Thoughts from the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Team Launch

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If anyone thought that the start of the 2016 season would mean an end to the bitter divisions of 2015, they will be bitterly disappointed. The launch of the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team, at title sponsor Movistar’s regional headquarters in Barcelona, brought the whole affair back to the surface.

It was the first time since Valencia that the racing press had the chance to put questions to Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and both the questions asked and answers given helped reignite the flames of controversy.

Rossi restated his belief that Marc Márquez conspired against him to hand the title to Lorenzo. Lorenzo expressed his frustration at being drawn into something he had no part of. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis called for respect from all sides, and expressed Yamaha’s concerns about the way situations such as Sepang are handled.

Above all, the Italian press showed a dogged pursuit of the post-Sepang fallout, bombarding Rossi with questions about the affair, and probing Lorenzo about his thoughts. The soap opera is set to run and run.

Yamaha hadn’t invited us to Barcelona to rake over the embers of 2015, of course, though they clearly understood it would inevitably come up. We were there to see the 2016 Movistar Yamaha livery unveiled, and hear Yamaha’s hopes and expectations for the coming season.

In the afternoon, Yamaha presented their entire racing program, including World Superbike, World Endurance, MXGP and Enduro teams. It was an impressive reminder of just broad Yamaha’s racing activity is.

As one senior Yamaha staffer put it, “we like to race every bike we make.” They have been successful too: throughout the MotoGP presentation, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis and MotoGP project leader emphasized that 2015 was Yamaha’s fifth triple crown (rider, team and manufacturer championships in the same year) in MotoGP.

Romain Febvre won the MXGP crown in 2015, Mikael Persson became Enduro Junior World Champion, and the GMT94 team were runners up in the World Endurance championship. Yamaha moves to World Superbikes with Crescent Racing, with 2014 WSBK champion Sylvain Guintoli aboard the brand new YZF-R1M, together with Alex Lowes.

It was the MotoGP team which got most of the attention, however. Preseason launches are always awkward. Without the urgency which the promise of bikes on tracks bring, the atmosphere is somehow artificial.

The first extended appearance of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi together for the first time since Valencia made the atmosphere in Barcelona even more strained than usual. To their credit, Yamaha did nothing to prevent the discussion of the 2015 season finale, but the tension was obvious.

When the two riders were called to the stage to speak, Valentino Rossi entered from the right of the room, Jorge Lorenzo from the left. Whether this was an alliterative choice or not, it seemed symbolic of the difficulties involved in keeping two of the best riders in the world in the same team. Especially when those two have just gone through such an acrimonious season the year before.

The Problem of Managing Success

The problems at the end of the season would not change the way the team worked in 2016, Yamaha racing boss Lin Jarvis said. Having two riders competing for the championship is the kind of problem every team dreams of, and it was something which Yamaha had managed perfectly well in the past.

“We obviously realize that while as a team we are trying to win the triple crown they as individuals are both trying to win the same prize. This is something we can never forget,” Jarvis said.

There was no reason to put a wall in the garage, as there had been in 2008. “One of our strengths is the fact that the team work really well together. The riders are individual competitors against themselves but the team of mechanics and engineers all work really well together. If we put a barrier between them or a wall in the garage, it will be to the deficit of the team, the riders, and the engineers.”

Yamaha has a point. This was Yamaha’s fifth triple crown since the dawn of the four-stroke MotoGP era. Four times, it has been the pairing of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi who secured the individual, team and manufacturer crowns for Yamaha, two for Rossi (2008 and 2009), two for Lorenzo (2010 and 2015).

The approach has a proven track record, and so continuing on the same path is the obvious thing to do. The Yamaha YZR-M1 was utterly dominant in 2015, winning eleven out of the eighteen races.

New Bike? Too Early to Tell

There is every reason to believe that success will continue into 2016. The bike will not see any major upgrades for the coming season, Yamaha focusing instead on working out what changes are needed to get the best out of the Michelin tires.

