Yamaha ended a 2020 MotoGP season it once looked set to run away with on a painful low in Portugal.
Its three 2020 bikes finished the Algarve finale 11th, 12th and 14th in the hands of Maverick Vinales, Valentino Rossi and Fabio Quartararo.
Early championship leader Quartararo ended up tumbling right back to eighth in the standings, with Rossi a career-worst 15th.
Was this all a blip? Does the fact Franco Morbidelli kept starring on his 2019 bike offer hope? Or does Yamaha need a fundamental rethink to get back on top?
Our writers gave their snap verdicts after the Portuguese GP result:
MORBIDELLI IS THE ONLY HOPE
Rather incredibly, looking at the last few weekends of action, the best chance that Yamaha might have of lifting the 2021 MotoGP title right now might be to do whatever it can to support 2020 runner-up Franco Morbidelli.
Or rather, do nothing at all to support him and let the satellite rider get on with the job in hand.
On a 2019-spec bike rather than the 2020 machines of his stablemates, he’s done a stellar job this year to beat second-best Yamaha Maverick Vinales by a whopping 27 points – and would have been even closer to the front were it not for the engine failure he suffered at the start of the season thanks to Yamaha’s valve issues.
Morbidelli’s keeping last year’s machine again for 2021, in part thanks to MotoGP’s COVID development freeze.
But with the factory riders lost and Petronas SRT’s veteran crew chief Ramon Forcada understanding how to get the best out of the older machinery without constant interference from the factory engineers, the best option that Yamaha has is to just let Morbidelli and his crew be next year rather than to try to ‘upgrade’ them.
TIME TO FORGET THE PLAN
Everything in motorsport is cyclical; Honda blitzes then loses, McLaren has won, then been nowhere, Ferrari and Ducati the same – triumphant in 2007 but no drivers’/riders’ titles since.
But nothing prepared me for the step back the works Yamahas took this year with just one win for Vinales.
Yamaha won seven grands prix out of the 14 but two of those were with the illegal valves, although they are not believed to have given a performance advantage.
Vinales talked himself out of contention most Saturday nights and Rossi was tight lipped about problems until recently.
Rossi will know this is the right time to leave the works team for Petronas, but he will still be tethered to any decisions from Japan regarding bike tech.
Could Yamaha have gone back to its old chassis all round a la Morbidelli? The old chassis worked for him (three wins) and worked at Assen 2019 after an overnight change for Vinales, who won that day, so it can do it.
Kyochi Tsuji was the lead engine man but he left in autumn 2019. These mistakes probably wouldn’t have happened under his watch.
Why not make a chassis to 2019 spec to fit the 2020 engine mid-season this year?
I suspect there was too much ‘it’s in the plan’ from the bosses rather than the current regime being bold gunslingers as the now retired Masao Furusawa or former Honda boss Shuhei Nakamoto were.
COVID didn’t help, but it was the same for everyone… Stop sticking to ‘the plan’.
FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS NEED FIXING
Yamaha could turn to Morbidelli as its saviour, but it’s not like he consistently had the pace all throughout the season.
His 2019-spec M1 didn’t do much for him at the Red Bull Ring, or in the wet at Le Mans, or when the tyre pressures were wrong at Aragon.
The Yamaha is almost certainly the friendliest bike to ride in MotoGP, yet it is also finicky, with a hideously narrow operating window and seemingly little-scope for in-weekend improvement (just check its form in double-headers since Jerez).
All that seems fundamental, so the fix must be fundamental too. Whatever the problem is – whether it’s the fact riders aren’t being listened to (certainly something Rossi and Vinales have suggested over and over again) or the fact they might be pulling the rug in different directions.
Whatever happens, Yamaha needs to rethink its development procedures, and perhaps incoming test rider Cal Crutchlow can help it in that regard.
But if a change doesn’t occur, why should 2021 be any different?
THROW THE 2020 BIKES IN THE BIN
The final part of this crazy MotoGP season could not have told the Yamaha story more clearly: only one of its four bikes has been worth riding of late, and that’s the 2019 machine Morbidelli has taken to a pretty close second in the championship behind Joan Mir.
The sight of the three 2020 bikes of Vinales, Rossi and one-time clear title favourite Quartararo battling over the lower points positions was almost sad.
The fact they were all struggling round together tells us there can’t be anything else to get from the flawed machinery. And this upcoming off-season is the worst time to try to fix those flaws with so many restrictions in place for the factories.
All three riders should be begging to be given back the 2019 specification M1 that hasn’t looked the slightest bit long in the tooth as this year has gone on.
THE OLD ERA’S OVER
Right now, unless the myriad winter rider moves reveal that some of the outgoing occupants of factory seats have been massively underdelivering this year, 2021 looks like being a Suzuki versus KTM title fight while the old order rethinks and rebuilds. And that applies to Honda and Ducati just as emphatically as it does to Yamaha.
The nimble upstart manufacturers have made brilliant use of their concessions, avoided any reliance on single superstar riders, and go into next year looking like effective, modern MotoGP teams with bikes that anyone can now star on.
Yamaha’s many wins this year show it’s not entirely fallen from grace, but it’s not a championship-winning machine anymore. It may well be again in time with Quartararo and Morbidelli, but it won’t be in 2021.