Viñales reveals how he rode the rollercoaster of the last two seasons and why he’s planning to hire a sports psychiatrist for 2019
Photo courtesy of Yamaha
Viñales joined Yamaha in 2017, won three of the first five races, then didn’t win another race until October 2018. In this interview, conducted a few days after that Phillip Island victory, he covers all the bases: riding technique, tyres, bike set-up and the all-important matter of a racer’s psyche.
Unlike most top MotoGP riders you only spent one season with Bridgestone tyres and factory software, so was that an advantage when everything changed in 2016?
I was lucky because I didn’t get any of the strange habits you needed for the Bridgestone tyres and the good electronics. Also, when I went to Suzuki they already had Magneti Marelli software, which didn’t work like the really good electronics that some of the other factories had, so the technical changes from 2015 to 2016 changed nothing for me. I just had to get used to the tyres, but because I hadn’t got any Bridgestone habits I was quite fast as soon as I got on the Michelins and they suited my riding style quite well.
You dominated the early stages of 2017, then Michelin changed the front tyre and it was another 29 races before you won again. How come?
At the beginning of 2017 I could corner with much more speed with the old front carcass. As soon as Michelin changed to the harder carcass the riding style changed – it became ‘brake late, stop the bike and go’. Finally, in the last few races, I had the chance to ride like that because we changed bike set-up a lot, so I could make better lap times.
Did you change to a stop-and-go style so that you didn’t lose the front?
No, I wouldn’t actually lose the front, I’d just go wide. The front of the Yamaha is really good, so it’s not easy to lose the front, but you end up going very wide. Instead you need to really stop the bike to make the corner. Until I found this new set-up I couldn’t start using my own riding style. Now it’s really good because I feel confident and I can be fast. Confidence is very important to me because I like to be more aggressive on the bike.
When did you start adapting the set-up towards a stop-and-go technique?
From the start of the 2018 season. I tried to go this way because I felt that this was the way the tyres worked. But the bike wasn’t ready to accept this, so then I started changing my riding style a lot – riding more smoothly – but then I got in a lot of trouble with the front tyre, because I wasn’t getting it hot enough.
So you were being too smooth and not getting heat into the tyres, which would explain why you were often slow in the early laps of races…
Exactly. After Aragón [where Viñales started 14th and finished 10th] I decided: okay now I will use my riding style, completely, and if I’m not fast then I’m not fast, but I will do what I want to do.
So it was the disaster of Aragón that made you realise you had to change?
How much did your set-up change after Aragón?
A lot. It’s difficult to explain, but we put much more weight on the rear; I just moved everything to the rear. Normally I don’t have much trouble with the front tyre because I’m quite good at feeling the limit, so I gave away a bit from the front and tried to concentrate on making the rear work really well. Now we use the rear brake and rear tyre to stop the bike and that has really helped.
I’m trying to find a sports psychiatrist, but it’s not easy, because I need to find a good one that understands me
But moving weight to the rear takes weight away from the front, which can hurt turning…
Yes, but if you can stop the bike you can turn, but if you can’t stop the bike then you can’t turn.
So you had to scrub off more speed to turn the bike?
Yes. Now I can stop the bike much quicker. Before, I was taking much longer to stop the bike, so I was always missing the corner. Now I can be much more precise.
So it’s a big difference?
A very big difference. Also for my head, because now I can ride like I used to ride, so I can feel the bike better and I can feel the limit better, so I know where I can improve. It’s also much better in races, because before we made this big change I felt I had no grip from the tyres, but since I first used this set-up [in Thailand] I’ve always had grip and I always feel good with the tyres.
At Buriram were you also helped by the stiffer rear tyres used at that track?
I hope Michelin will bring stiffer rear tyres for the whole season, because I felt so good with the Buriram tyre and the bike was so good, but I know they won’t. I didn’t believe it, but if I had believed it I could’ve won that race.
With the Bridgestones everyone turned the bike with the front, but with the Michelins, you turn with the rear, so is that another reason you moved weight to the rear?
Exactly. Now I can turn the bike more quickly, so I can pick up the bike earlier, so the traction is better, which means the acceleration is better and the tyre lasts longer. Before we made the change the problem was that it took too long to turn the bike, so I was still on the edge of the tyres when I got on the gas, so I had no traction and the tyre didn’t last. Now I’m already in the traction area of the tyre when I get on the gas.
