Scoring a factory ride with Yamaha is a huge achievement, but with it comes expectations. We sat down with Maverick
It didn’t take long. After blazing a trail through MotoGP’s lower classes, Maverick Viñales arrived in the premier class in 2015 aged just 20, but already with a big reputation. While he was never officially anointed as a MotoGP alien, there’s no doubt he is one of the most talented arrivals to the sport in the past decade.
A factory ride with Suzuki was the perfect place to start. After a three-year break from MotoGP, Suzuki Racing was returning with a newly developed machine, and no one expected instant success from the GSX-RR – or, as a consequence, from Viñales.
And so it proved. “MotoGP is not easy,” Viñales says. “When I came from Moto2 I was thinking okay, now I can go there and be in the front, but it’s not like this you know. The level is four, five times higher, and there is not only riding a bike, you need to think a lot on the bike.”
In 2015, Viñales and his teammate Aleix Espargaró finished in 12th and 11th respectively, with a best result of sixth (managed by both riders). This year the improvement has been dramatic, especially for Viñales who more than doubled his points haul to finish fourth. With three third place finishes and a famous maiden MotoGP win at Silverstone, he has begun to find his place among the front-runners.
It was no surprise then when Yamaha began courting him – and he began weighing up the offer. It was also one of those paddock subplots that intrigue fans. Many of us have a soft spot for the underdog, and for the one-team man. Wouldn’t it be romantic for Mav to stay loyal to Suzuki and take them back to the top, a la Casey Stoner at Ducati? From the outside we could almost sense him wavering – Yamaha even lined up Dani Pedrosa at one point when it looked like Viñales might not move.
“It was really hard,” he confirms. “I had three or four races to think what to do because even in that moment Suzuki was not at that level as now, I was thinking it was on a good level. We was just needing a little bit more experience for the races. And the people that was inside Suzuki and the trust they give to me, this make the decision very complicated. For me all the team together, they are an incredible team.”
Finally, in May, the move was confirmed. Maybe it was a small victory of head over heart, but the history books, when looked at dispassionately, make for stark reading. In the past 30 seasons, Honda and Yamaha have together won the championship 27 times. Suzuki just twice.
“Yamaha is always there on the top, and not just now, also in the past. So I was trying to just take the best choice for me. And finally the resource, you know. As a riding style I can be on the level of the top riders, but it’s not only the riding style. All the team needs to be on the level. It’s important electronics, tyres, suspension, everything, you know. Everything needs to be perfect to be on the level.”
Electronics are a case in point. While all teams had to adapt to unified Magneto Marelli software this year, Suzuki seemed to find it particularly hard in certain conditions. When asked about the most difficult moments in 2016, Viñales answers without hesitating. “Races on the rain we were struggling so much. We start to go better on the rain in Brno and in Silverstone, but honestly on the rain we are not 100 per cent, it was really difficult. Assen, Sachsenring, all the races we were struggling a lot. It’s so important to have a good electronics on the wet.” The problems continued at Sepang.
The Yamaha deal was finally struck in May. Then in September came his win at Silverstone, where he destroyed the field by five seconds.
“I didn’t expect it,” he admits. “Maybe to win yes, but like that it was difficult to expect, with so much gap. And honestly it was awesome, for me and for the team, because it is a victory of a lot of work behind, and you know make a win when you are developing one bike it’s really nice.”
Despite the moment of joy – and the feeling of taking a big leap forward with the bike – he says there were no regrets. “Even on that moment when I make the decision [to move to Yamaha] I did the podium [in France] and then I did second in the qualifying in Mugello, so already the bike was there. Sure it was not because of the win that now I think maybe, maybe not. I go one hundred per cent.”
He will be replacing Jorge Lorenzo and lining up next to his hero, Valentino Rossi. “It feels good,” Viñales says. “It’s a really good motivation for me. When you can be a teammate of your idol, it means that you are like nearly on the same level. So honestly it is a big thing. I feel really motivated.”
It’s instructive that he is focusing on things within his control, rather than what could – if history is anything to go by – become a fraught relationship. This steely self-reliance will stand Viñales in good stead, as will his learnings over two years at Suzuki.
“I gonna take away all the experience. First to develop one bike, then all the electronics and all the Suzuki work, also all the strategy of the team, the work in the box. We have many many things to bring to another team.
“For us, the big thing to manage was don’t lose the way, to put the bike on the maximum potential. It was easy to lose, you know, because we was trying many things on the race weekend. What I know is that we did a really good job, Aleix and I, to develop the bike, so sure it’s not the same bike that we took in 2014 in Valencia. It was really really bad.”
It’s now up to new riders to continue that progress. The future stars for Suzuki are the famously fiery Italian Andrea Iannone and the one-time Moto2 title hopeful, Álex Rins. Could they realistically be battling for the top places next year?
“I don’t know, it’s difficult,” Viñales says. “I didn’t try another bike so I don’t know how high is the level of the Suzuki. I hope they can be competitive, but to be on the top, I don’t think so.”
In contrast, Viñales will from now expect to be consistently at the pointy end, and will relish more fairly matched contests with his old sparring partner from minimotos, Marc Márquez.
“It’s nice to battling with him because he’s already the world champion. You’re going to battle with the number one of last year, so it is good.”
That step up, and the associated increase in profile, is another big challenge. Maverick was named after Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun. But if the two of them met now, it’s debatable who would be the bigger star. Viñales says he’s ready for the glare of the spotlight, and the weight of expectation.
“My strategy is trying to be relaxed and race by race, this is the important thing, you know? Friday is Friday, Saturday is Saturday, Sunday is Sunday. If you can make all this system to all the championship you gonna be strong. You don’t get tired. Sure you have pressure, but not a lot. So I gonna try to keep it like this. But anyway, everyone in my new team they want to win, they do with Jorge now, so we’re gonna push for that.”
Though we only speak to him briefly, what is most striking about this 21-year-old is his professional demeanour. When asked about concrete goals for 2017 he laughs for just a second, then settles once again into an expression which is much more like Iceman that Maverick.
“In my mind what I want to achieve is the title. Finally you ride for that. But you need to see how this season is going, it’s not easy, in one season it can change, you know the objective. But anyway we’re going to start the season with the maximum objective. For sure the test [in Valencia] needs to be an easy ride, just being on the bike a lot of laps and trying to adapt now the style to the new bike. Then next year, sure I’m going to push to be in the top. I’m gonna try.”
WORDS MARK VENDER PHOTOGRAPHY GOLD & GOOSE