Yamaha, Fabio Quartararo and a big 2022 MotoGP title defence headache

Yamaha is facing a tough decision as its new 2021 MotoGP World Champion Fabio Quartararo urges it to 'push so so much' on engine and power development

Fabio Quartararo - Yamaha MotoGP 2021.jpg

Yamaha heads into the winter with some tough decisions to make regarding the development direction for its title-winning, but increasingly maligned M1 after Fabio Quartararo urged the factory to focus on extracting more speed from it.

The new World Champion was speaking after suffering his first DNF of the season in Portimao, which he says was down to him pushing too hard to pressure Ducati duo Jorge Martin and Johann Zarco into mistakes since he had no chance of overtaking them in a straight line.

Though Quartararo’s issues largely stemmed from a poor qualifying that saw him off the front row for only the third time this season, his complaints about the lacklustre top speed of the Yamaha M1 has become a mantra for each rider passing through the Japanese team. 

Of course, look at the headline facts of Quartararo’s stunning title win and you could say there is little for the Frenchman to worry about. However, it doesn’t take long to see all is not quite right with the bike, leaving Yamaha to to rely heavily on Quartararo’s sheer affinity with the bike to achieve a significant amount in 2021.

Indeed, qualifying has been instrumental to Quartararo’s success this season. It’s no coincidence his rivals fear him getting a good start because if he can take control of a race early on, there is little rivals can do to keep up with him in the corners even if they’re able to reel him in on a straight.

This proved crucial at circuits like Mugello and Silverstone - circuits where the M1 is hampered by being literally powerless to hold off rivals with a tow - because Quartararo’s ability to exploit the Yamaha’s sweet handling and pin-point accuracy on the apex allowed him to find more time in the corners than he was losing in fistfulls over a single straight.

Is the best MotoGP rider on the best MotoGP bike?

However, Portimao was a worrying validation for Quartararo’s fears after he qualified down in seventh place, with only a weather-affected Misano a lower starting position so far this year.

With four Ducatis up ahead, Quartararo spent his afternoon looking at the back of two of them before eventually crashing out because he was working the front too hard to gather time through the bends. Indeed, when Quartararo ran in clean air during the race he was a match for winner Pecco Bagnaia, but in the pack he couldn’t get close enough to plant a pass.

Quartararo’s prowess over a single lap shouldn’t be an assumed privilege for Yamaha though, leaving the Frenchman worried that any race weekend that sees his Saturday form slip gives him no chance to defeat his rivals come Sunday.

"When you are stuck behind a Ducati and you are just..." he began when speaking to journalist after the Algarve MotoGP. "Honestly, I could go much faster all the race. I could really have the pace of Pecco for sure

"If you make a great qualifying, I was able to fight for the victory for sure. But if you miss the qualifying, you can say bye bye to the podium and the victory."

"It's really a shame that we have these kind of difficulties, because the bike is so good to ride, but with this speed, you can't make any mistakes.”

Yamaha and the top speed dilemma

This isn’t new territory for Yamaha and it is heading into another winter grappling with the risk of changing philosophy or playing it safe, the latter of which is a strategy it has largely preferred in recent years beyond a steady evolution of the M1 package.

However, Yamaha has been surprisingly steadfast in its reluctance to tinker with a bike that everyone agrees is the most consistent and agile to handle, but hopelessly flaccid in a straight line. Valentino Rossi complained but didn’t get what he wanted, while it was one of the key motivations for Maverick Vinales to jump before he was pushed anyway.

If Yamaha overruled even Rossi, why would it listen to Quartararo? Well, firstly he is its new champion and potential long-term talisman, a rider who has a queue of offers ready and waiting in his inbox if he becomes disillusioned with Yamaha’s philosophy on set-up.

Yamaha is also aware that Quartararo has just won its first MotoGP title since 2015 on an M1 that is barely cracking the top ten in three other talented hands. Indicating Quartararo and the M1 are functioning as one, Yamaha has an opportunity to use the Frenchman’s particular feel to mould the bike to his liking, meaning any compromise on handling for top speed might be cushioned by his confidence on it.

Even so, Yamaha is coming from quite a long way back. At Portimao, Quartararo was rooted at the bottom end of the top speed charts clocking 330km/h through the gun with Ducati’s Jack Miller at 343km/h. When you consider events in Thailand, Malaysia and Argentina were cancelled this season, had they been on the calendar it might have been a more arduous end to the year for Quartararo.

"Even if we lose in another area, we need to gain on top speed, because to overtake is just a nightmare. Well, we just can't overtake.

"Also, during the year, you can bring new chassis. You can have an evolution at the Jerez test, at the Misano test, in the Barcelona test, but you can't have an evolution of the engine.

"So I think they [Yamaha] should push so much and so much on the engine, because to be honest, for the future it's not going to be easy.

So the argument is there but is the knowledge? It’s unlikely Yamaha will find 13km/h overnight and the fear is that even if it reduces the deficit to modest yet still telling 7-8km/h it could unsettle the chassis enough to lose it more time than it gains. 

Nonetheless, the message from Quartararo is clear and while what he says doesn’t necessarily ‘go’ when it comes to development direction, Yamaha will feel under pressure to submit or find itself accepting its Sunday results depending on where it qualifies on Saturday.

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