So far from the opening three races of the 2021 MotoGP season, it’s been something of an exceptional start for the factory Monster Energy Yamaha squad, with the team taking three out of three wins courtesy of both Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo.
It comes at a welcome time after a frankly disappointing 2020 season, in which engine penalties, performance problems, rider issues and COVID-19 seriously dented any chance that Yamaha had of mounting a serious title challenge with either the factory team or the satellite Petronas Yamaha outfit.
But it’s not the first time that we’ve seen a strong start for Yamaha, and recently they have translated into lacklustre campaigns. From Vinales winning three out of his first fifve races for Yamaha after making the switch from Suzuki or Quartararo dominating the opening double-header of 2020 at Jerez, we’ve been here before.
Which begs the question: is 2021 going to be any different for the Iwata marque, or are we witnessing the false dawn that comes before even more darkness ahead?
Well, the good news from the start is that some of last year’s problems are dead and buried. Gone are the faulty valves that caused a series of engine failures for three out of their four riders, replaced with parts benefitting from the metallurgical lessons learned from last year’s failures and looking like they’ll cause Yamaha no problems.
That has the added benefit not only of encouraging their riders that their bikes will last the full race distance, but also allowing Yamaha to run at closer to full power once again. With RPM seriously capped last year in an attempt to stretch a finite engine supply to the end of the season, it left the already-slow M1 struggling even more against rocketship Hondas, KTMs and Ducatis.
But the 2021 bike hasn’t just fixed the problems with last year’s engine – it seems like changes to the chassis has given the riders back something of what they were lacking previously too.
A redesigned frame engineered to house the 2021 engine while still giving the feel of the 2019 bike successfully campaigned by satellite rider Franco Morbidelli to second in the championship looks like it has been a successful project so far.
“Yamaha have made a big step compared to last year,” said Quartararo after taking his second win from two races at Portimao.
“Like everyone knows, we had a lot of struggles last year with the engine. We needed to take away a lot of things that were working well for us for the consistency of the engines, and this year we were able to start with a normal base.
“I feel a lot better with the new chassis, I have a little more feedback, and it’s one thing that lets me go faster. If I can’t feel the front, then I’m lost, like I was last year in Valencia when I was a complete disaster.
“In Qatar, I had a really great feeling again, and arriving in Portimao it was exactly the same. I felt on the limit, but I felt every movement.”
That’s a worrying development for his rivals, too. The only man able to challenge world champion Marc Marquez in the latter half of 2019, and doing so as a rookie in a satellite team, if Quartararo can return to that form with his added experience, he will be a title threat in 2021.
On the other side of the garage, it’s harder to get a feeling for what’s going on – thanks in large part due to the enigma that is Vinales. Unstoppably fast in the opening race of the year and able to secure solid points in fifth when things didn’t go as well a week later, his consistency ended dramatically in Portugal.
Hampered off the line by a qualifying penalty for exceeding track limits that sent him to 12th, it quickly became apparent that his issues with new tyres, a full tank of fuel and a race start remain, as he plummeted through the pack to almost last, before working his way forward slowly to finish 11th.
The harsh reality is, without consistency it’s impossible to win a MotoGP championship these days – something that Quartararo proved in 2020 by tying with Morbidelli for the most wins with three out of 14 but still ending the year a distant eighth.
But, should Quartararo have really found something that makes him click with the 2021 bike, then it’s just possible that Yamaha can rely less heavily on Vinales this coming year.
For four years Vinales has been Yamaha’s number one rider alongside an aging Valentino Rossi who hasn’t been a title threat since 2016. But it could be that, without Vinales even realising it and despite him taking one of the best victories of his career only a month ago, there’s a new king in the blue corner in the shape of his 22-year-old teammate.