The Viñales Enigma
Nine and a half years have passed since Maverick Viñales made his grand prix debut as a spotty, baby-faced 16-year old in Qatar. And from that moment I struggle to recall eight days that laid out all the pieces of the ‘Maverick mystery’ in such head-scratching detail quite like the recent stay at Misano, a double-header that barely left us any wiser regarding who will lift the 2020 MotoGP trophy in just over two months’ time.
The eight days on the Italian Riviera had all the hallmarks of MotoGP’s leading enigma, when the good was all-too-regularly cancelled out by the bad. With Viñales there are always so many questions. How, for example, do you explain him placing first or second in every free practice session in the first Misano bout, only to bottle it in the race? How could he look so confident on the Saturday after breaking the outright circuit record only to offer up a listless shrug the following day when asked what had gone wrong?
Whether it was gesticulating furiously mid-session, or critiquing his bike and members of his team, the worst of Maverick was neatly placed alongside his very best during the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Namely it was that dizzying one-lap pace and, when everything in the race fell just right, the ability to channel that aggression into unerring consistency.
Yes, he got lucky with Francesco Bagnaia’s fall seven laps from the flag. But Viñales reversed all of the previous week’s misgivings. He started well, built up an early advantage with a full tank of fuel and refused to get flustered as the Pramac Ducati came by. Perhaps it was no coincidence Bagnaia fell after Viñales had shaved a tenth of a second off his lead for three straight laps. “I was coming,” recalled the Catalan just after.
But what made the difference here when Viñales was reduced to a succession of ‘I don’t know’ ripostes just seven days before?
Well, here he got the jump and led into turn one. That’s proving a critical factor for Yamaha’s riders in 2020 (Three of their four wins this year have now come courtesy of a quick getaway). A bike that’s notoriously down on top speed and lacking punch on corner exit, it has become crucial for the M1 – now utilising a holeshot device in 2020 – to get clean air out front. Riders from other marques have got wise to this weakness. Pol Espargaro could keep Quartararo behind for ten laps on Sunday despite his soft rear tyre rapidly deteriorating. “I know the weakest point of the Yamaha,” said the KTM man. “If you kill their corner speed they are quite dead.”
Viñales recognized as much. “My only mentality was to be first in the first lap,” he said. “This was my only target. After I was first in the first lap I was saying, okay, now put the rhythm. You need to start and start first. If you (do that) then it’s another race.”
And ‘put the rhythm’ he did. After Misano 1 Viñales had bemoaned his feeling with a full tank of fuel, reducing him to “a corner in the track for other riders” in the race’s opening exchanges. One week-on he had built up a lead of 0.8s. by the third lap. There have been occasional signs of Maverick working out the adaption to riding with a full tank, notably at Jerez 1 when he forced Marc Marquez to push to the ragged edge from the first lap.
“We change a lot the balance of the bike and I felt straightaway much better for braking,” he said of the set-up alterations that carried him to the seventh MotoGP win of his career. “I can brake very late and keep a tighter line. I just increased the front confidence.”
Perfect set-up or not, the ability to pick up winning pace from the first lap does not come easily. Only a handful of names are regularly capable of adapting to the fresh layer of Dunlop rubber laid on the track by Moto2 and Moto3 and the different grip characteristics that come with it while dealing with a full tank. We consider Jorge Lorenzo to be one of the all-time greats. Yet it wasn’t until 2012, his fifth year as a MotoGP rider, before we saw him mastering a mass start and early lap acumen to deal with Casey Stoner’s threat.
Perhaps the most telling comment on Sunday came when Viñales was asked why he put his finger to his lips after he crossed the line. He was motioning to himself, he explained, “because I need to calm down, especially when the races don’t go as you like.” When that happens, he said, “I get very fired up.” This was apparent the previous Sunday when he looked frazzled on the bike despite free practice telling him his hard rear tyre would need at least ten laps to reach its optimum operating window.
Maintaining calm in the heat of the battle is crucial for any rider. Last year a Yamaha team member told me the pressure Viñales puts himself under was also responsible for his poor starts. Perhaps a former world champion should have figured this out by now. But, at 25, he still has ample time to work on this aspect of his psyche.
As good as this win was, I wouldn’t confidently state a magic solution has been found. Some of Viñales’ post-race comments were puzzling. Utterances like, “This weekend we tried to be all the time on race setup.” When it was put to Maverick that most riders, in actual fact, spend free practice sessions working solely on Sunday afternoon, he shrugged. “Normally you don’t work really for the race because you don’t put the full tank (of fuel). You just put full tank for the warm-up.” Am I alone in finding this comment perplexing?
Replacing ex-crew chief Ramon Forcada with Esteban Garcia and adding rider coach Julian Simon to his entourage at the beginning of 2019 was supposed to unite rider and crew. But there were hints of that trust breaking down over the weekend. Off-camera, colleagues noted how Viñales’ head was gone on Friday evening as he blamed his tribulations on everything excluding himself.
As recently as Saturday he was calling out a team member for his incorrect rear tyre choice for the race at Misano 1. “When you work during all weekend and the guy in charge of tyres says to you that the hard is your best choice, you put the hard. We’ve made many mistakes during many races where my potential was good, but the tyre choice was the wrong one.
It frustrated me a lot.” You don’t hear many champions at this level airing the team’s dirty linen in public. Viñales must learn to address his own misgivings before turning on his own.
No doubt, Sunday was one of those afternoons which makes you ponder why Maverick doesn’t perform in this way more often. But on his day Viñales remains one of the fastest riders in the world. And in this craziest of years, his mercurial nature may yet win out when faced with opponents who can’t quite muster his occasional speed.
By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87
Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP