The Monster Energy Factory Yamaha team have launched their 2021 Moto GP effort, but are they, championship contenders? The 2021 line-up for the factory team will consist of Maverick Vinales, entering his seventh year in the premier class and his fifth in Yamaha colours. Vinales will be the ‘senior rider’ for the team because his teammate will no longer be the experienced Valentino Rossi (who will instead be riding for the Petronas Sepang International Racing team) but 2019’s Rookie of the Year, Fabio Quartararo.
The new duo will be lining up on the grid in a livery that matches last year’s almost inch-perfect. The Yamaha factory’s signature dark blue is again interspersed with prominent black and green Monster Energy logos; a clear enticement for the energy drink brand to continue their partnership together, as they enter into the third year. So, same colours, and a new rider. But Yamaha’s problems won’t be fixed by swapping out an older rider for a younger one.
Let’s start with Vinales, now twenty-six, quickly becoming a Moto GP veteran. He showed incredible promise in his MotoGP debut; taking multiple top-six finishes for the Suzuki team to win Rookie of the Year 2015. With podiums and wins, he followed that took him to fourth place in the overall championship in 2016. 2017, saw Vinales move into the Yamaha factory team, winning the opening round of the championship and wins in Argentina and Le Mans, all of which saw him take third overall in the championship. Unfortunately, it never got better than that for the young Spaniard. From 2018 onwards, Vinales has not lived up to the promise he showed in his earlier years. He is the ultimate conundrum of a MotoGP rider because it appears that of late he is very all or nothing. A reputation as a ‘Saturday Rider,’ has come to the fore when discussing him, because whilst the man is incredible at securing pole positions and front-row starts, if those good starts are not converted to him being in the lead at turn one, over the course of a race he tends to disappear. I hate to write it, but there must be a question mark over the man’s future in the factory team. If he does not deliver a good result this year, he could be out of a ride entirely.
Vinales has declined of late, but how much of that can really be blamed on him? The Yamaha is notoriously the slowest bike on the MotoGP grid. When going through the speed traps, it registers as being between ten to fifteen kph slower than the other bikes. This has always meant trouble for them on tracks with long straights. The team were still famous for their corner speed, the chassis and swing-arm combinations would always make their bikes a nightmare for others to out-turn. Taking the 2020 season into account, Yamaha seems to have lost this ability. 2020’s race in Aragon, where Alex Marquez (on a factory Honda no less) managed to overtake every Yamaha bike by turning under them in the corners. When the Yamaha can win races, they do so by taking advantage of qualifying position and a good drag from the line – in battles and packs, the Yamaha’s lose out every single time. Every Yamaha rider has been vociferously clear about the issues with the 2020 bike. They have all stated that every other bike on the grid seems to improve throughout the season, whilst theirs stay the same, or get worse.
With the 2020 engine development freeze in place, it looks unlikely that the factory team will be able to take a good result in this upcoming season. Looking to the future, 2022 could give them the comeback they’re desperate for, due to two reasons. Firstly, Cal Crutchlow’s appointment to Yamaha’s test rider upon his retirement from active racing. It came a bit of a surprise, in both parts because it meant that five times World Champion, and Yamaha alumnus, Jorge Lorenzo was being dropped from the role, and secondly, it seemed that Crutchlow didn’t want to retire. His joining the team can only be beneficial to Yamaha. Crutchlow has a reputation for being no-nonsense and ‘telling it how it is,’ something that Yamaha is desperately in need of, should they actually choose to listen to rider feedback anytime soon.
Secondly, would be the upgrade of Fabio Quartararo to the factory team. Quartararo showed incredible talent in his MotoGP debut seasons, taking seven podiums (which should have been eight were it not for a technical issue in Jerez) and six pole positions. This makes him the youngest pole-sitter in premier class in history. He went on to take three wins in the 2020 season, matching the most amount of victories for a single rider that year, and led the championship, only slumping in the final four races. Quartararo could be a World Champion; he has a natural talent, raw speed and time (being only twenty-one) to do it. However, Yamaha has to listen to their rider’s feedback, and most importantly, they must solve their engine deficiencies. The grid is so full of talent and the machinery is closer than ever before, to be even a second off of the pace is the difference between first and nineteenth.
This year, I’m honestly not expecting any fireworks from Yamaha. Personally, I think the engine freeze is too much to overcome, especially with the KTM’s and Suzuki looking so strong. With Crutchlow on board to show common sense and a long racing career down the throats of the Yamaha technicians, we could see a turnaround for the Japanese/Italian outfit. Who knows, maybe Maverick can rediscover the magic with a bike that’s actually developed.
This article was written by the fantastic Rebekah Lee, our resident Motorsport nut and MA Creative writing graduate. She’s been fascinated by all things motorsports since childhood – follow her on Twitter at @bekahjlee
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