How Yamaha fixed the YZR-M1


A revised front end and new electronics strategies that give more control to the rider are probably the cornerstone of Yamaha’s MotoGP renaissance

Fabio Quartararo, 2021 Portuguese GP

Quartararo at Portimao – relying more on his throttle hand than the electronics


The last time Yamaha’s YZR-M1 was the best bike on the grid was way back in the days of Bridgestone tyres and tailor-made factory electronics when it was easier to get the maximum out of your motorcycle.

When the Michelins and same-for-everyone spec electronics arrived in 2016 the M1 didn’t suddenly become the worst bike on the grid, it was just that factory engineers couldn’t get the maximum out of the bike with the new tyres and software.

Whatever Yamaha engineers tried in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 didn’t really work. The M1 lacked acceleration, burned rear tyres and was a slave to track conditions – when the asphalt was just right the M1 could win races, when the asphalt wasn’t quite right the M1 was nowhere.

Incredibly, Yamaha’s three consecutive victories in the Qatar, Doha and Portuguese GPs is the only the third time since the start of 2016 that the company has won three races on the trot.

Do these latest successes suggest that Yamaha has finally cracked the Michelin and Magneti Marelli code? Possibly.

Championship leader Fabio Quartararo is delighted that his 2021 M1 feels just like his 2019 bike, which allowed him to frequently challenge Marc Márquez for victory during his rookie season.

“Now I feel closer to 2019 than 2020,” said Quartararo at Portimao last weekend. “It’s a long time since I felt this great – now I have a lot of flow with the bike.”

And, of course, flow is what the Yamaha needs to go fast.

“Last year the bike had no feeling when you turned into corners, so you didn’t know if you would crash or not and you went wide,” he added. “This year I can feel the limit and when I want to turn the bike turns. That’s why I’m so happy.”

Front-end feel is the most important performance factor in motorcycle racing because without it you won’t be fast into the corners or through the corners. You need to be able to have an intimate conversation with the front tyre every time you hurl your bike into a turn. If the tyre doesn’t talk to you then you have no idea what’s going to happen next. And that isn’t a good place to be.

Perhaps Yamaha engineers have simply recreated the 2019 chassis for 2021, but Quartararo’s further comments suggest this isn’t the case.

“I have more feeling, so I can flow with the bike. But this year’s bike is much more demanding than the 2019 bike – you need to push so hard to make the lap time and make the pace, but I feel good on the bike.”

So what’s Yamaha’s front-end secret? The 2020 M1 was packaged differently to the 2019 machine, which crucially changed overall balance, so most likely Yamaha has found the right way by tweaking bike balance plus chassis rigidity and geometry.

We are told that all three factory riders are using 2020 spec engines, not 2019 specs. The two specs have different engine mounts, which obviously affects overall rigidity, but this hasn’t prevented Yamaha from solving the problems that haunted its factory riders throughout last season.

Magneti Marelli ECU, 2021 MotoGP

MotoGP’s spec Magneti Marelli ECU, with dash panel and mapping switch

Magneti Marelli

Whatever the changes Yamaha has made they’re most likely detail tweaks. After all, as Quartararo explained last weekend, the real secret to winning in MotoGP is to focus on yourself to extract the maximum from your machine, instead of expecting your engineers to work the magic for you. Obviously the bike needs to be a useable tool, but the rest is up to you.

This is especially true in the triple M era – Michelin and Magneti Marelli – when the rider is more important than ever because he has to compensate for shortcomings in the (relatively) low-tech software and the hit-and-miss Michelins.

During the first six years of the triple M era, Yamaha riders mostly sounded like broken records, forever complaining about overheating tyres and a lack of acceleration. So far this year that’s not been a problem, at least for Quartararo and factory team-mate Maverick Viñales.

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Yamaha fell behind in the race to understand the spec software because it didn’t shortcut the learning process by hiring Magneti Marelli boffins like most of its rivals. Yamaha preferred a DIY philosophy. It wanted its own engineers to find their way through the Magneti Marelli labyrinth because, after all, racing isn’t only about going around in circles, it’s also an engineering university.

However, by the end of 2019 Yamaha management had had enough of their grim results, so they headhunted staff from Magneti Marelli and from Ducati, which has worked hand in hand with Magneti for decades.

“Now we think we should’ve done this two years ago,” Yamaha MotoGP project leader Takahiro Sumi told me in November 2019. “Other teams did this and have done well. If we had also done this two years ago maybe we would be at a better level now.”

Perhaps Yamaha is now putting into action what it learned from its new recruits during 2020, because the M1 electronics are definitely working better this year.

All factories work with exactly the same software which includes maps for torque delivery, traction control, anti-wheelie, engine-braking control and so on.

Most important for Yamaha are the torque delivery and traction control maps.

In recent years the M1 couldn’t help but overheat its rear tyre, especially at circuits featuring several successive left-handers or right-handers, which didn’t give the tyre enough time to cool down. Therefore the excessive heat caused degradation, which reduced grip, making the M1 more and more feeble as the race went on.

Neither Viñales nor Quartararo has complained about that kind of thing this year – thus far, at least – so what has Yamaha done to its torque and TC maps for 2021?

Most factories use similar torque and TC mapping philosophies during races. They start the race with the maximum torque map, because the rear tyre is brand new, so it can handle full power, and riders need all the power they can get while they’re battling for position during the early laps. At the same time they use the maximum TC map, to look after the tyre.

Maverick Vinales, 2021 Qatar GP

Vinales was in glorious form at the Qatar GP, but he was nowhere at Portimao after his QP incident


As the race goes on the rear tyre wears, so riders switch to a softer torque map, to save the rear tyre, and many also switch to a lower traction-control map. Less TC seems counterintuitive because surely you need more traction control as grip reduces?

In an ideal word, yes. But the whole point of spec software was to take MotoGP bikes and riders out of that ideal world, where super hi-tech software did all the work – calculating the grip available at every corner and adjusting the torque and TC maps accordingly.

All this technology is very clever, but it’s not much fun for the riders or for the fans. For 2016 Dorna forced the factories to accept lower-tech spec software because they wanted to make MotoGP less of a science experiment and more of an entertainment spectacle.

Watching and listening to Quartararo and Viñales at the first three races of 2021 it seems to me that Yamaha has changed the way it uses the torque and TC maps. In the past I always thought that Yamaha riders did what any normal person would expect them to do – start the race with less TC and then switch to the weaker torque maps and stronger TC maps as grip reduced.

Of course, the problem with increasing TC as you decrease torque is that you end up with no acceleration, because even though you’re putting less torque into the tyre there’s still enough to spin the tyre. And then the TC cuts in to reduce the spin, so you’ve got a double whammy of less and less torque getting to the tyre.

In the first race in Qatar you could see that Viñales wasn’t relying on more TC to look after himself and his rear tyre; instead he was using less TC and relying on his right hand to exit corners as fast as possible without burning his tyre. In the second race in Qatar and again in Portugal last weekend it was the same with Quartararo.

Because in the age of spec software the real secret to fast lap times is in the rider’s throttle hand, not the little black box of electronics. That’s one reason Marc Márquez was so dominant until he got hurt, because he relies upon himself to get the best from the bike and the tyres.

The next questions are these: do Quartararo and Yamaha have what it takes to keep winning at other tracks, can they handle a resurgent Márquez and will Viñales keep his head together week in, week out?