The MotoGP enigma who needs to step up at Catalunya

With a win-rate of just 10.66% from his time on a factory Yamaha MotoGP bike, it can't be disputed that Maverick Vinales has underachieved in recent seasons. Now on the third crew chief of his tenure at the team, he won't have too many more opportunities to turn the tide against his rapid new team-mate

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

MotoGP hasn’t had a quiet week off between the Italian and Catalan Grand Prix. KTM put rider market pieces into place for 2022 by extending factory rider Brad Binder's contract until 2024 and promoting Moto2 championship leader Remy Gardner to Tech3, while Pramac re-signed Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin.

But the most significant move came from within the Yamaha stable. On Thursday the Japanese marque confirmed, by mutual agreement, that Maverick Vinales’ crew chief of two-and-a-bit years Esteban Garcia had been moved aside and ex-Valentino Rossi crew chief Silvano Galbusera had been drafted into his place.

This all comes in the wake of a difficult run for Vinales since winning on the opening night of the championship in Qatar back in March. Since then, he has failed to trouble the podium, all the while team-mate Fabio Quartararo has romped to three victories (and arguably should have had a fourth at Jerez had it not been for an arm-pump issue) to take a 24-point lead in the championship. Even in qualifying, Vinales has beaten Quartararo just once in 2021 – the average gap between the pair on Saturdays when analysing the first six rounds stands at a whopping 0.411 seconds.

Once again, after such a promising winter, Vinales looks lost. It's a tale that is all too familiar, but it’s one with no excuse either. Both Vinales and Quartararo had difficult 2020s aboard an inconsistent M1 package. Yamaha has made clear gains over the winter in this regard, improving the bike’s front-end while finally deploying its own front holeshot device in last week's Italian GP at Mugello – which Quartararo used to excellent effect to only lose one position from pole on the run to Turn 1.

Quartararo too worked on himself over the winter, spending time with a sports psychologist, his gains as a rider marrying perfectly to the improvements made with the M1.

In his defence, one could argue that Vinales' struggles pale by comparison with those of Petronas SRT rider Rossi on the same bike. But Rossi’s form has been in decline for a few years now and retirement surely looms. What further invalidates this argument is the fact that, right at the beginning of 2020, Vinales was deemed necessary to Yamaha’s own plans to be signed up to a two-year deal through to the end of 2022 alongside Quartararo.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing crash

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing crash

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

In its pre-season preparations, Yamaha hinted at the efforts it had gone to in order to help Vinales gain better belief in his own abilities. And ostensibly, this change in crew chief was a Yamaha decision.

“From three, four races ago I don’t feel good, I don’t feel on my maximum potential,” Vinales said of the situation on Thursday in Barcelona. “So basically, I was talking a lot with Yamaha and Yamaha decided to face this with another strategy, which was to change the crew chief.”

The word 'ostensibly' is used because there have been rumours to the contrary, that it was Vinales himself who instigated the swap – and that even Garcia felt the need to move on. But whatever the truth, Vinales had a strong personal relationship with Garcia and admitted the switch “hurt” him – even though he “trusts” Yamaha’s judgement.

But it’s for good reason some have cast doubt on the official line from Vinales about the switch, because it’s not the first time it’s happened. When Vinales joined Yamaha in 2017, he was paired with Ramon Forcada, who helped engineer Jorge Lorenzo’s three world titles. But that relationship soured as Yamaha’s form nosedived across the second half of 2017 and throughout 2018. As a result, Vinales asked for Garcia – with whom he won the 2013 Moto3 crown – to be brought in, while Forcada was sent to Petronas SRT to partner Franco Morbidelli.

"When the bike is working and I can take out the maximum I’m able to win the race. So, this is the fact. We have our team-mate that is winning every race and we are doing top 10, so something is not working" Maverick Vinales

Vinales is now five seasons into his Yamaha career and now on crew chief number three. If he was already under fire for his results relative to Quartararo, he has absolutely nowhere to hide now with this latest crew chief change that Yamaha – if we accept the official line – made because it felt it would benefit the Spaniard.

Vinales has come in for some stick recently for how he’s handled his poor results. Often he has talked about being happy with the bike and the performance despite an average result – this was the case at Mugello, when he was 17.239s off race-winning team-mate Quartararo in eighth.

