Turning Toxic

I don’t know about you but Monday’s news confirming Maverick Viñales’ place at Aprilia for 2022 came as some light relief. It would have been a sad end for one of the sport’s brightest talents to have his career cut short after losing his cool so spectacularly during the Styrian Grand Prix; the standout moment during a whirlwind two months.

To be clear, I’m in no way excusing Maverick’s actions the weekend before last. A glance at his lap times showed he had all but given up two thirds of the way in. There were stops and starts, much like that embarrassing showing in Germany, when he admitted to backing off the fight for 15th, dropping back to last. As Jack Miller said on Thursday, “You’re a racer, that’s what you get paid for, to go racing. To try to beat the next guy in front of you.” Then the heavy revs in the closing laps could well have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Valentino Rossi.  

But watching him make an emotional apology on Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel a degree sympathy. “The first race was perfect and I had started strong,” he said of the three laps prior to the red flag. “But then everything went wrong and it was an explosion of frustration that I did not know how to channel. (It) was so great that I did not know how to manage it.” Cynics may say he had little other option than to admit his fault for financial or career reasons. But it certainly looked genuine, sounded genuine.

And rather than a temperamental egomaniac, susceptible to fits of rage, I saw a young man ill-equipped to deal with some of the stresses that come when competing at this level. Maverick has never been the best communicator, is incredibly emotional and unable to really look within to analyse what has gone wrong. But, much like Jorge Lorenzo, a tough upbringing spent competing, competing and further competing didn’t brandish him with the skillset necessary to make and maintain the close relationships that help you through times of adversity.

It does appear that father Angel has had serious influence on how the season has panned out. Just look at the facts since he has come back into the fold two months ago: Maverick has twice finished last (in Germany and Styria), decided to quit the team that currently leads the Riders, Teams and Manufacturers Championships before being suspended by the team that currently leads the Riders, Teams and Manufacturers Championships. All in the space of two madcap months. It doesn’t exactly speak volumes for this influence.

Other news hinted at how Angel can have an incendiary influence. It was confirmed his team in World Supersport 300 had cut ties with Yamaha last week. His post on Facebook only served to heighten the tension. “What happened today was shameful,” he wrote. “For these things to happen to the rider is why he’s leaving!” Then there was a story in Spanish daily El Periodico which stated Maverick’s dad had accosted Yamaha Managing Director Lin Jarvis of “ruining the last five years of my son’s career,” after the Styria debacle.

Add to this Angel was on the scene during the infamous walkout at Sepang 2012, and none of this hints towards Maverick having a clear-sighted, level-headed presence by his side. As we know, the rider can be hot-headed when the visor goes down, head shakes and arm waves a feature of his unhappier times at Yamaha. It doesn’t take a genius to think the last thing he needs is another temperamental character in his small inner-circle of trust, whispering frustrations in his ear. Clearly the atmosphere from the Viñales camp had turned toxic. This may well have been another factor in the suspension, as well as the incidents during the first Austrian bow.

It was interesting to hear two of MotoGP’s leading names speak of their own methods to keep their parental relationships paternal. It took some time for Fabio Quartararo to find a helpful way to communicate with his father during a weekend. “In 2017 my dad was too involved and we had some fights,” he said. “Then he understood he needed to go back. Then he saw the results were great so he always stays behind the scenes.”

Marc Marquez’s father Julia has been ever-present in his sons’ garages since Marc burst on the scene in 2009. But some strict conditions are attached. “My father is following all the races but he is always in his place, I’m in mine,” Marc revealed. “This is something that was like this since I arrived in the world championship. He doesn’t understand set-up. He doesn’t understand riding. He’s allowed just two questions: ‘how are you?’ And ‘How is your arm?’ That’s it. I’m working in my box with my mechanics, but he just enjoys the paddock life.” If last weekend’s reports are to be believed, the same can’t be said for Maverick at the moment.

It’s a great shame it’s come to this. We all know the guy is talented. Jose Manuel Cazeaux, his crew chief at Suzuki, once told me “It was an obligation to find the way to give him a bike that allows him to win,” such was his raw speed. Maverick comes across as a decent young guy, who is penalised for his hot-headed temperament and, frankly, some shoddy advice.

Not everyone is graced with the kind of mental strength and unquestionable self-belief of a Marc Marquez or a Joan Mir, names Viñales was-and-is seeking to displace. This sport can be grueling and taxing, not least when your team-mate tops the standings. Aprilia will surely be his last hope. More than looking competitive, let’s hope Maverick can find an environment where he feels comfortable and happy once again. It’s been much too long since he gave the impression of being that way.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp