Team: Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP
Riders: Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales
Test Rider: Jonas Folger
Bike: Yamaha M1
Best placed rider, 2018: Valentino Rossi, 3rd

Best result, 2018: 1st x1, Maverick Viñales
Best placed machine at tests: 1st (Valencia), 4th (Jerez), 5th (Sepang), 1st (Qatar)

Over the past 18 months, there has been good reason to take any positive noises coming out of the Yamaha camp with a pinch of salt.

So often did Maverick Viñales end a particular test day positively before proclaiming solutions to a myriad of issues had been found, it has been tough to establish whether progress was real or fleeting.

So often, through the second half of 2017 and ’18, it was the latter. And arriving at each of winter’s pre-season outings, there was always the suspicion recent progress would soon come undone.

But performances and rider feedback suggest that for 2019 the Iwata factory is finally hauling itself back on the linear line of progress from which it bafflingly fell.

“For sure we have stepped up,” said Massimo Meregalli, Team Manager of the newly named Monster Energy Yamaha team. This was going off Viñales’ speed and consistency at Sepang. Nobody out-paced the 24-year old in Qatar. Even Valentino Rossi, a man whose performances during testing rarely take the breath away, was upbeat at the close of it all.

Perhaps more encouraging has been the rider noises regarding the considerable reorganisation that has gone on behind the scenes during those long, dark winter months. Managing Director Lin Jarvis wasn’t lying when stating changes were afoot at the close of last year.

Not only does it have a new Project Leader in the form of Takahiro Sumi. Viñales and Rossi both have new personnel on either side of the garage. And the Sepang Racing Team, Yamaha’s new satellite entry, sees Franco Morbidelli and, to a lesser degree, Fabio Quartararo competing aboard’19 spec M1s, providing a chance to gather additional data at new tracks.

“I'm happy about the atmosphere and especially about the ideas inside,” said Rossi in Malaysia. “It looks like Yamaha is very concentrated for improve. This is important.” Viñales went further: “In two years, this is the first test where we made steps ahead day by day.”

And while Viñales has been consistent – no one posted more laps in the 1m 59s/2m 00s at Sepang or Qatar – it would be naïve to declare that Yamaha is completely out of the woods. A tweaked engine appears to have eradicated the flaws of the previous incarnation in corner entry. But it was common to hear both factory riders complaining of acceleration – and in Rossi’s case a general lack of rear grip – issues in Qatar.

The Italian, now in his 40th year, remains sceptical as to whether this current package is capable of challenging the considerable Honda/Ducati might. “We make an improvement, but my idea is that we still need something more, especially for the top guys, for the factory Hondas, and the factory Ducati,” he said on day three in the desert.

That particular assertion did, however include, a caveat for his rivals: “We can be quite strong … we hope to work at the maximum next week, and try to fight.” This is the first time since Viñales’ arrival at least, that both Yamaha’s entries start the year on the front foot.

A winter of reorganisation

Of all the issues that continued to afflict Yamaha through a largely barren 2018, it was puzzling to hear its riders speak of the electronics woes they encountered on the bike. This was, after all, an issue that dated all the way back to 2016 and the first year of the unified Magneti Marelli electronics software.

Finally, this appears to have been addressed. Not only has Michele Gadda, famed for his work on the electronics of Ducati’s World Superbike Panigale, then Yamaha’s R1, moved across permanently to the MotoGP squad. Yamaha’s European base in Milan has assumed more responsibility.

“We have a vehicle dynamics group there and we have an electronics group and we are expanding in Europe, in Italy, so that interaction between Europe and Japan will be very important,” said Jarvis in early February.

As riders repeatedly made it known they were less than impressed with communication between race team and Japan through last year, this certainly seems a step in the right direction.

“That’s an area where we can support with more engineers,” explained Meregalli. “Also speeding up with the solutions and we can also work on the strategies. That is an additional value. We started already last year and the group has become solid.”

After one win in 27 races, something was bound to give.

Kouiji Tsuya, previous Project Leader and best known for that excruciating public apology in Austria last August, is gone. Sumi-san, formerly known for his work on the M1’s chassis has been promoted.

And while remaining vague, Meregalli has commended Sumi’s initial impact. “I was not expecting this so fast – the new project leader changed the way to work in Japan. That is really good. We all had a really good feeling in the way he explains on how to develop the bike.”

Add in the fact that the work of a newly established European test team, headed by Jonas Folger – a premier class podium finisher as recently as 2017 – has yet to be truly felt, and there are a myriad of reasons for the Iwata factory to believe it has come out the other side of its unexpected malaise.

So what of the bike?

Last year the M1’s engine was too aggressive in the low RPM. Viñales also consistently complained of engine-braking deficiencies, and not being able to brake as aggressively as he wished.

Now, after honing the ’19 engine since Sepang, both agree the new bike is fantastic when entering the turn. “When I’m with the other guys the front of our bike is always good,” said Rossi. “I like. I have a good feeling. I can push.”

Meregalli adds, “We also improved the engine braking and that helps us to be very tight in the corner to have the possibility to pick the bike up as soon as possible, where, especially Maverick was struggling last year. He really exploits now what we brought to Sepang and here.”

In testing, tyre life has been good, with Viñales’ consistency standing out in the lap-by-lap analysis. Only improvements on corner exit are needed, with Viñales believing much work is to be done with the electronics package to put down power in a linear fashion.

More calm, more at ease

The changing of race number (now the #12 as opposed to his staple of #25) may have been gently mocked by principle rival Marquez at the close of last year. But 2019 has signified a fresh start for Viñales. And not just in appearance.

The Catalan has appeared more calm, more at ease through preseason than the oft-seething monosyllabic mass of a year ago. It’s clear relations with ex-crew chief Ramon Forcada had completely broken down mid-way through ’19. And what new figure Esteban Garcia lacks in experience with the M1, he’s currently making up for in communication and plans that are mutually agreed upon.

“I have a lot of trust in Esteban,” he said. “The good thing is that we made a plan and we followed it, we didn't change anything, we made it quite clear, with the changes we did. And we always try to go back-to-back, and that's the most important thing, to not lose the way.”

New rider coach Julian Simon has also been of benefit, and Viñales has been the leading light from the get-go. Just 53 minutes into the first MotoGP test of 2019 at Sepang, and he was already drawing lines in the sand. It took six laps for him to better his quickest effort from last year’s race.

Viñales has foregone the chance to seek out a sports psychologist over the winter, instead ensuring his approach remains as simple as can be: “I arrived at one point [when] I switched my mind, trying to stay relaxed, getting away from the stress,” he said. “I'm keeping it simple. I try to go on the bike, enjoy, give my best, and then give the best comments and trying to develop the bike in the best way.”

As Meregalli points out, “He now has closer technicians that were looking for him. They know each other. They worked together when he won the [Moto3] title [in 2013]. I think now the atmosphere is something he was looking for. Apart from this, also the results, and the bike improvements made this connection ever better.”

This is important. Until now, preseason has gone by without a hitch. Just how Viñales responds to the inevitable difficulties on the road in any championship challenge will surely define his season.

Enter: Sepang Racing Team

Yamaha management has cottoned on: having as many close-to-identical bikes on the grid as possible aids the overall cause. Ducati and Honda reaped the rewards of a ‘factory’ satellite entry in recent years. The vast budget of the Petronas-backed Sepang Racing Team has allowed Morbidelli and Quartararo to run ’19 bikes.

Morbidelli’s talents, combined with new crew chief Forcada’s vast experience, means they have become a useful tool for factory engineers. “Together with Franco there is Ramon, who is one of the most experienced engineers in this paddock,” said Meregalli.

“With him, Silvano [Galbusera, Rossi’s crew chief] and Esteban, the bike can grow up. It was already like this in the past, but between Tech 3 and the factory team, the bike was not the same.

“Now Franco has exactly the same as ours. Also Fabio, his bike is not that different. That is really important because you can compare. You can have a proper comparison between all the bikes at the same tracks. For sure that helps. Also we can maybe share some jobs, especially at these tests. That is really fundamental if you want to speed up the performance.”

Hopes?

Viñales has been reluctant to aim to high, at least in public, when faced with the question of just how far he can go in 2019.

“It's too early to say,” he said in Qatar. “We have been very constant in the tests, at the front. But it's just testing. We need to see in the race. I think that if we can find the grip that we need, we are going to be very strong.

Rossi, meanwhile, will be counting on that race-day magic that has so often pulled him through.

“For me, for the race pace, we are still a bit in a disadvantage, especially compared to the top guys, which are Márquez, Dovi [Andrea Dovizioso], [Alex] Rins. But for example, Maverick is very strong. So this is positive for Yamaha. The test at the end is not so bad, and now we have to see next week.”

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