In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | September 16, 2020

In The Paddock


So it goes. When the old order changeth, it changeth properly. It took a snapped bone to dislodge Marc Marquez from domination. But it took their own missteps (compounded by cost-cutting rules that hamstrung development) to unsettle the dominant Honda and Yamaha and open the doors to KTM and Suzuki.

This is as Dorna intended, and KTM’s progress has been a massive endorsement to the concession-team system. With extra testing and engines, and the freedom to do what they like with engine design (along with engineering prowess and copious Red Bull backing), the Austrian company has become fully competitive in four years. Two wins, by the way, mean they have now lost concession status, and freedom for extra testing is over, although the engine-development freeze only takes effect next season.

But GP racing’s two biggest guns have inadvertently helped out, with their own missteps, in turn compounded by rules preventing them from correcting their errors.

Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP
Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP Team returned to the scene of last weekend’s San Marino GP for an official IRTA Test on September 15, 2020.

For some years now, Honda’s deviations, often the consequence of restless over-ambition, have been masked by the ability of Marquez to overcome them. His genius talent and cat-like reflexes allowed him to exploit the bike’s strengths while ignoring its weaknesses.

Others have found the RCV a real handful—take Cal Crutchlow, who is brave enough to keep trying to repeat his occasional successes, but too often crashes out, victim of the RCV’s notoriously queasy front end. Or even more trenchantly Jorge Lorenzo, the master craftsman who was driven into premature retirement by the Repsol Honda’s mean streak.

Currently, the loss of Marc has left Honda uncomfortably exposed. Crutchlow is riding hurt, the other 2020 bike is in the hands of rookie Alex Marquez, who has shown there is a lot to learn. It’s been left to satellite rider Nakagami, quite impressively carrying the can on last year’s bike.

At least the rules mean HRC can address the issue with chassis changes. For Yamaha, the problems relate to the engine. And are therefore unfixable this season.

After some bad years, the M1’s problems have come to a head in 2020 and were acute right at the delayed start of the year. They blamed blazing heat at Jerez for three engine failures—Rossi’s and Morbidelli’s in races; Vinales’s (luckily enough) in practice.

Now with the abbreviated season not halfway done, only Quartararo has not yet lost one of his five sealed engines (allowance cut from seven). He and Rossi each have one unused engine; Vinales and Morbidelli, however, have already taken all five out of the back of the truck. Need another, and that’s a pit-lane start.

What’s going wrong? Yamaha admits to a valve problem, and formally requested official permission to open their engines to replace the valves “on safety grounds.”

Procedure means the request was automatically referred to the MSMA manufacturers’ association. Scenting a rare chance to spy on Yamaha’s secret internals, their rivals requested more detailed information.

This was enough for Yamaha to withdraw the request, and in the words of boss-man Lin Jarvis, decide “to adjust some other parameters” to help them get through the year. In other words: “cut the revs.”

This is bad news for the riders. The Yamaha is known to be a sweet handler but not particularly powerful up against the rival V4s. Austria’s top-speed figures clearly prove the point.

Top of the list, as usual, was Ducati, with Dovi’s bike clocking 199.1 mph, some two mph up on last year. Bradl, on Marquez’s Honda, ran 197.4; then Smith’s Aprilia and Binder’s KTM almost the same. The four Yamahas were clustered right at the bottom of the chart, Rossi’s the best, almost seven mph down. Which is a lot to overcome on a track with fast straights.

The upcoming races are at Misano, where slow corners might offer a chance to regain some pride, though even this is not necessarily a given. The tolerances are so close and the margins so small that Yamaha riders even managed to find some disadvantages in the twistier part of the Austrian circuit.

Rossi has for ages been asking Yamaha for a V4, to match those used by almost all the others. There are several clear reasons that this might be a more effective option, including narrower width allowing a lower engine position, and a combination of less internal friction and a shorter and stiffer crankshaft offering more power. But the V4 also has disadvantages, being longer fore-and-aft, with more awkwardly placed intake stacks, and difficulties with both length and location of the rear-cylinder exhausts.

Just to prove that the issue is not cut and dried, Suzuki use a Yamaha-like inline four, and clearly don’t suffer the same problems.

One thing remains clear. Already on the back foot, Yamaha can ill afford to dial the power back.CN


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Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.