Wilco Zeelenberg, rider coach for Maverick Viñales, believes Yamaha is fully deserving of praise for reversing its fortunes in recent weeks and commended the 22-year old Catalan for maintaining his title hopes when the M1 was some way from its best.

A one-day test at Misano toward the end of August could yet prove pivotal in the outcome of this year’s world championship. One week before, Viñales and team-mate Valentino Rossi found their challenges at the Austrian Grand Prix frustrated by excessive rear tyre wear that, frustratingly, didn’t affect satellite Yamaha rider Johann Zarco.

With title rival Marc Marquez finding new ways to extract the best from a much-improved Honda RC213V and Andrea Dovizioso entering into the form of his life, Viñales – and Yamaha – could feel the title slipping away. “He was worried,” Zeelenberg admitted. “We were all a bit like, ‘F**k!’”

The race led Viñales to issue a rallying cry: “We’re going to try and make another step [but] if we don’t change something big, it’s going to be impossible.” Yamaha arrived at the Misano test with a variety of items to sample, with the focus very much directed toward improving the M1’s electronics, with the traction control system [TCS] development taking precedent.

“The bigger improvement was on the traction control side in the electronics,” Zeelenberg confirmed last weekend at Misano. “It gives them more feel and better controllability.” But Yamaha’s treasure trove of new parts did not stop there. A new chassis – termed the 2018 prototype – was rolled out for both riders to test.

Viñales and Rossi then raced the new frame to podium finishes at Silverstone later that week, and in the latter’s absence at the Grand Prix of Misano, the former used it throughout the recent race weekend on the Adriatic Coast.

And while Zeelenberg felt the improvements brought about by the chassis were not as vital as other areas, he conceded: “Well, they’re using it. That means something,” he said. “Both riders felt better which was a surprise. It was not the aim to have something new [for Silverstone. It was] To try something for next year because many parts were different. It was not easy to accomplish but it was also another problem.”

After starting the race weekend at Misano slowly, Viñales was soon up to speed, posting a fast 19-lap run in FP4 which suggested he would, at the very least, challenge Marquez in the dry. His fourth pole position of the year soon followed with the Catalan talking up Yamaha’s recent progress in the press conference soon after.

It was all a far cry from qualifying day at Brno in early August, when the former Moto3 world champion voiced his frustrations at a lack of set-up progress. “I think the problem is not on the track,” Viñales said, his face a picture of discontent. “The problem is in our side, in our box that we didn't find the best set up or the best way to make the bike go in this track.”

When it was put to Zeelenberg that his rider has appeared more content in recent weeks than those mid-summer days, he felt the reason for Viñales’ dissatisfaction was simple: “If they don’t have the speed, they are not happy,” he said.

“And especially if they don’t have the speed like the beginning of the year, they are worried. If you see the championship going away… OK, he is not coming back quickly, but at least he has the feeling back that he is competitive again. [There were some races where] We were not competitive.

“To get back to that level in the same season, a big chapeau to Yamaha and also for Maverick. You shouldn’t injure yourself in these situations, because that’s the easiest thing. ‘I’ve been winning so I can do this.’ Then you injure yourself. This situation is very fine, to balance that. So he was worried. We were all a bit like, ‘F**k!’”

The biblical rain witnessed on race day would ultimately take Viñales out of the victory fight. Still, a mature ride of focus and concentration - “the best wet race I’ve done,” he called it – in his less-favoured conditions carried him to fourth, maintaining a manageable gap to the leaders in the championship.

Speaking on Saturday, Zeelenberg explained why Viñales had, until then, struggled aboard the M1 in the rain. “You’re a rain rider or you’re not a rain rider,” he said. “If you know his style, he’s not very smooth. He’s quite aggressive on the brakes. You cannot load the tyres as you load them in the dry conditions. He needs to ride much more in the rain in my eyes that he had been doing.

“As soon as you get this click, you go, ‘Ah! [imitates light bulb moment]’ Also Dani [Pedrosa] struggled for a couple of years. They tried and they raced but it’s difficult to practice this. You cannot jump on a MotoGP bike and just try it. If you’re going to hurt yourself, you’re going to be out for a couple of races.”

So how can Maverick improve this aspect of his riding? “I’m interested to know how Dani did it,” he pondered, referencing Pedrosa’s transformation from notorious wet-weather struggler in 2006 and ’07, to comfortably leading the German Grand Prix in atrocious conditions a year later.

“I think he had some side wheels or special bikes. He improved a lot. Also that gives him a lot of confidence. When you know you can ride well and safe you always go out much earlier. [We’re like] ‘Ah, it’s wet! It’s useless to go out!’

“It’s never useless to go out but if you know you can do it, you will not. You go out, and you try. You need to know the track as well, because every track is different in the rain. There are wet patches and you have to control this. You need to ride. Just a rain race without practice is very demanding and very difficult.”

Sunday’s race saw Viñales slip further behind in the title race with Marquez and Dovizioso now 16 points ahead. But the upcoming four races suggest this is far from over. At Aragon last year, Viñales qualified on the front row aboard Suzuki’s GSX-RR and led much of the race. Motegi and Phillip Island brought about podiums, and only that pesky race day rain scuppered a victory push at Sepang.

With Marquez citing Aragon as his favourite track, the prospect of the much-anticipated clash between the Catalans at home is a mouth-watering one. And in Zeelenberg’s eyes, the reigning world champion is “still the man to beat.”

“I think Marc is still the man to beat in this paddock. He has the skills to do everything good in all conditions. As long as he’s being able to ride the bike the whole weekend over the limit and still finish the race, it’s working very well. Any other rider, they have a bit more margin [between where they are riding and the limit].

“Marc has to give up some margin in the race but then he can still control. But we also know that if we can put Marc under pressure then he can make mistakes in the race as well. We’ve seen that happening, but it’s not easy to do that. You need to be competitive first. At least we have proved that we can do that, at the beginning of the season.”


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