The M1 presented to the press was not the bike likely to be raced – the eagle eye of ace GP reporter Steve English identified it the bike on show as the 2016 prototype tested at Brno last year. The show bike still had the fuel filler cap at the rear of the seat unit.

“The situation is that Yamaha did the new tank and bike to try and understand how to use the Michelins,” Rossi said. Whether the fuel would stay there, slightly further back than on the 2015 bike, would have to be tested again at Sepang, Rossi explained. “The first test at Sepang will be very, very important to decide the way, to see if the 2016 prototype is better than our current bike.”

Kouichi Tsuji, head of Yamaha’s MotoGP project, confirmed that they were still seeking direction with the new bike. “We have a new bike for next year that we are going to test in Sepang,” he said. “But the new bike is not always good, sometimes the old bike can work with the new software and new tires.”

It would be a very busy test at Sepang, with Yamaha having lined up a long list of new parts to be tested in pursuit of the right balance for the Michelins. The one request both Rossi and Lorenzo had was for more horsepower, top speed being the only point where they lost out to their rivals in 2015.

With so much work on the plate of the Movistar Yamaha riders, and HRC bringing a new engine to Sepang, it will be hard to read much into the times set at that test. The real strength of the various factories will only start to become clear as Qatar approaches.

The fact that MotoGP will be testing at three different circuits (Sepang, Phillip Island and Qatar) prior to the start of the season was a good thing, Tsuji said. “Now we want as much data as possible,” he told us.

In other years, MotoGP has had two tests at Sepang, allowing a better back-to-back comparison of parts, but the massive changes – new tires and new electronics – meant that a wider range of conditions at three very different tracks was better than repeating and refining at Sepang.

While dealing with the tires would be left for Rossi and Lorenzo to figure out, Colin Edwards had been drafted in to help sort out the 2016 electronics, Yamaha team boss Maio Meregalli told GPOne.com.

Edwards had already put in two days on the bike at Sepang in January, and would test again in the days before the IRTA test at Qatar.

As Yamaha had elected not to join the private test by Honda, Ducati, and Aprilia at Jerez in November, handing over some of the work of calibrating the spec software to Edwards is a wise move, freeing up time for Rossi and Lorenzo to focus on chassis development to suit the Michelins.

MotoGP Merry-Go-Round Madness Awaits

The progress made by the different manufacturers is likely to play a key part in contract negotiations. With just about everyone out of contract at the end of 2016, MotoGP silly season is likely to be a very hectic period.

“I’m going to actually not go to any GPs this year, because it’s probably the only way to avoid it!” Jarvis joked. But he highlighted the first few races as being key.

Riders will watch to see which bikes are competitive, and whether their own manufacturer is adapting to the new technical rules for 2016 before making a decision.

Both Rossi and Lorenzo were expecting to make a decision relatively early. Rossi said he still wanted to race, as long as he could be competitive. He will look at where he stands after the first three or four races, and then make a decision about continuing.

Ideally, Jorge Lorenzo said, he would make a decision before the season even started. “If you know what is going to happen with your future before the first race, this makes you more calm,” he said. But he wasn’t in a hurry. He had confidence in his own ability, and so believed that he could afford to wait to make a decision, in the knowledge that manufacturers will be willing to wait for him.

In all likelihood, Rossi and Lorenzo will both be key to the contract merry-go-round for MotoGP. The chance of either man leaving Yamaha will put the rest of the contract negotiations on hold until they make a decision.

Both men are also assured of being able to stay if they so choose. The same cannot be said for any of the other riders in MotoGP, with the possible exception of Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales. Silly season will probably only start in earnest once the Movistar Yamaha men make up their minds.

New for 2016: Bits, Bytes, & Rubber

The biggest challenges facing the Movistar men are the new electronics and switch to Michelins. Lorenzo believed that the less sophisticated electronics would benefit the top riders most. Riding the bike would be more difficult.

“This will help the more technical riders, who will have less help from the electronics,” Lorenzo said. It will require a more sensitive touch on the throttle, with less time spent with the throttle fully open.

