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How Vinales finally banished his Yamaha MotoGP demons

OPINION: Maverick Vinales’ first grand prix victory in three years capped off a perfect weekend for the Aprilia rider after he'd topped qualifying and won the sprint race. The Spaniard seems to have marked a new chapter in his enigmatic MotoGP career, as the demons of his Yamaha days now look to be finally banished

Massimo Rivola, Aprilia Racing CEO, Maverick Vinales, Aprilia Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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Maverick Vinales’ MotoGP career has so far run for 163 rounds since he made his debut with Suzuki in 2015. In that time he has taken 10 grand prix wins, which equates to a winning average of just 6.135% - or one per season, with the Spaniard now in his 10th in the premier class.

His latest came last weekend at the Americas Grand Prix, in which he became the first rider in the modern MotoGP era to win races on three different manufacturers. In MotoGP’s 75-year history, only Loris Capirossi (Ducati, Honda, Yamaha), Eddie Lawson (Honda, Yamaha, Cagiva), Randy Mamola (Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha) and Mike Hailwood (MV Agusta, Norton, Honda) have done what Vinales has.

Truly, Vinales is an enigma. He was the hottest property in the paddock when he stepped up to MotoGP with the fledgling Suzuki project in 2015, having won the Moto3 title in 2013 (a year after he walked away from the 2012 fight over a dispute with his team at the time) and finished third in his only Moto2 campaign in 2014.

His first MotoGP win came in 2016 at the British GP on the Suzuki, by which time Yamaha had already prized him away from its Japanese rival to replace Ducati-bound Jorge Lorenzo. Two races into his Yamaha career in 2017, Vinales had a 100% win record Lorenzo struggled on the Desmosedici, while a third victory followed in a dramatic French GP when he beat team-mate Valentino Rossi in a duel the Italian crashed out of.

Then it all just fizzled out. The M1 package proved inconsistently competitive, with Vinales not winning again until Australia 2018. He won twice in 2019, once in 2020 and once in 2021 at the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix.

But, as team-mate Fabio Quartararo dragged the bike to the championship, Vinales slumped. Poor starts meant he couldn’t fight much on the underpowered Yamaha, while discontent brewed behind the scenes. Yamaha’s replacement of crew chief Esteban Garcia didn’t sit well, while Vinales grew ever more frustrated at feeling like he was becoming a test rider.

Vinales showed plenty of potential with Yamaha before relations soured and he was dropped after the 2021 Styrian GP when in his frustration he deliberately over-revved the engine

Vinales showed plenty of potential with Yamaha before relations soured and he was dropped after the 2021 Styrian GP when in his frustration he deliberately over-revved the engine

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

A lowly 19th at the German GP as he simply gave up saw the cracks widen, as he felt Yamaha’s responses to his woes were “starting to seem disrespectful”. Showing little emotion for his podium at the following Dutch TT, Yamaha announced it had agreed to end Vinales’ two-year deal with it on the Monday afterwards. Then he was dropped with immediate effect after the Styrian GP, as boiling over frustrations led him to deliberately overrev his Yamaha’s engine as he retired from the race.

Vinales has always had his backers, though. In 2021, Cal Crutchlow noted: “If I look at Maverick Vinales, his speed and talent-wise, along with Marc Marquez, there is nobody faster in the championship and he could win a world title with his eyes closed if he puts everything together.”

Aprilia CEO Massimo Rivola is another who has always backed Vinales, offering his career lifeline partway through 2021 and sticking by the Spaniard through 2022 and 2023 when his results were far from where they needed to be.

Aprilia could afford to be more patient than Yamaha. At the time of his souring relationship, Yamaha had been a title contender the year before with Quartararo and was doing so again. The slump it is currently in seemed unfeasible at the time

“We see Maverick very delicate about his performance on the feeling, it’s very much related to the balance of the bike,” Rivola told TNT Sport during the 2024 Americas GP weekend. “More than other riders, but when we find that balance and find that window, now we can work on finding a larger window. I know it’s sounds strange.”

In many ways, Aprilia could afford to be more patient than Yamaha. At the time of his souring relationship, Yamaha had been a title contender the year before with Quartararo and was doing so again. The slump it is currently in seemed unfeasible at the time. Aprilia, by contrast, hadn’t even reached the podium with its RS-GP by the time Yamaha let Vinales go in Austria.

“Obviously the win with Aprilia has a different value because when I sign for them they were P15, P10, and looking how much we grew up this factory,” Vinales noted last Sunday after his Americas GP win. “Obviously, we are a big factory. Still, we need to time to improve and be more constant, but I see this year with a lot of potential in front of us.

“We must be very smart and very focused on the job, and especially things like happened in Portimao [with the gearbox]. It’s about getting more experience and more time in the front, and that confidence we build up. We have to continue, we are a big factory and big factories win races. We did it today, so we need to be very happy and very proud of the job we did. But obviously it’s more difficult what I did right now because we came from the back and today we are on top.”

