride in MotoGP. Morbidelli had to recover from a difficult first year on the Honda, and readjust his riding style to the Yamaha M1, the polar opposite of the Honda RC213V. Under the stewardship of the Petronas team, and starting from a stronger base than in 2019, Morbidelli could surprise a few in 2020.
If 2018 was a year of disaster for Yamaha, and 2019 a year of rebuilding, 2020 should be the year which sees the Japanese manufacturer return to the top of the standings. It took a while, but the ship has been turned around, and is heading in the right direction once again.
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