MotoGP: Maverick Viñales Reveals Winning Is Not Just About Being the Fastest Rider

Most riders don’t delve into too many details, but Maverick Viñales bares all about what goes into racing a MotoGP bike in this interview

Maverick Vinales Test, motogp, suzuki, movistar yamaha, electronics, traction control, marc marquez, valentino rossi

2016 MotoGP R18, Circuito Ricardo Tormo, Cheste, Valencia, Spain

Maverick Viñales is a man on a mission. After two learning years in MotoGP, he has made a move to Yamaha and is ready to hunt for a title in 2017.Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Knowledgeable people in the racing paddock have been warning in the last couple of years about the incredible skills of a certain racer named Maverick Viñales. In fact, we covered the ascension of the young Catalan rider to the MotoGP class two years ago, and the prediction in that story is on its way to being fulfilled in 2017.

The 2016 season has been a good one for Viñales, the youngest rider in the category. In the last 7 races he won one, finished one other the on the podium and challenged Jorge Lorenzo for the third position in the final standing until the last GP. But the beginnings of the season weren’t so positive.

“Oh yes, after the first preseason test (at Valencia 2015), I left [the next test at] Malaysia kind of confused,” explained Viñales when we sat down to talk about his season. “I remember very well how difficult that test went due to the electronics. I just didn’t feel comfortable in any moment, and this was a big disappointment after having finished 3rd in the Valencia test. I left Sepang 9th, 1.5 seconds from the fastest rider…and without understanding why.”

It was a consequence of the introduction of the new common software, wasn't it?
Yes. I was completely lost. Later, when we made a close analysis of the data we had collected in Malaysia, we saw that we were missing a lot of power and that the traction control was not working. There was a lot of work to do! We saw also some positive things; like that our engine was faster than the others in the category. And this gave us some confidence back. When we arrived in Australia the situation changed completely. I had a lot of fun riding in Phillip Island; probably it has been the moment of the year when I enjoyed most.

So in the preseason test in Australia you already realized that you could be competitive?
Yes. We had already done a good race there the previous year. This time we led the tests and I left Australia with very good sensations and riding really fast. In the next test, in Qatar, we were first, second or third in all the sessions; it was incredible. In the preseason we made a step forward… more mental than technical. I changed my approach, from that moment on I assumed that I was in the situation of going out on the track and being with the top guys from the first moment.

How is the process to fix a problem with the electronics? Who does it?
It is very difficult for someone to look at the data and simply say, 'here is the problem.' It is the rider who has to explain his feelings, like for example, 'here when I open the gas the rear slides, I need more traction.' Let's say that it is a combined work. Therefore it is very important that the rider gives accurate information to the technicians.

Maverick Vinales Phillip Island, motogp, suzuki, yamaha, 2017

2016 MotoGP R16, Phillip Island, Australia

"If you look at Marc and Valentino, both work with used tires. On Friday they work calmly, they speed up a little bit more Saturday morning and at the end of the day they are always at the top. We in Suzuki changed a little bit the method by starting Fridays with new tires switching to used as the sessions go on."Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Do you speak directly with the electronics engineer?
I sit down with my chief mechanic and with the main person responsible for the electronics and explain my sensations to them. Then we go to the data and analyze it. Normally we focus on the engine rpm and on the engine brake, which is fundamental to stop the bike. Another thing to watch for example, are the sections where you change gears very quick to avoid the bike sliding. You go from second, third, fourth with out revving the engine so you can use more power. There are many sections of the circuit that can be improved. Wheelie is an other important issue. For example in Valencia, between turn #1 and #2 you upshift immediately exiting the first corner, because if you do it later, the front end loses the contact with the ground.

And based of you information they set up the electronics for the next run, right?
My chief mechanic explained me that in the past the electronics allowed to set up the electronics for each corner of each circuit; the common electronics is in this sense much more simple. But yes, before getting out in the next sessions my chief mechanic informs me about the changes made.

All this was new when you arrived in MotoGP coming from Moto2.
Oh yes, there was a lot to be learned.

Maverick Viñales, marc marquez, suzuki, honda, motogp, valentino rossi

Maverick Vinales

Watching riders in front of him has helped Viñales understand how to use his electronics without giving up too much acceleration. He points to following Marquez and Rossi at the Red Bull Ring to be a key moment of learning in the 2016 season.Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Have you ever had to go on the track with a completely unknown setup?
Yes, of course. In Le Mans for example, we struggled the whole weekend to get the bike to brake properly. The bike did turn very well, but I just wasn't able to stop the bike like I wanted. Then in the last moment we decided do go exactly the opposite way: we set up the bike to stop and see what would happen in the middle of the corner.

And did it work?
Yes! I made second in the warmup and finished on the podium in the race.

Let's go quickly through the 2016 season. When did you feel you had arrived in the club of the top guys?
After Silverstone. In Qatar I was already strong, but I had no experience. Looking back, what we were missing then, my team and I, was experience. At the end of the Silverstone race, our electronics worked much more accurately, the management of the races was much better, we had learned how to control the tire consumption, we were much more efficient in qualifying and in the races. It was all consequence of having accumulated experience. Austria for example was an important race in this sense. I spent most of the race behind Marc and Valentino and could see things that helped me a lot.