Vinales backed up team-mate Espargaro in an Aprilia 1-2 at the Catalan GP last year, but had yet to show race-winning form until this season

Vinales backed up team-mate Espargaro in an Aprilia 1-2 at the Catalan GP last year, but had yet to show race-winning form until this season

Photo by: MotoGP

In 2022, Vinales scored three podiums on the RS-GP. Team-mate Aleix Espargaro scored a victory and five other rostrums. The gulf in the championship between the pair was 90 points. In 2023, Espargaro won twice while Vinales could only tally three podiums. This time, though, just two points separated the pair.

The progress, then, has been steady but Vinales has often failed to marry fast practice and qualifying speed with genuine race results. And as 2024 began, as Espargaro raved about the new Aprilia, Vinales admits he “had no confidence” on it from the very first laps in Malaysia in February.

Ninth in the sprint and 10th in the grand prix in Qatar spoke to his lack of confidence on the Aprilia. But from Portugal, the page started to turn. While the Algarve track has always been a good one for Vinales, his ride to sprint victory signalled a serious shift. And a podium was surely on offer in the Sunday race had it not been for the gearbox issue he later revealed was caused by a “human problem”, which led to him crashing out on the last lap.

Convinced he could be just as quick at the Circuit of the Americas last weekend, Vinales followed through. Pole with a new lap record, an emphatic sprint win and easily his best grand prix ride ever provided the proof.

There are two factors which made Vinales’ grand prix win stand out. The first was the fact this form came at a track that is typically weak for the RS-GP. While Vinales was strong at COTA in 2023, finishing fourth, the stop-and-go nature of the track is at odds with the Aprilia’s supreme ability to flow through corners. Indeed, looking at the sector times from Q2, Vinales was fastest through sector 2 (the esses section) and sector 4 (the sequence of fast rights at the end of the lap).

Secondly, Vinales nailed the start in the sprint as he keenly pointed out to the media that his complaints about Aprilia’s clutch in recent years was validated. But an issue in the grand prix mean his launch wasn’t as clean, while contact with Francesco Bagnaia at Turn 1 dropped him to 11th. Come lap 13, he was in the lead again and he would never lose it, getting to the chequered flag 1.7s in front of Tech3 rookie Pedro Acosta.

“In my favour is obviously in the past I didn’t have the weapon I have now, especially to overtake because you know very well I was struggling to be close to the other riders in the past,” Vinales said, in what can be viewed as a shot across the bows of Yamaha. “But how I have the bike right now, how I can really over-brake all the time, it seems that of course it’s not easy to pass but I can try it. And that’s fantastic.

“I have the weapon to try it and that’s huge because obviously you cannot always start and lead the race from the first corner. So, you must fight, and all these guys are braking late, fighting. And I am there also, so this is fantastic.”

Vinales was in peerless form at COTA and charged to victory despite a less-than ideal start

Vinales was in peerless form at COTA and charged to victory despite a less-than ideal start

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Once again, this all comes down to patience. Vinales’ form surge and his finding of the balance sweet spot on his Aprilia, he noted, is in large part down to the time taken for the rider and new crew chief Manu Cazeaux (who previously worked with Alex Rins at Suzuki) to gel in 2023.

“That belief and confidence came from last year,” he said, when asked about the doubts he has received in recent years. “It took one full year with my new crew chief to understand really the bike and what we needed. But it was worth it because since Qatar I’ve been always in the top, or I’ve been fighting for the top positions.

“Obviously when we changed to the new bike it was not easy, but in Portimao we understood well what we needed to do and now I feel very well with the bike. The thing is, when I can ride the bike with my own riding style and being effective, I’m really calm and confident. So, we need to always have a look to the balance, trying to always have the bike on this kind of balance to be able to push and do the best.”

"Every time it repeats, that phrase in my head, ‘never give up’ because hard work pays off and it’s paying off"
Maverick Vinales

Vinales running around in a batman cape, playing to the crowd in Austin with a smile beaming from ear to ear, is a sight MotoGP has seldom seen from the Spaniard since the Yamaha debacle. Autosport reporter Oriol Puigdemont commented to Vinales after his sprint win that he looked like he did in his earliest Yamaha days in 2017 when he looked on course to be a title contender. Vinales felt in every way he is better.

“No, now I’m in a totally different level,” he said. “I wish I was feeling like now some years ago because I have the experience and physically, I feel so strong. This is the year I feel stronger physically speaking, I work a lot for it. I just feel that experience, strong, and the technique I have on the bike is matching together to do these results. That’s fantastic.

“Every time it repeats, that phrase in my head, ‘never give up’ because hard work pays off and it’s paying off. I’m extremely happy. Obviously, I’m doing a lot of effort and my family is doing a lot of effort.”

If there is one rider who embodies the mantra ‘never say die’, it’s Vinales. Many thought the switch to Aprilia was career suicide. And as the results didn’t justify its commitment to him, it was hard to view Vinales as anything other than being lucky to still have a factory ride.

After last Sunday, there isn’t a soul involved in MotoGP – this writer included – who isn’t more than happy to have been proved wrong. Perhaps now, the Vinales that we thought we'd got back in 2017 is finally here to stay…

Vinales has proven his doubters wrong, but can he continue his recent stellar form to recapture his early career momentum?

Vinales has proven his doubters wrong, but can he continue his recent stellar form to recapture his early career momentum?

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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