It’s only two races into the MotoGP season and a few things are plainly obvious. The first, to no one’s surprise, is that, dislocated shoulder or no, Marc Marquez is going to be very hard to beat. Qatar is not the happiest of hunting grounds for the Repsol Honda star and yet he finished a close second to Andrea Dovisioso. In Brazil, he simply walked away from everyone, his last lap before-the-checkered-flag wheelie as regal as anything Mick Doohan did during his incredible five title run. And now we go to Texas where the Spaniard has never been beaten. However you add up the numbers, I think it’s plainly obvious — though not universally popular — that, barring catastrophe, Marc Marquez will win his sixth MotoGP title in seven attempts this year.
Less headline-grabbing — but equally obvious — I think that Maverick Vinales no longer has a place on a factory race team. At least, not a Yamaha factory race team. Certainly, not this Yamaha MotoGP team.
The fact is that once you get past the woulda-shoulda-coulda of Vinales’ obvious talent — and yes, even as a critic, I acknowledge the man is fast — he’s been a washout. Indeed, once you discount his extraordinary start to the 2017 season — he won the first two races and three of the first five — he’s been an almost complete washout. Oh, there’s been flashes of brilliance in pre-season testing and qualifying — as well as one win last year — but, for the last two-and-a-half years he has been a complete — and fairly petulant — washout of the first order. If he starts at the front of the grid, he fades immediately. If he starts at the back, his late race “pace” is always noted as the, again, woulda-shoulda-coulda star in waiting. But, in most cases, though he is amazingly consistent — i.e. he rarely DNFs — come race-day, he’s a classic underachiever. He is, to parrot a turn of phrase from MotoGP’s Steve Day, not a “Sunday man.” He knows how to go fast; he simply doesn’t know how to race.
As to the reason for this Sunday malaise, one could point to the problems that are obvious in the Yamaha camp: late race fights with traction control dynamics and a lack of acceleration out of corners. Vinales himself has blamed everything to early-race fuel loads — and the change in weight distribution a full gas tank engenders — inferior engine braking, and various ride height issues. What remains mystifying is that in testing — when nothing counts and all his go is for show — number 12 performs admirably in long race simulations with exactly the same foibles. Indeed, this year he did so well in pre-season testing that virtually every analyst had him pegged as one of Marc Marquez’s main rivals for the 2019 title. Instead, we got the same ol’ excuses.
What makes this underachievement particularly problematic this year is that Vinales has a motorcycle under him that has been specifically designed with his input. Yamaha, as with pretty much everyone in MotoGP, preparing for the day when Valentino Rossi no longer straps AGV under chin, has quietly altered its M1 — again weight balance and engine braking — to Vinales’ tastes. For the first time in 23 years, Valentino Rossi, relegated to second fiddle in a racing motorcycle’s development, is riding a motorcycle developed for someone else.
And yet we still have the old GOAT easily outperforming the young gun deemed his replacement, taking a motorcycle that he pointedly noted in the pre-season was not designed for him, and is patently out-performing the pretender to his throne. As with last year — and 2017, after Vinales’s initial flourish faded — come Sunday, the 40-year-old gets the job done while his young teammate invents excuses.
One could posit manifold reasons for this, but I suspect it all comes down to the mind game that plagues so many otherwise talented athletes. All competitors want the glory of a championship; far fewer are those that want the responsibility of that championship resting completely on their shoulders. In MotoGP right now, that man is Marc Marquez. In basketball, it used to be Michael Jordan — now it’s Stephane Curry — that wanted the ball, two points down with three seconds on the buzzer. In hockey, it was Wayne Gretzky. They could have missed their last five — hell, ten — shots, but they had the unassailable belief that they were the man to get this job done and they were willing to accept all the derision that came with failure if they missed.
Maverick Vinales is not that man. Indeed, I suspect he was better off at Suzuki where, with nothing expected from the then-new entrant to MotoGP, he could relish performing with little burden. Now that he is expected to win, it’s become obvious that he simply does not have the unshakeable belief necessary.
Unfortunately, for Yamaha’s factory MotoGP team, the man in their garage that does still possess the quality to make the most of Sundays is 40 years old. If they are to break Marc Marquez’s stranglehold on the championship, maybe they can poach Alex Rins away from Suzuki to fill his shoes. Maybe, closer to home, Franco Morbidelli will eventually take over number 46’s mantle. There may even be an as-of-yet unknown who appears, Kevin Schwantz-style, to upset the MotopGP apple-cart.
But Maverick Vinales is not that man. The quicker they get rid of him, the sooner they base development (for now, at least) on Rossi’s input, the better off their championship drive will be.