Why Yamaha looks destined to suffer in 2022 MotoGP as rivals turn up the wick

Yamaha felt confident sticking to its guns with the M1 relative to Ducati... but will philosophy of handling over speed be scuppered by Suzuki and Honda?

Fabio Quartararo - Yamaha

The opening round of any MotoGP World Championship season will always throw up threads to ponder as the riders shake off the rust and take stock of where they feature in the grandiose scheme of things.

Truth is, there isn’t too much to draw from a race held at the Lusail International Circuit. The long, flowing circuit isn’t symptomatic of other venues with harder braking zones and a greater weighting towards chassis performance over engine grunt.

It explains why lap times were again so close this year, the exclamations of commentators touting this year’s field as the greatest yet disguising the fact they often say the same thing at the start of every season.

As such, there is an argument that suggests results in the context of the year should be taken for what they are at this stage - one race with 20 more to come. At least, that’s what Yamaha will be hoping.

Indeed, it’s a mantra it will be hoping to feed to Fabio Quartararo after a dismal start to his title defence that wasn’t so much uncompetitive but completely anonymous a year after it took two wins around the circuit.

So what happened? Well, Yamaha certainly won’t have come to the opening round of 2022 with a worse bike than it took to the world title in 2021 but, alas, the improvements appear to be somewhat minor.

And while it is an old adage, if you’re standing still in MotoGP, you’re actually heading backwards.

Indeed, it is worth pointing out the pace in Lusail this year was substantially quicker than in 2021. Quartararo’s race-winning time from the 2021 Grand Prix of Doha was almost identical to his race time (give or take a couple of tenths) en route to ninth over the weekend. 

Unfortunately for him, race winner Enea Bastianini was ten seconds quicker than his race-winning time of 2021, which equates to around 0.4s a lap.

It’s a measure of Yamaha’s reluctance to shake up its formula when it comes to developing the M1. While Quartararo was at pains to urge Yamaha to work on giving the M1 more ponies over the winter after Ducati stole a march in the closing stages of the year, the Iwata marque stuck to the guns that saw it deny Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales in previous years thinking it knows best.

Why Suzuki and Honda - not Ducati - pose Yamaha's biggest issue

For the most part it does - the team has been a perennial front runner for years now - but while Yamaha’s problem in 2021 was Ducati with its superior top speed, in 2022 its fortunes could be determined by Suzuki and Honda. It is a miscalculation that could cost it dear throughout the season.

Indeed, while the ebb and flow of form between Ducati and Yamaha with its pendulous swing of momentum between speed and handling is well documented, few expected Honda and Suzuki - which previously sat somewhere in the middle - to be turning up the wick so noticeably.

While Honda and Suzuki didn’t perhaps wring the best from their packages in Qatar, their big step forward on the speed charts was noticeable, giving them the squirt to leave Quartararo behind early on and consign him to also ran status.

This is markedly different to a year ago when the Yamaha man would have just kept in their slipstream a year ago, allowing him the extra digits to crawl up on the Ducatis too.

Indeed, while Yamaha has ignored the threat posed by the rapid Ducati contingent, Suzuki and Honda - and to some extent Aprilia and KTM - have heeded the warning and come to play with some impressively swift bikes that have all now left Yamaha trailing in their wake.

It means Quartararo faces an even bigger task than he feared to mount a challenge if he cannot qualify at the front of the grid because as good as the Yamaha is in bends, it won’t matter if it can’t get to them quicker than its rivals.

On the flip side, Suzuki and Honda did struggle more in the races when the tyres began to wear - something of a strength in previous years - so more technical circuits could have them trailing in Yamaha’s wake if they don’t get on top of it.

However, KTM and Aprilia were also strong in Qatar, the latter especially performing well in the speed charts and seemingly looking fast in the closing stages.

Moreover, Quartararo’s final result was helped by a trio of Ducati riders imploding in front of him - were it not for that he’d have ended up 12th. It's also worth noting Johann Zarco could make progress up the order from a low of 19th at one stage to finish ahead of his countryman.

In short, the script in Qatar has been flipped a bit and while one circuit doesn’t make a season, it’s alarming to see a world champion suddenly battling on the fringes of the top ten no matter the venue - much less one he was victorious at a year earlier.