Mat Oxley

MotoGP's new top gun?

This season Valentino Rossi has a new Movistar Yamaha team-mate who may turn out to be his most troublesome yet. Maverick Vinales replaces Jorge Lorenzo, who has defected to Ducati.

Vinales is the most talented rider to climb aboard a MotoGP bike since Marc Márquez, who has won three of the past four titles. He graduated to the top class in 2015, after taking the 2013 Moto3 world title and winning four races in his rookie Moto2 campaign. No doubt, Vinales is very fast, but he’s not as fast as the man whose name he shares. He was named after Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, the macho star of Top Gun, the 1980s USAF recruitment advert masquerading as a Hollywood movie.

That’s quite a burden to bear, in so many ways. What Vinales didn’t know (at least until I told him) was the origin of the term Maverick. Samuel Augustus Maverick was a 19th century Texan lawyer and rancher who was so busy he couldn’t be bothered to brand his cattle. Fellow ranchers called his unbranded cows Mavericks and the name stuck, eventually evolving into meaning ‘independently minded’.

The 22-year-old’s eyes brighten at the revelation. “Yes!” he laughs. “For sure I’m a bit wild! And I’m a fighter; I enjoy the fight, I like to overtake and I like to slide a lot.”

Vinales’ talent was evident from the moment he arrived in the 125cc class in 2011, when he won a GP at his fourth attempt, with an audacious final-corner move on Nico Terol. His independent spirit became general knowledge at Sepang the following year, when he fell out with his team – because his bike was woefully slow – and walked out of the paddock to catch the next flight back to Spain.

Suzuki was first to get Vinales’ signature on a MotoGP contract, at the end of 2014; quite a coup for a factory returning to the class after a five-year absence. Last year at Silverstone he gave Suzuki its first-ever MotoGP victory on a dry track, running away with the race, while Rossi, Márquez and Cal Crutchlow traded blows at a respectful distance.

By then he had already rejected Suzuki’s offers of a contract extension to join Rossi at Yamaha. In theory this was a good move, even though last year Suzuki progressed while Yamaha went backwards.

Vinales has everything going for him. He is aggressive and his riding technique sits somewhere between two compatriots who have won the past five MotoGP titles between them – he’s less wild than Márquez but more animated than Lorenzo.

“My style is a bit similar to Marc’s: a bit on the limit, a bit out of control,” he adds. “And mentally I am quite strong – in a race I never give up. If a rider in front can go two tenths faster, I will still try to catch him and pass him.”

Vinales’s former crew chief Jose Manuel reckons his technique is closest to Rossi’s.

“The way Maverick rides a bike reminds me of Valentino – he’s good at everything and he’s very adaptable,” says Manuel, who worked with Rossi at Ducati. “He is a hard braker, he’s good with the gas, he’s strong everywhere and doesn’t really have a weak point.”

Although Vinales changes motorcycle and team this season, he looks likely to be the main rival to reigning world champion Márquez. Yamaha might well have fixed its problems because Vinales topped the MotoGP’s first two winter tests. 

If Vinales and Márquez fight it out on the track it will be nothing new. More than a decade ago the pair duelled with each other on Spanish kart tracks, in the 50cc Copa Conti and 70cc Metrakit championships.

“I always had good battles with Marc,” says Vinales. “We were always at the front – one day I’d win, the next day he would win, so we were fighting for the championship, but he’s two years older than me so he was always
one step ahead.”

Márquez is still two years older but we will find out this season if he’s still two years better at riding a MotoGP bike. When the pair do clash it will be an interesting battle, because both are happy to rub elbows and swap paint. They are also immensely mentally strong and seem to have their egos well under control. Like Márquez, Vinales is a quiet man, totally focused and full of self-assurance. Their rivalry is likely to be just as intense but a lot less bitchy than that of Rossi and Lorenzo.

Even more fascinating will be how Rossi responds to his new team-mate. When Lorenzo joined Yamaha in 2008 the atmosphere in the garage immediately soured and degenerated from there; until Rossi walked out in 2011. The team simply wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

But times have changed. Rossi wasn’t used to being beaten back then, whereas he is now. So far the pair get on very well, but as other former friends have observed, Rossi is happy to be friendly, until you start beating him. 

“Sincerely, I’m worried,” smiled Rossi, of his latest challenge. “I’ve known about Maverick’s potential for a long time. The moment he signed for Yamaha I knew I cannot relax.”