How Yamaha finally reconquered MotoGP

MotoGP

Last season Yamaha won its first MotoGP crown in six years after a long fight back to the top. Fabio Quartararo, crew chief Diego Gubellini and Yamaha MotoGP boss Takahiro Sumi guide us along that rocky road and reveal their aims for 2022

Fabio Quartararo team and family celebrate 2021 MotoGP title on the podium

Quartararo, the factory Yamaha team and his parents celebrate the title at October’s Emilia-Romagna GP

Yamaha

For the 12 years after Valentino Rossi joined Yamaha in 2004 the Iwata brand was in the fight for the MotoGP world championship every year, winning seven riders’ and five constructors’ championships.

Then came 2016 and the biggest rewrite of the technical regulations since 2002, when 990cc four-strokes were introduced to kill off the 500cc two-strokes.

In 2016 same-for-all Magneti Marelli software replaced the crazily high-tech factory software, while Michelin tyres replaced Bridgestone rubber.

Yamaha went from winning 11 races and the riders’, constructors’ and teams’ prizes in 2015 to 13 race victories and nothing else over the next four seasons.

“The change of tyres and software at once was too big an impact for our development, we suffered more than the others,” admits Takahiro Sumi, Yamaha’s MotoGP group leader for the last three years. “We tried to understand but we had too many issues. Maybe if there were two or three issues we could try to focus on them and improve in the normal way, but if you have five or ten problems it’s easy to lose your way.

“You find yourself in a hole, you try furiously to dig, and discover to your horror that you’re digging yourself deeper”

“Of course we made a big, big effort to improve the situation. We made many chassis and tried many electronics settings but there were too many things, so sometimes our efforts didn’t solve the problems and they even created some confusion.”

This is how it is in racing, as in real life: sometimes when you find yourself in a hole you try furiously to dig yourself out and discover to your horror that you’re only digging yourself deeper

Who to blame? Yamaha and its factory team line-up of one rider heading towards his dotage and another who never seems to know up from down and left from right.

Yamaha hit rock bottom in 2018, completing its longest victory drought since it first contested the premier class in 1973

“The worst was 2018… our development side was a bit exhausted,” adds Sumi. “People always say the Yamaha is fast in corners but in 2018 we didn’t even have that, so from 2019 we tried to focus on regaining that, step by step.

Fabio Quartararo during 2021 Jerez test

Quartararo at last month’s Jerez tests. One of his strong points is that he’s very busy on the bike

Yamaha

“From 2019 we tried to regain our strong point of cornering performance, not just turning, but the whole corner area: entry, turning and acceleration. In 2019 we showed some speed but only over one lap, so we got almost half the pole positions but only two race wins.”

Something else changed for Yamaha in 2019. The company hired Fabio Quartararo, who didn’t win a race in his rookie season but came within a second of beating Marc Márquez to victory four times in the last seven races.

The Yamaha’s real problem during this period was burning the edge of the rear tyre. The M1 used a lot of lean angle through most of the corner, which spiked tyre temperature, degrading the tyre.

Quartararo’s way of riding got more from the tyres and often made him the fastest M1 rider but Yamaha needed to do more.

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“For 2020 we made big changes to the engine and chassis and we were stronger, so Fabio, Maverick [Viñales] and Frankie [Morbidelli] could get many victories. Our bike’s total performance was stronger but the consistency wasn’t good and we couldn’t understand why.”

Like most MotoGP engineers, Sumi won’t talk details, but the 2020 engine was different inside and out, which changed overall bike rigidity. At the same time Yamaha moved parts around to allow better intake airflow, for more power, which changed overall bike balance. This may explain the 2020 M1’s sensitivity to different track and weather conditions.

“Our target for 2021 was to obtain consistency. Engine development was frozen, so we changed the chassis to regain the same performance as the 2019 bike, which our riders said had better braking and turning performance.”

Quartararo loved the 2021 M1 from the start.

“I understood the bike really well and with that great feeling I could always push to my maximum and push to the limit,” says the 22-year-old Frenchman who won five races on his way to his first world title.

