Vinales' meltdown makes him Aprilia's Moneyball signing - The Race
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Vinales’ meltdown makes him Aprilia’s Moneyball signing

Aug 17 2021
By Valentin Khorounzhiy

Scout: “I know Boston wants to cut him and no one wants to pick him up.

Manager: “That’s good for us. He’s cheap.”

Chief scout: “Let me get this straight. You’re going to get a guy that’s been released by half the organisations in professional baseball because he’s got non-repairable nerve damage in his elbow? He can’t throw.”

Manager: “He can’t throw and he can’t field. But what can he do? He can get on base.”

So goes arguably the most famous scene in Moneyball, the excellent 2011 baseball movie that earned a rightful Academy Award nomination for Best Picture that year.

Aug 12 : Why Yamaha has suspended Vinales

Brad Pitt stars as chief protagonist of Moneyball Billy Beane, the general manager of the Major League Baseball team Oakland Athletics, instituting a revolutionary statistics-dominated approach to making up the team’s roster while faced with a less-than-competitive budget and having lost his star players to bigger, better-off teams.

In the scene above, Beane overrules his scouts and orders the team to pursue players that his scouting team considers “defective” – due to off-field character issues, anticipated decline, injury history. It matters not to Beane, because those players “get on base”, and you can’t score in baseball without getting on base.

It’s a scene easy to enjoy, perhaps too easy – the progressive stats man pushing back against an archaic mindset in assembling an underdog team. But however faithful the movie is to real-life events, its big lesson is relevant – not just for baseball.

“We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”

Aleix Espargaro Aprilia MotoGP

Beane says this of the Oakland A’s, but in MotoGP we could easily say this of Aprilia. Not because it’s uncompetitive, or poor, or a bad place to be – I think you can make a decent argument that the RS-GP now is a more attractive bike than the moody Honda RC213-V, for instance – but because it entered the summer as the sole factory outfit without a full line-up locked in for 2022.

That changed in dramatic fashion when Maverick Vinales requested to cancel the second year of his current Yamaha deal, suddenly arriving on the market and proving amenable to an Aprilia deal.

A nine-win MotoGP rider doesn’t normally make himself available to a team with no recent podium record to speak of – yet a cursory scan of social media even at the time suggested the alliance was hardly seen as a no-brainer, not just for Vinales but for Aprilia.

And that feeling will have of course only intensified since Vinales’ Yamaha over-revving antics earned the biggest black mark on his record yet.

Is this really the guy Aprilia should be signing up, instead of continuing to try to court Andrea Dovizioso or having another pass at the Moto2 field?

And you know what? If the goal is stability, serenity, long-term growth, if the current mid-pack status is enough and all that’s really missing is the occasional podium, then Vinales maybe isn’t the guy.

But Aprilia’s ambitions are clearly loftier – why else would it sanction an all-new RS-GP for this year, or split with Gresini to establish an in-house works team for next year?

For those targets, Vinales is your man. He is the highest-profile signing the modern Aprilia MotoGP team has ever made, and – discounting test rider Dovizioso – the most accomplished one, too, by some margin.

Works Aprilia riders’ career MotoGP stats ahead of RS-GP debut

Riders Age Races Wins Top-3
Finishes
Poles Pts Per Race
Marco Melandri* 32 130 5 20 7.82
Alvaro Bautista 30 85 3 1 6.94
Stefan Bradl 25 60 1 1 6.95
Michael Laverty 34 36 0.33
Sam Lowes 26 Rookie
Aleix Espargaro 27 111 1 2 5.15
Scott Redding 25 72 2 4.21
Andrea Iannone 29 101 1 11 2 6.55
Bradley Smith 28 104 2 5.26
Lorenzo Savadori 27 Rookie
Maverick Vinales** 27 115 9 28 13 10.09

* Melandri was four years removed from last MotoGP start
** Vinales could yet add to pre-Aprilia stats and is currently 26, though will be 27 when the 2022 season kicks off

Does he deserve the deal, in light of his Red Bull Ring misdeed? I’d argue yes, as does my colleague Simon Patterson.

But ‘deserving’ doesn’t really come into it. It was a very bad error in judgment, and fitted in nicely into a narrative of Vinales being hot-headed and erratic, but it was not a career-ender. Not for a rider of this talent. Not for a rider – still only 26 – with this many years still ahead of him.

In a perverse way, Vinales’ meltdown is kind of good for Aprilia. It makes him somewhat damaged goods – ‘defective’, to use the Moneyball parlance. His reputation in MotoGP is certainly the lowest it’s ever been, as the years of spinning his wheels and swapping crew chiefs at Yamaha brought increasingly diminished results.

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But that only means that keeping hold of Vinales beyond 2022 should be easier for Aprilia, if it desires to do so. Whether Vinales rides the M1 again this year or not, that bridge is burned – and there’s no obvious fit elsewhere, with the long-standing Ducati interest now looking less realistic than ever thanks to Jorge Martin’s emergence.

And good thing, too, for Aprilia. This is still, after all, the manufacturer that got turned down not just by Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow last year, but by a whole cavalcade of Moto2 riders.

Some of those same Moto2 riders would probably be a lot more open to joining this time, but they’re not Maverick Vinales. And Aprilia would probably rather have the electric, super-confident Suzuki-spec Maverick Vinales of 2016 rather than the extremely weary, confidence-drained Maverick Vinales of 2021. But the 2021 version is the version that was on the market, and that’s still a race-winning, occasionally-elite MotoGP rider.

His Styrian GP ‘explosion’ should absolutely be enough to put off MotoGP’s top tier. It is a concern. He is not the perfect employee, and I believe he’d happily admit that.

But in MotoGP terms, he “gets on base”. There is no doubt in my mind that Vinales is the rider with the highest talent ceiling of those available to Aprilia, and not much more doubt that even now he’s the fastest rider, on average, that it could have.

Maverick Vinales

That’s your Moneyball essence for Aprilia right there. Buy low, sell high, or don’t sell at all. You don’t get to be picky, so don’t be picky. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Et cetera, et cetera.

Can it backfire? Absolutely. In Moneyball, one of the stats-motivated discount signings is traded mid-season, in part due to off-field issues.

And Aprilia has already had a ‘buy low’ moment with Andrea Iannone three years ago, which definitely was no huge success. Iannone was probably closer to Aleix Espargaro than any other of his Aprilia team-mates, but his pace never really reached expected level before the doping ban.

Generally, Aprilia’s record of recruitment in MotoGP is clearly poor, save for Espargaro and partly because of Espargaro and his RS-GP mastery.

Vinales may add to that messy record, lose motivation fighting for 10th-15th and flame out.

Or he may break the streak and elevate Aprilia to the podium, restoring his reputation in the process.

Perhaps he would leave after that – but he would make Aprilia a more attractive destination for others.

He’s a risk Aprilia has to take, now more than ever. Through a variety circumstances, there is a ton of value here that rivals are not picking up.

When you’re a relatively small fish in a big pond, you have to pounce on that kind of thing – and then do what you can to make it work.

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