Common Tread

Three things we learned at Yamaha's MotoGP unveiling

Jan 20, 2016

Normally, I wouldn’t write about an off-season unveiling of a team’s new MotoGP bikes.

But then 2015 was a season that didn’t end normally.

Typically, these off-season unveilings, with riders standing by in leathers they don’t really need to be wearing, generate no real news. For the Movistar Yamaha factory team, and the riders who finished one-two last season amid so much sound and fury, this was not a typical unveiling.

The event took place in an office in Barcelona, but was streamed online. You can watch the entire presentation here, if you have an hour and 20 minutes to spare, or you can skip to the brief video below.

Here are my three takeaways from the event:

There is no (physical) wall

The first time Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were Yamaha teammates, the team built a physical wall between the two in the paddock in the 2008 season. That was not just because of friction between the riders, but also because the two were using different tires, with Rossi using Bridgestones and Lorenzo on Michelins. The tire companies wanted to protect their trade secrets. At least that was the official explanation. With tire wars a thing of the past in MotoGP, no such convenient excuse is readily at hand if another wall goes up.

In any case, Managing Director of Yamaha Motor Racing Lin Jarvis said there would be no wall in 2016 because the teams benefit from exchanging information. “What we ask from the riders is respect,” said Jarvis, while his two hyper-competitive, multi-time world champions looked in opposite directions.

While there may be no physical wall, there is a chilly divide. Lorenzo and Rossi shook hands, but not warmly. They made little eye contact. The body language was clear. They may be teammates in name, but they are rivals in their guts.

Rossi knows his time for winning titles is running out. He has said he’ll decide several races into the season whether he will keep racing or retire from MotoGP when his contract with Yamaha expires at the end of the season. As usual, more questions in the news conference went to Rossi than to the world champion, a situation Lorenzo is accustomed to but no doubt still gnaws at him. At his best, Lorenzo uses those slights as motivation.

Yamaha YZR-M1
This is a YZR-M1 dressed in 2016 livery, but the real 2016 bike is still being fine-tuned. Yamaha photo.

2016 bikes are still works in progress

What was unveiled was not the 2016 YZR-M1, but rather the 2016 livery. In other words, a paint job. And it wasn’t even much different from the 2015 paint job, because all the main sponsors are the same.

The actual motorcycles, however, are still a work in progress. Because of the two huge changes taking place for 2016 – a switch to Michelin tires and the use by all competitors of common electronics – more adjustments than usual have been necessary this off-season. Yamaha doesn’t even know for sure where they will be putting the gas in the 2016 YZR-M1. There is a version that uses the tail section to hold part of the fuel, with the idea of moving some weight rearward, given the performance of the new Michelin tires. In testing, riders found good rear traction but have had an unusual number of crashes caused by losing the front end. Versions of the Yamaha with both fuel setups will be tested at the next session at Sepang in Malaysia.

Yamaha is not the only one with last-minute work to do. Honda still has to tame the overly aggressive nature of its engine that made the bike so difficult to ride in 2015. Plus, they must do so while adapting to the new electronics. Early testing suggested they were not nearly finished with that task.

How to prevent this from getting ugly?

Jarvis also talked about the discussions ongoing in MotoGP about how to respond to the ugliness that marked the end of last season. I’m not just talking about the words between Rossi and Marc Márquez, or Lorenzo’s sulking over Rossi’s penalty, but also the clashes away from the track. There was a lot of unpleasantness, from pushing and shoving outside Márquez’s house when an Italian TV show crew appeared, to the vitriol and threats that erupted on social media.

Therein lies the challenge. MotoGP organizer Dorna can tinker with its penalties, give stern warnings to the riders and pressure team managers to try to keep their riders reined in, but the majority of the ugliness last year happened beyond Dorna’s reach.

The best cure will be time and good, clean racing. MotoGP bikes take to the track in Qatar in 57 days.