The Magneti-Marelli/Michelin situation also improved for Yamaha. Unlike the other factories Yamaha didn’t poach staff from Magneti to help them get the most out of the software, because they wanted to solve their issues in-house, but finally in 2019 they did hire someone from Magneti.

Modified frame of Fabio Quartararo Yamaha

New section welded into Jerez test frame changes lateral stiffness for improved turning and rear grip

Then in 2020 Michelin introduced its softer-construction rear slick, which generally worked better for the smooth-cornering inline-fours.

“From the outside it looked like the other manufacturers struggled more with the tyre, so maybe it helped us,” Sumi explains.

“Also we tried to understand better how the tyre performs and how it loses its performance, so now we control this better, by the bike and the rider, so we can conserve tyre performance to the end of the race.”

Yamaha also made a breakthrough with the electronics for 2021, reducing the amount of traction control employed during the latter half of races, relying on the rider instead.

“I don’t want to imagine our bike surrounded by eight Ducati bikes”

Sumi has one big target for 2022.

“Engine power for speed on the straights is the main point to improve. Our riders are fast with our bike but even if they are one second faster in lap times sometimes they struggle to overtake, especially when fighting with the Ducatis.”

Quartararo agrees. “My only request to the engineers is to focus on top speed – if I have the same bike plus some more horsepower I will be happy.”

Yamaha is also working on chassis performance, with revised frames evaluated during last month’s Jerez tests. These featured different rigidity because chassis flex helps turning and the sooner the rider can get the bike turned the sooner he can accelerate, which means more straight-line speed.

And yet however much extra power Yamaha finds from its M1 engine Sumi must be a bit worried about having eight Desmosedicis on next year’s MotoGP grid.

“Not a little bit,” he smiles. “I don’t want to imagine our bike surrounded by eight Ducati bikes.”

The difference in straight-line performance between the Ducati (MotoGP’s fastest bike) and the Yamaha (its slowest) is jaw-dropping. At the last race at Valencia – a good track to gauge horsepower, anti-wheelie aero and electronics, because the entry to the straight is very slow – the best Yamaha reached 199.9mph, while the best Ducati did 208.4mph!

Quartararo wants Yamaha to increase its anti-wheelie aero but Yamaha can’t because the M1 engine doesn’t have the horsepower to cope with the extra drag. So Yamaha is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

Fabio Quartararo celebrtes winning the 2021 MotoGP championship

Quartararo celebrates the title with his crew, including crew chief Gubbelini (right)

Yamaha

Yamaha will have to work more carefully than ever to beat the phalanx of Dukes in 2022. Once again its engineers must focus on qualifying, the start and the opening laps to get out front, because what the M1 needs is a clear track and clean air, so riders can carve their big, arcing cornering lines to exploit the bike’s corner-speed advantage and keep their front tyres cool.

As soon as a Yamaha rider gets mixed up with a few other bikes he can’t use his preferred cornering lines, then the heat from the other machines increases his front tyre pressure, which changes the tyre’s profile, reducing grip.

Quartararo is lucky that he has a very clever and tight-knit crew around him, specifically crew chief Diego Gubbelini and data engineer Pablo Guilliem.

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“Last season these three never made one mistake with tyre choice,” says team manager Massimo Meregalli.

And right now there is nothing more important in MotoGP than solving the Michelin mystery every weekend to start the race with the best front and rear tyres.

Gubbelini’s background is electronics, plus he knows a lot about suspension from his family business.

“Now in MotoGP you have to work mostly on the electronics and the tyres and especially the tyres because they are the connection between the rider and the asphalt,” says the Italian, who won his first world title while working with Daijiro Kato in 2001. “Of course it’s a combination of everything but mainly it’s electronics and tyres, because if you let the rider use the tyres the performance will come.”

Next year Yamaha hopes it won’t have to rely purely on Quartararo for results. New factory team-mate Franky Morbidelli should be fully recovered from his left-knee injury and Andrea Dovizioso should be more competitive aboard a 2022 M1, after returning to MotoGP last season on 2019 machinery, so long as he can continue adapting his riding style from V4 to inline-four.

But you can be sure that those eight Desmosedicis will be giving Yamaha riders and engineers sleepless nights throughout the off-season.