Why that race?
I saw where Marc and Valentino used the maximum power. They had a different setup of the electronics. At the Red Bull Ring, I understood that it is important administrate where go full power and that there are places where going full is more detrimental than helpful.

Maverick Vinales Phillip Island

2016 MotoGP R16, Phillip Island, Australia

"I think I administrate very well the tires in the acceleration phase. I am good in exploring their maximum without making them slide. It is all down to get into the turn and start to open the gas without causing spin."Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Speaking the other day with HRC's Shuhei Nakamoto, he explained to me that the talent of almost all MotoGP rider allows to do one fast lap. It's a very different story to be fast in the second half of the races.
Yes, I agree, this is the most difficult part of MotoGP. And it is not possible to achieve without intense work along the whole weekend.

And I imagine the learning phase goes through a trail-and-error process?
You have to realize that the learning process goes through renouncing the quick lap. It goes through doing many laps and trying many different things in the practice sessions. This normally puts you in a not very brilliant position in the classification at the end of the day. Then on FP4, the session that is the one you approach more with race configuration, you go out on used tires and if you are fast in it, you will be fast in the race. If you look at Marc and Valentino, both work with used tires. On Friday they work calmly, they speed up a little bit more Saturday morning and at the end of the day they are always at the top. We in Suzuki changed a little bit the method by starting Fridays with new tires switching to used as the sessions go on.

Do you go into the qualifying with a special set up?
No, we use race set up with new tires, less fuel and full power configuration.

Full power configuration?
In the qualifying session you do two or three laps on new tires, so you can go out with all you have. The bike is much more powerful than in race configuration.

2016 has been a good year and I will enter next season with a winner mentality.

So you cut power for the race?
Well, you start full power, but as the tires' grip starts to decline, you start to play with the different power curves.

Is there big difference?
On the straight the power is the same, there is just a little bit less exiting the corners. And it seems impossible, but when you check the data you realize that you accelerate the same with less power.

Because it makes the bike go forward instead of making it spin?
Exactly. It is very important to know how to play this game. It may sound easy, but to understand when and where to do it demands lots of work. For example, the situation is very different if you start from front row or in the middle of the grid. In this case you have to use full power to try to get into the front as soon as possible. In Silverstone for example, where I started from the first row and had no bikes in front of me, I switched to the second map already in the first lap thinking about saving the tires… and it worked.

Maverick Vinales Test

2016 MotoGP R18, Circuito Ricardo Tormo, Cheste, Valencia, Spain

Viñales admits that even with the MotoGP electronics it still pays dividends to have precise throttle control, and holding the throttle wide open at corner exit will only hurt you.Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Braking, corner speed and acceleration… in which of these three phases do you feel more comfortable?
Corner speed and acceleration… I think I administrate very well the tires in the acceleration phase. I am good in exploring their maximum without making them slide. It is all down to get into the turn and start to open the gas without causing spin. This is something that surprised me when I arrived at MotoGP. I thought that with this bikes it was just open the gas wild exiting the corners. But if you do so, the bike simply doesn't move forward.

So you have to work on your braking phase?
No, I don't think so. What determines the braking efficiency comes down to the front tire. One example: in Aragon I went out into the race with a hard front tire and I braked harder than Valentino and Jorge; like Marc. But in other races, like Austria, I had a softer tire than Marc and this forced me to concentrate on the corner speed to try to catch up the time I lost on the brakes… Braking depends very much on the tires. If the tire compound is soft the tire surface in contact with the ground starts to move on hard braking. This causes instability and penalizes the precision in the curve entrance maneuver. This forces you to brake two meters earlier.

Maverick Vinales Test

2016 MotoGP R18, Circuito Ricardo Tormo, Cheste, Valencia, Spain

Maverick Viñales is ready to attack the 2017 MotoGP World Championship with a "winner mentality."Photo by Andrew Wheeler/AutoMotoPhoto

Everything you are explaining sounds so complicated yet interesting…
That's MotoGP, that's the problem and the attraction of MotoGP; there are so many things to learn! And until you learn all this…

Full power for start; administrate the tire consumption, changes the power curves, all this work with the electronics… I am stressed just by hearing you explaining!
I like to sit down with my technicians and look at the graphics. I am quite a curious guy and I think I am quite good at it. I am not a rider who spends much time inside the box, but the half hour I spend I am very concentrated.

Next year you will be a member of the Yamaha Factory Team. What will be your approach? Will you apply what you have learned so far or will you wait to see how an experienced garage works?
I am a rider with fixed ideas. But the important thing is to collect information and learn. And I think in the Yamaha garage I can learn a lot because they have huge experience. It's obvious that at the end the rider wants to do things his way, but if there is a better one, you adapt it to yours. I always have thought that I am good in this: collect experiences and use them.

But are you open to advice, or do you think to do things your own way?
It depends…whatever works better, and normally the technicians are the ones who know what's best.

So, do you feel ready to make an assault on the 2017 championship?
I think so. 2016 has been a good year and I will enter next season with a winner mentality.