“You have to play more with the throttle, so the more technical and the more sensitive rider will have less problems than the more or aggressive or less technical riders.” He also felt that the Michelins could be an advantage for him.

“You have to anticipate the braking, release the brake a little bit sooner,” he said. That is already more like Lorenzo’s current style, the Spaniard releasing the brakes earlier than other riders to carry more speed into the corners. “Theoretically, it can be a little bit better for me, but until we practice in more tracks we won’t know,” he said.

Rossi was not worried so much about the electronics, though he acknowledged that this was one area where Yamaha had held an advantage, especially in helping to get drive out of corners. The fact that the unified software would be a step back was not a concern.

“For me it’s not a big problem,” Rossi said. “Everyone is on the same level, and I think that we are strong enough to adapt the new system to the bike.” The bigger issue was the tires, as far as Rossi was concerned. “The question mark is bigger how the new tires will match with the different bikes. This is important to understand the level for this year.”

The new tires are different not just because they are being made by Michelin, but also because Michelin had asked that the tires be fitted on 17-inch rims again, rather than the 16.5-inch wheels which Grand Prix bikes had been using since the turn of the century.

The difference in wheel size had a relatively small effect, but it was still noticeable, Rossi explained. “In general, the bike is different in corner entry. Speaking simply, the bike gains some agility, but loses stability. So it is more reactive, but if you make a mistake, it is less safe than last year.”

This characteristic was exacerbated by the nature of the Michelin tires, especially the combination of a strong rear and a weaker front. The added grip of the rear meant it was easy to let it overpower the front in the second part of the corner, once riders get on the throttle, Rossi explained.

“A lot of riders crashed when you are on maximum lean and you touch the throttle. The front lifts, because it looks like the rear has good grip.” Mistakes were punished mercilessly. “With the Michelin, you make a mistake and you pay. With the Bridgestone, if you make a mistake, you lose a little bit of time, not more.”

That was something which Bradley Smith, also present at the launch, had also felt at Valencia. Smith was proud to have been one of the very few riders not to have crashed at Valencia, having worked towards understanding the limit, rather than pushing to find it and then ending up over it.

Fueling the Fire

While there was a lot of attention for 2016, the controversy of last year is not going away any time soon. Both Lorenzo and Rossi addressed the subject, though they had very different view of the affair. Jorge Lorenzo wanted nothing to do with a situation he felt he had no part of.

“The thing is that this thing in Sepang happened, with Márquez and Rossi, I was not involved, never on the track. It’s not my game, it’s something they have to solve all together.” Lorenzo believes the outcome of the championship was an accurate reflection of his strength as a rider.

“The statistics speak for themselves: I am the one with more victories, with more pole positions, more laps leading, a lot of podiums, I don’t have to demonstrate anything to anyone. I’ve been the fastest one, and the one who deserved more the world title.”

The experts, the people who know about motorcycle racing and who see every MotoGP weekend, not just the races, they could see that he was a deserved champion, Lorenzo said.

The one thing he did regret was the gesture he had made on the podium at Sepang, Lorenzo acknowledged. He should not have made the thumbs down gesture while Valentino Rossi was being awarded his trophy, after Rossi had been involved in the incident which caused Marc Márquez to crash.

“The only thing that I regret and that I ask to be forgiven is the gesture I did on the podium in Malaysia, that I think was not the right image that I should do. I should keep to myself my opinion, and don’t demonstrate it,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Rossi viewed it very differently. Though he told the press he was now looking ahead to 2016, and was over how the end of the 2015 season had unfolded, he still dwelt on the Sepang fallout in some depth, egged on in no small part by the Italian press.

The first couple of weeks after Valencia had been hard, he admitted, but preparing for the Monza Rally had helped. “I had to restart for another race and that’s what I needed. To drive and enjoy. Sincerely that weekend was the disappointment finished and I started to think of the future.”

