The first penny has dropped in the long march toward the 2021 MotoGP grid. Yamaha has announced that they have signed Maverick Viñales to a two-year deal, for the 2021 and 2022 season.
The move marks a clear decision, both on the part of Yamaha and the part of Viñales. The Spaniard had offers on the table from two other manufacturers, with Ducati especially keen to sign Viñales for 2021.
But, assurances given to Viñales about his role in developing the Yamaha M1 helped him make his decision. Viñales is to determine the future direction of Yamaha, based on the strength of his performance in the second half of 2020.
Betting on Viñales to lead the MotoGP project makes sense for Yamaha. In the three seasons since arriving at Yamaha, he has racked up more wins, podiums, and poles than Valentino Rossi, and finished ahead of him two seasons out of three.
Viñales has 6 wins to Rossi’s lone victory at Assen, 19 podiums to Rossi’s 13, and 9 poles to 1 for Rossi. Viñales finished third in 2019, and first Yamaha rider, while Rossi ended the year in seventh, behind even Fabio Quartararo.
This is also a choice for stability in the future. Yamaha is now certain of Viñales staying for the next three seasons, whereas Rossi is yet to make a decision on his future, and even if he does decide to keep racing, he is likely to sign contracts for one year at a time, so that he can choose to retire at the end of each season if he no longer believes he is competitive.
Signing Viñales first also provides certainty for Yamaha. The Spaniard is a proven winner and championship contender. In Fabio Quartararo, they have a youngster who is clearly exceptionally talented, but he has only ridden a single season, and in a satellite team.
Quartararo rode entirely without pressure in 2019, and performed exceptionally. But having to compete in a factory team where the atmosphere is focused entirely on winning the championship is a different kettle of fish.
Fabio Quartararo seems to handle pressure well, but we will only really know how well he does that once he is subject to the intense pressure of expectation in a factory squad.
But which factory squad will that be? Ducati has made it clear that they are also interested in securing the services of the young Frenchman. And Yamaha can see exactly what they have in terms of talent with Quartararo.
Yamaha have credited Quartararo with opening up the eyes of the factory Yamaha riders to what the bike was capable of, and pushing that little bit harder. There seems no doubt that Yamaha will want to keep the Frenchman, and that probably means giving him a factory seat.
That puts pressure on Valentino Rossi. The Italian has previously said that he wants to wait until after the first few races in Europe before making a decision on his future. But with Ducati – and possibly also Suzuki – chasing Quartararo hard, the factory Yamaha team will want a decision sooner rather than later.
Rossi will want to understand both how competitive the Yamaha M1 is, and how competitive he can be in 2020 before making a decision. But that may mean making up his mind by Jerez, or even Austin, rather than Mugello.
There may be an option for Rossi to move back to the Petronas Yamaha team, but fitting Rossi into another team is not simple. And to do it for a single year would disrupt the Petronas team significantly, if Rossi demanded that he bring his entire squad with him.
Some of the mechanics and engineers in that group have strong ties inside Yamaha, and may also have ideas of their own about moving.
The first domino has fallen, and it will have wider repercussions for 2021 and beyond. The next domino is likely to be Marc Márquez staying with Honda, but Viñales’ choice for Yamaha sets in a sequence of events that will determine the face of MotoGP for quite some time to come.
Photo: Yamaha Racing