In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | November 18, 2020

In The Paddock


If Yamaha was to write a navel-gazing book about their 2020 season, that would be the title. And the subhead: “And without gaining anything either.”

The first race in Valencia brought the latest blows in a year of the perfect storm for the MotoGP stalwarts. You have to wonder what they have done to deserve it.

It’s flippant but at least superficially true to say that each racing factory has its own distinct character: Honda, the austere face of arrogant pride; Ducati, noisy and temperamental Italian dramatists; KTM, humorless, earnest and scarily efficient; Suzuki, the blushing faux-virgins with a secret wicked streak, Aprilia … well, never mind.

Yamaha has always played the role of the fundamentally decent bloke: competitive and sporting for sure, but with an open and honest face. You’d instinctively trust him.

It was therefore completely—radically—out of character that they should become the latest victims of the MotoGP police, accused and convicted for, of all things, cheating.

In The Paddock Column
Vinales and Rossi at Valencia GP. Photo Courtesy of Yamaha

They had fallen badly foul of the strict rules limiting not only numbers of engines but also freezing development and sealing them throughout the season. The result was the loss of both Constructor and Team championship points.

Protestations of innocence were not that well received by their rivals, but it was clear that there had not been any real malevolence involved. Just some sneakiness. Possibly inadvertent.

That’s how it stands, in spite of inevitable rumors and conspiracy theories that there was some more sinister intent. Innocent until proven guilty. But punished anyway.

To understand how it went down, you need to recall MotoGP’s frozen engine development policy. Each factory team is allowed five engines per rider (it had been seven, before Covid cut the number of races back from 20 to 14), and they are sealed from the time of homologation, on the eve of the first race.

This last point is somewhat notional, because not all engines will have been built at the cut-off date. But the specifications are sealed. Yamaha had strayed in improperly deviating from the specs—and (the actual crime) failing to inform their fellow MSMA (manufacturers’ association) that they’d done so.

After Yamaha homologated their 2020 engine, they’d been forced to source valves from a different supplier, the original having ceased production. The specs were apparently identical, but the goods and the invoice came from a different address. This alone, apart from likely, if minor, material or process differences, required that they should obtain unanimous approval from the rival teams. The “misunderstanding” was failing to realize this was necessary.

Then things got worse. The new “illegal” valves suffered multiple failures at the first race. They were able to switch back to the originals, but having already effectively lost two each of the five sealed engines per rider they had to cut back on revs and power, to be able to make the season. Already lacking in outright grunt, the riders lost more top speed than ever.

Even then, they had to dig out the first-race engines in Austria for a couple of riders, just to avoid overworking the others. The punishment was for factory and teams to lose points earned at these races.

Should the riders also have lost points? This was the source of a fresh argument. On the one side, they had been innocent of wrong-doing. On the other, as Jack Miller and others pointed out, if there is a technical infringement—say a deviation from spec lubricant or ECU configuration—riders are punished along with their teams and factories. What’s the difference now?

Or had they been punished enough already? Because being left short of power was just one aspect.

Maverick Vinales had to break out a sixth engine in Valencia, and his chances were wrecked with the resultant pit-lane start.

Rossi was (er…) lucky enough to miss two races thanks to the virus, and will probably have enough, But maybe not, since another one died at the first Valencia race, another day of dire results. Although apparently just an electronic glitch—a failed fuel pump.

Quartararo and Morbidelli are definitely on the cusp of pit-lane starts. One of Quartararo’s engines has already seen use at ten race weekends; Morbidelli has already lost a third engine to a blow-up. Of the remaining pair, one has seen use at 11 weekends, the other ten.

On top of all this, Yamaha—having already had to quarantine factory engineers earlier this year—lost five pit staff as well at Valencia. And the last title hopes also faltered. Earlier dominant force Quartararo crashed on lap one, remounting for two feeble points; Morbidelli fell back with tire-pressure issues.

Never mind the self-help book. Neither the Japanese engineers nor the riders might be aware of it, but Shakespeare had already written their 2020 script, in Hamlet. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies—but in battalions.” 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.