The changes that will make Yamaha champions again
The 2018 MotoGP season will go down as one of Yamaha's worst in its 44 years in the premier class, as problems with the M1 meant it won just once and finished outside of the top two in the manufacturers' standings for the first time since 2007. Change is afoot within, however, and Lewis Duncan reckons it is just what Yamaha needs to become world champions again.
Between Valentino Rossi's Dutch TT victory in 2017 and Maverick Vinales' first triumph in 15 months in last year's Australian Grand Prix, Yamaha went 25 races without one of its riders stepping foot on the top step of the podium.
This barren spell marked the longest in Yamaha's premier class history, which dates back to 1974, when it debuted in the top tier with its YZR500 OW20. The 17 races which passed in 2018 also surpassed its worst modern era campaign, when neither Carlos Checa nor Marco Melandri could guide the M1 to victory in 2003.
The following season marked a seismic shift for the marque. In came reigning triple World Champion Rossi, backed up by his super crew led by Jeremy Burgess. The M1 was transformed from underachiever to world-beater over the winter, with Rossi winning on his first attempt in South Africa before taking back-to-back titles for Yamaha.
It became clear midway through last year change had to happen. The low-water mark of the disastrous Austrian Grand Prix weekend, when the works pair failed to qualify in the top 10, prompted an embarrassing public apology from project leader Kuji Tsuya.
Tsuya was removed from his position over the winter. Yamaha labelled this as a normal shift in personnel. Former head of the chassis division, Takahiro Sumi, has taken his place. Hiroshi Itou has also been drafted in as general manager of motorsport development at Iwata.
For Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis, the biggest change operationally comes in the form of better “interaction” between the European and Japanese divisions of the team.
“The other change which is very important is the interaction between Japan and Europe,” Jarvis said during Yamaha's livery launch last week. “So Japan is primarily responsible for developing the bike, but now the engineering section of Yamaha Motor Racing takes on a more significant role in the future. So we have a vehicle dynamics group and we have an electronics management group, and we are expanding in Europe, in Italy. So that interaction between Europe and Japan will be very important.”
On the personnel front, Yamaha has undergone changes within the race team itself. Electronics man Michele Gada, who made appearances last year from the World Superbike project, has now been made a permanent member of the MotoGP team. Yamaha made a decent jump in performance in the remaining handful of races in 2018, to the point where it could have won three more races. A mixture of unlocking more from the overall set-up of the bike, Gada's influence played a big part.
Vinales labelled his first two years at Yamaha as the “worst” of his career. In a bid to brighten his horizon, Vinales underwent a number change from 25 to 12 – something of mental comfort, which he hopes signifies a new chapter for himself. A much more tangibly positive change comes in the form of crew chief Esteban Garcia. Vinales and former crew chief Ramon Forcada suffered a breakdown in their working relationship last year as their on-track plight continued. Vinales announced mid-season he would be working with Garcia for 2019, with Forcada now Morbidelli's crew chief at SRT.
Garcia and Vinales have previous. The pair worked together during Vinales' Moto3 days, where he emerged as one of grand prix racing's hottest properties. Rekindling this relationship, according to Vinales, has given him a renewed confidence boost and knows Garcia will be a vital level head when his emotions get the better of him – as they often did last season.
“I think Esteban will be the key to make me stay calm, so I can give my best,” he said. "So, for sure, I think it will be better. I feel more confidence with Esteban on the team. We [also] incorporated Julito [Julian Simon] into the team, he will be my mental coach and also on the track. So I feel I have really good experience with them, and I am the kind of rider who likes to be calm with all my people and the team. So even like this I can give that little bit extra I needed last year, and this year, with all the changes that have been done, I think I can be better.”
The “more significant role” of Yamaha's engineering section Jarvis mentioned has brought with it a significant change in philosophy for the team too.
In previous years, Yamaha has solely operated a test team in Japan, with experienced hand Katsuyuki Nakasuga at the helm, with Kohta Nozane joining the fold in recent times. While useful, what could be gained from this set-up was limited. The likes of Ducati [with Michele Pirro] and Honda [with Stefan Bradl] have highlighted the huge importance of having a European-based test team, so more detailed development – and thus more relevant – development could be carried out.
Yamaha has now finally created its own, with former Tech3 podium finisher Jonas Folger taking on role as European test rider. Folger's speed on the year-old M1 in his rookie, and so far sole, premier class campaign was unquestionable, and this makes his feedback all the more useful to the race line-up than what would be coming solely from the Japanese team. Having a test outfit based in Europe also expands the variation of circuits to carry out development on, rather than simply Motegi.
As well as expanding its testing roster, Yamaha has also backtracked on its philosophy regarding satellite teams. With Tech3, Yamaha always operated by handing down the bikes the works team used at the end of the previous year and with virtually no additional in-season development. It is this which ultimately lost it Johann Zarco to KTM. Yamaha has been lucky in that another heir to Rossi's throne has taken his place in the form of the Italian's protege and 2017 Moto2 world champion Franco Morbidelli.
In perhaps its clearest sign that it is learning from its past mistakes, Yamaha is providing the Sepang Racing Team with factory-supported 2019 M1s. Morbidelli will ride the 'A-spec' bike, which is identical to Rossi's and Vinales', but with a slightly less frequent update rate. Team-mate Fabio Quartararo was supposed to race last year's M1 in his debut season, but will now receive the latest model, albeit with fewer 2019 engines and with slightly lower rpm to preserve them.
It stands to reason, had Yamaha had a works customer effort and expanded test team already in place, it would not have made the same missteps with the 2017 engine it did in the winter of 2016, which Jarvis blamed for his team's bleak campaign last year.
The first fruits of Yamaha's revised labours began to sprout last week at the Sepang pre-season test. It was three days of running which Jarvis made no secret of its importance to Yamaha at its launch event. The signs were promising. The new engine, revised from the generally positively received motor first introduced in Valencia last November, delivered the traction and better tyre management both riders had so desperately been seeking.
Vinales topped day two's running by half a second and was fifth overall, while Morbidelli was eighth on the SRT M1 and Rossi 10th. Vinales heaped praise on the improvements made, citing the steps forward with the bike's electronics as being the first real progressive development made in this are in his two years at Yamaha. Rossi was happy enough, but was wary his pace would not be enough to be a challenger just yet.
What he did however concede was that Yamaha was no longer “lost”. He feels it now has a clear direction; no longer is it chasing its tail when something doesn't work as expected.
Where Yamaha stands as a title prospect at present is hard to say amidst the thick fog of unclarity which envelopes testing. But that doesn't really matter right now when looking at the bigger picture. It has been made abundantly clear Yamaha has learned from what went wrong over the past two years and has actively moved to correct its course through key personnel changes and adopting new philosophies. It is this which will return Yamaha to its former glories.