That was also the period in which he dropped the appeal against his Sepang penalty with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The aim of that appeal had always primarily been to get the penalty lifted for Valencia, so that he would not have to start from the back of the grid. Once that was impossible, he had no interest in pursuing his appeal, Rossi said.

A Lack of Respect

Rossi denied he would be motivated by revenge, against Márquez and Lorenzo. His main motivation was the love of competition, and the challenge of beating his rivals, he told the Italian press. His responses to questions about respect were prickly.

Lin Jarvis had said that everyone needed to show each other respect to help calm the situation, but Rossi felt respect had been singly lacking in 2015.

“At the end of last year, especially Márquez, but also Lorenzo did not show any respect for me. I always had respect for them, but we will have to see what happens. Respect has to be something mutual,” Rossi said.

Despite feeling that Lorenzo had shown him a lack of respect, Rossi had shaken the hand of the Spaniard at the start of the presentation.

“You have to be strong enough to leave your personal problems aside,” Rossi said. “Lorenzo is my teammate, and has been for many years. We have to be professional, and work on developing the Yamaha. It’s easier to work when the atmosphere is good, and I expect that to be the case.”

Would Rossi also shake the hand of Marc Márquez when he saw him again? “Fortunately I can say that Márquez is not my teammate.”

Why had Márquez done the things Rossi claimed he had? Rossi had no ready explanation. “I asked myself this many times, but I can’t find an answer. I think I was a scapegoat for Márquez, he had lost the championship by making too many mistakes, and he needed someone to blame.”

Rossi did not believe that his outburst at the Sepang press conference had caused the problem with Márquez. “I don’t agree with the people who say that Márquez acted against me after the Sepang press conference. That’s not what happened, he had decided to do anything he could to stop me from winning the title. My statements didn’t change anything.”

Rossi also criticized the way the situation was handled by Dorna. “I think the organizers could have handled it better,” Rossi said. The image of MotoGP had definitely been damaged, but now was the time to return to the track, and concentrate on racing.

What Now?

Concentrating on racing would be the right thing to do, but after seeing Rossi’s body language in Barcelona, you can’t help but feel that the anger still burns inside him.

In the past, it was always Valentino Rossi who manipulated the emotions of his rivals, and used those emotions against them. At the start of 2016, it looks more like Rossi will be the victim of his own emotions, rather than Lorenzo and Márquez.

The two Spaniards know they cannot win the battle with Rossi off the track. The excessive and sometimes downright threatening behavior of Rossi fans, both online and at events in Italy, where the Márquez fan club has been subjected to threats, have made intimidation commonplace.

Any online discussion of the events of 2015 is soon swamped by hordes of Rossi fans, backing their hero unconditionally. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez have learned to ignore the abuse and insults hurled at them regularly online.

On track, though, things are very different. There, it is man to man, and both Lorenzo and Márquez know they are capable of beating the Italian. Mind games only work when a rival is on edge, and uncertain of being able to beat you.

In a straight fight, an attempt to engage in mind games can be viewed as a sign of weakness, the need to resort to psychological warfare proof of a lack of confidence in a rider’s own ability. Mind games are more likely to strengthen the resolve of Lorenzo and Márquez, rather than weaken them.

After the Movistar Yamaha launch in Barcelona, it is hard to shake the feeling that the friction in MotoGP is going to get worse, rather than better.

The current cease fire (or is it just a cold war?) will not last long, and Valentino Rossi stands ready to reopen hostilities at the first opportunity. If he does decide to do so, or if Marc Márquez or Jorge Lorenzo decide that it is best to get their retaliation in first, then the real winners will be Dorna.

Interest in the sport was already through the roof at the end of 2015, with TV audiences much larger than normal. More controversy will see audiences grow even further, a fact which will be seized upon by Dorna when it comes time to renegotiate TV and sponsorship contracts, a major source of income for the Spanish organizers.

It is not just the drama on track which helps sell the sport, the melodrama off track helps too.

Photo: Yamaha Racing

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.