Vinales struck back at this on Friday at Barcelona – having ended the day eighth – saying claims he is not self-critical are nonsense, as believes no one is harder on himself than he is. And pleasingly, when asked by Autosport on Thursday if his latest crew chief change meant he now had no more excuses, he kicked back.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“I never had excuses, honestly,” he said. “I just have facts and the fact is when the bike is working and I can take out the maximum I’m able to win the race. So, this is the fact. We have our team-mate that is winning every race and we are doing top 10, so something is not working and I start in Mugello for example in FP1 quick, normal, I felt good. And then step by step I felt worse and worse.

“The only thing what I can say is Yamaha had a quick reaction, I didn’t expect that for me and I trust a lot the team. So, I will trust that change and I will trust the way because in the end the level is clear, the bike is fantastic and we cannot lose that opportunity because it’s not every year you have that fantastic bike.”

To his credit, Vinales’ demeanour post-difficult races lately can be traced back to 2018 and 2019 when his debriefs could be quite dour when things weren’t going his way. And this was something, with Garcia’s help, he vowed to axe as he felt he needed a positive attitude always.

And a positive atmosphere is certainly something Galbusera – who worked with Rossi between 2014 and 2019 – seems to have brought to Vinales’ garage on Friday at Barcelona: “Honestly, I’ve been quite calm during the day. I understand our job, it feels very nice.”

Vinales’ way of working has also changed through Galbusera. The main objective on Friday in Barcelona was to regain front-end confidence. That was mission “accomplished”, according to Vinales, who admitted the means of doing this – which was to “try many different bikes during FP1 and FP2" – was something he wasn’t used to. Though there are “other problems” to fix still, the Vinales/Galbusera relationship is already showing signs of vindication on Yamaha’s part.

After Friday’s running, Vinales still has work to do to get on terms of Quartararo, who once again already looks like one of the favourite for victory after showing off “great pace” in FP2 on new and used medium rear rubber.

Quartararo – who was third overall - did five laps in the low 1m40s on a new medium rear ranging from 1m40.006s to 1m40.272s. On his second run on the same tyre, he managed four mid-1m40s laps, ranging from 1m40.455s to 1m40.641s. There is a bit of a drop, but most riders noted tyres tended to lose a bit of lap time between runs after they’d gone back in their blankets.

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

This was true for second-placed Franco Morbidelli on the two-year-old SRT M1, though not as dramatically for him on the hard rear tyres. Hailing it as his best Friday of the year, the SRT rider clicked off a couple of high 1m39s before dipping back into the low 1m40s on an 11-lap first run in FP2. Although he only did three laps in his second run on that same used hard rear tyre, one effort – which was ultimately cancelled for exceeding track limits – was a 1m40.435s.

Showing good performance and durability, a number of riders have said they’ll take a look at the hard rear on Saturday for evaluation.

Vinales’ first run in FP2 on a medium rear ran for seven laps and six of those were in the 1m40s, ranging from 1m40.370s to 1m40.755s. He managed three 1m40s in a four-lap second stint on the same medium rear – a 1m40.823s, 1m40.927s and 1m40.903s. The potential is there, but Vinales conceded lap time wasn’t the main aim of Friday for him. In an almost Jedi-like fashion, he “focused more on feelings” on the bike.

When you consider Quartararo has won six races in his last 20 with Yamaha, Vinales’ hit rate simply isn’t good enough for a rider of his calibre. Nor is the current 41-point gulf between them in the championship

But that will be work that could pay off handsomely come Sunday. Grip levels at the Catalunya circuit are at a premium, with the Hondas and Ducatis in particular being affected more by the lack of grip available. Francesco Bagnaia joked the Barcelona surface felt more like Rossi’s dirt track at his famous VR46 ranch, while LCR rider Takaaki Nakagami said it felt like he was on rain tyres in FP1. The exception to this for Ducati riders has been Zarco, who topped proceedings – though felt that wouldn’t have happened without Quartararo’s tow.

Low-grip situations have typically tripped up Yamaha in the past, but that hasn’t been the case in 2021 so far. That said, Vinales notes he’s struggling currently on the right-hand side of the tyre through the final sector – his deficit to Morbidelli over three tenths in that split alone. If he tidies that up, Vinales will find himself in the ballpark.

In 75 races as a factory Yamaha rider, Vinales has won just eight times. Now, eight wins in MotoGP is nothing to be sniffed at. But when you consider Quartararo has won six races in his last 20 with Yamaha, Vinales’ hit rate simply isn’t good enough for a rider of his calibre. Nor is the current 41-point gulf between them in the championship.

Whatever the real reason for Vinales’ change in crew chief ahead of the Catalan GP, what’s clear is that it has to give way to tangible progress. If not, serious questions will need to be asked about how Vinales fits into Yamaha’s future plans…

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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