The Viñales Enigma – On Track Off Road Magazine

by Sep 23, 20200 comments


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

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.

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


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