“This is probably the happiest I’ve been on a MotoGP bike all my life.”
That’s a pretty bold statement to hear from a MotoGP rider, especially one who has just been though the most turbulent time of his entire career – but it was Maverick Vinales’ take from only two days of testing for Aprilia at Misano ahead of a switch there from Yamaha, not for 2022 as originally planned but for the next round of the 2021 championship at Aragon later this month.
And despite a history of slightly mixed messaging and confused signals from the Spaniard over his time in MotoGP, he really did sound like a completely different guy when he spoke to the media at the culmination of his opening two days at Misano for the Italian marque.
He’s a rider who wears his heart on his sleeve. When he’s unhappy, it’s abundantly obvious just from looking at his face. Media debriefs become torturous.
He would revert to tired lines about ‘asking Yamaha’ for answers to all his problems. He’d be downright glum – and we’ve seen plenty of glum Maverick in 2021 so far.
But when he’s happy, it shines right through and you know that he’s got something to be happy about. Even more so, once you understand that he’s a rider who relies on confidence to be fast – confidence not just in the bike but in the team and the people around him – then you quickly realise that a happy Maverick is a fast Maverick.
There was plenty of talk in his brief five minutes with the media over Zoom following the test about the team, the atmosphere, and his new team-mate Aleix Espargaro. The veteran Aprilia rider, who had lined up alongside Vinales during two successful season at Suzuki, has been an instrumental part of luring the Yamaha wantaway to the Italian brand.
“With Aleix I have a special feeling,” admitted Vinales, “because we have been together for many years. Right now, we’re going to be back again and yeah, actually, I’m happy to be back in a good point. I think we can push each other a lot. For sure in the beginning he’ll push me a lot, I’m sure, because he’s riding very fast. But this is also good, because you have to improve.
“But apart from that, we have a really good relationship and we can give Aprilia nice information and nice development for the future.
“I’ve already worked with Aleix and it was always funny to me in the past that we were very strong to each other [on track], but as soon as we arrived to the box we were very happy and with a lot of laughs. This is racing; when you put the helmet on you need to win, but when you take it off you try to be as friendly as possible because at the end of the day our objective is to take Aprilia to the top.”
And the thing is – after five miserable years at Yamaha, you’ve got to think that all Vinales needs is to be able to have a laugh now and then. A sometimes-serious character in the paddock but also a rider who manages to come off as more human than many of his more ego-driven rivals, for whatever reason it’s obvious that things weren’t working for him in his previous seat.
But the number of riders who have switched teams to a supposedly lesser motorbike and immediately found success thanks more to a changed environment than anything else is longer than we have space to write.
Motorcycle racing differs from it’s four-wheeled rivals in many ways, but perhaps the most key is the role played by the human sitting on top of the engine.
While F1 might be a sport of technical marvels and strategy, MotoGP is one where the rider is still the single most important part of the whole package – and should Vinales’ confidence and happiness translate as well as it initially looks like, then there is no reason at all why it can’t be worth the final few tenths of a second Aprilia are missing on their rivals.