Did your riding style change much from the Suzuki to the Yamaha?
Now I use completely the same style; since Thailand, completely the same. I’ve gone back to my 2016 style: brake late, completely stop the bike and then go. The set-up we have now accepts this style. Before we used this set-up it was impossible to ride like this because every time I braked hard the bike didn’t stop. Now it does.
When you had those traction problems you told us you were trying to be smoother on the throttle to improve tyre life…
Every time I go out on track I tell myself to be smooth on the gas, because when I try to open the gas quicker the rear suspension starts pumping, so I lose time. You need to be smooth all the time. But that’s one reason why Phillip Island was so good for us, because you didn’t have to be quite so smooth, because it was mostly high-gear corners.
We were very similar, until Thailand. Now we are using very different set-ups.
The technical challenge is more intense now because the tyres work in a narrower window. Some riders like that challenge, what about you?
I don’t like it, because I can’t work so well like this. For example, this afternoon [FP2 at Sepang] I used a soft front tyre like I used this morning, but the tyre wasn’t hard enough for the track temperature, even though it was only five degrees more than this morning, so I couldn’t make a time attack.
What I like about Michelin is that they work with great passion and they try hard and normally when it comes to the race we are ready with the right tyres. The tyres are good, the lap times are fast, so they don’t need to change the tyres again. For sure I don’t like the narrow window and they need to consider the difference in quality from one tyre to another, which is sometimes a lot. You need to control the situation with the tyres because sometimes I’ve tried a tyre that wasn’t perfect and I changed the whole bike for that tyre. Now if I try a tyre that isn’t perfect I don’t get confused because I know it’s the tyre.
So you have to be calmer in the garage?
We don’t need to rush to change the bike so fast, because sometimes the issue can be the tyres, sometimes the track. Now we try and relax and only make changes when we need to make them.
MotoGP is closer than ever now – do you enjoy that?
It’s incredible: the tyres, the bikes and the level of riding.
One tiny mistake and suddenly….
You’re 10th! Listen, I thought Moto2 was hard, but right now MotoGP is like Moto2: one day you’re not at your best and you’re 10th, so you have to be at your best in every single practice session. We are doing time attacks in every practice now: FP1, FP2 and FP3. Normally I try not to make too many laps in a session – two or three runs, because if you do a lot of runs you get tired, then when you do a time attack you’re not fresh.
Is it difficult, psychologically, to be always at 100 per cent?
From the outside it looks like you’re quite up and down, quite emotional…
I’m working very hard on this. I’m trying to find a sports psychiatrist, but it’s not easy, because I need to find a good one that understands me. Sometimes I’m not fully focused, so for sure I need to improve this. I’m the kind of person that wants to get better every year, and if I find a good sports psychiatrist I’m going to improve so much, because last season when I did badly in races it was partly because I was down.
Like in Qatar I was the fastest guy on the track in the second part of the race and I recovered four seconds on the leaders. But I was so emotionally down, because in 2017 I’d been on pole and I won the race… If I was more motivated, more looking forward to the next day, maybe I would’ve been second in the championship.
So sometimes your problems in the early stages of races weren’t only the bike or the tyres, but also your head?
Less than three weeks after this interview I spoke to Viñales during postseason testing at Valencia and Jerez, where he tried two new engine specs, designed to improve both corner-entry and corner-exit performance; most likely through increased crankshaft inertia.
Viñales liked the new engines because they allowed him to carry more speed into corners, which contradicts what he told me at Sepang about his preferred stop-and-go technique, but perhaps he can revert to the style he used in Moto2.
I prefer more engine braking because it helps my riding style a lot. The new engine spec works a bit differently, so the bike allows me to enter corners faster. Before I just had to stop the bike, pick up and go. Now I can ride more naturally, so I need to change the bike and maybe I can improve the bike a lot. I’m happy that, finally, the engine works better in corner entry, which was where I was missing last year.
Who knows, maybe everything will change again when 2019 testing begins in February, but the main thing to take from this interview is that bike set-up and riding technique are in a constant state of flux – what works one weekend won’t work the next – according to any number of different factors.
The job of Viñales and his rivals is to constantly adapt to the technical reality, with their natural riding technique changing according to tyres, engine, chassis, electronics and so on.