Yamaha MotoGP Interview Wilco Zeelenberg

Former racer is Maverick Vinales’ eyes at the side of the track

wilco zeelenberg and maverick vinales paddock talk
Wilco Zeelenberg and Maverick VinalesCourtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Wilco Zeelenberg is Yamaha's "rider performance" analyst. A former motocrosser and 250cc Grand Prix winner who later became a title-winning World Supersport team manager with Cal Crutchlow, Zeelenberg worked with three-time MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo from 2010 to 2016.

This year, Zeelenberg is at the side of Maverick Vinales, who has already won three races this season and is currently third in the championship, 24 points behind series leader Marc Marquez. Zeelenberg was among the first to introduce this important role to the MotoGP paddock. Before him, Alberto Puig helped Dani Pedrosa, but Puig was also Pedrosa’s manger.

What is your actual job?

It’s a new figure in the paddock since the last couple of years. I started with Jorge [Lorenzo], looking around the track, analyzing all the other riders with my eyes, my ears, and my experience to give the rider the best support from the team.

Why were you only watching Lorenzo?

When I joined Yamaha, I was Jorge’s team manager, while Davide Brivio worked with Valentino Rossi. As I am a former rider, Lorenzo asked me to have a look around the racetrack, to study the lines, to see and listen to the other riders. Nowadays, with all the electronics, it’s difficult, especially for a young rider, to understand what is happening with the bike. They know, for example, that they cannot keep the line, but is this because of engine braking, too much power, or not enough power? There are so many things influencing the bike.

maverick vinales motogp race action
Maverick VinalesCourtesy of Movistar Yamaha

After your example, Rossi hired Luca Cadalora, Sete Gibernau works with Dani Pedrosa, and Michele Pirro with Lorenzo.

During the race weekend, you can only work with a rider. The fact that I was a rider helps because we speak the same language, and I’m focused on technical details.

What was the first thing that impressed you about Vinales?

His base speed when he jumped on the bike for the first time. He was immediately fast and was able to stop the bike a bit better than Jorge, a point we worked on a lot with Lorenzo. Maverick has very good control of the rear brake, and he is very demanding on the front brake, so he can stop the bike well. With these MotoGP bikes, it is very important to choose the right speed to enter the corner.

In terms of mentality?

Maverick has a mission: He wants to be world champion. He is determined to win—and the sooner, the better. This is very clear and, for me, there is no doubt he will become world champion. It's just when. He will be a key person for the coming years in MotoGP.

Did Maverick adapt his riding style to the Yamaha YZR-M1?

A bit, as he is capable of changing directions very easily. Sometimes, he has to calm down. With the Suzuki, he needed to always be aggressive to be fast. On the contrary, with the Yamaha you need to be calmer because our bike is better than the Suzuki, and you can put the bike in a problem by overriding it. Maverick understood this quite quickly, but as soon as he has some issues—as he had over the last couple of races—it's easy to go back to the style he learned in the past, to the old mentality that he needs to fight to be first.

maverick vinales and wilco zeelenberg hug
Maverick Vinales and Wilco ZeelenbergCourtesy of Movistar Yamaha

In the first races, Vinales seemed unbeatable. What happened afterward?

It’s difficult to explain because we have basically the same bike. The first wins came quite easily, then he made mistakes, crashing in Austin and at Assen when he was competitive. Jerez and Barcelona were difficult to explain also for us because, in the past, we had been strong. Of course, we are looking next door, because the Yamaha Tech 3 guys were better than us in some races.

Is the Yamaha still the most balanced bike on grid?

We had and still have a balanced bike, but at the moment we are struggling when the grip drops. We are not sure if it is the bike or the tire. Probably a combination. Our strong point is still the turning of the bike, but if we lose that, because of high temperatures, then we are no more competitive.

Watching from the side of the track, how do you describe Maverick’s style?

He is somewhere between Marquez and Rossi. Marc is even more aggressive than Maverick, especially on braking and corner entry, and rides the bike longer on the limit in the mid-corner. Maverick is able to brake later and also exit very well.

What about Valentino Rossi?

He is an old fox. When you see him on track in the practices, you never know if he is testing something or preparing for the race. Maverick and Marc always try to find the limit, while Rossi works for the race, so you need to take it in account. But sometimes you see from Free Practice 1 that weekend he will definitely go for the win, as in Misano in 2014.

maverick vinales yamaha motogp race action
Maverick VinalesCourtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Are you surprised to see Lorenzo struggling so much?

The Ducati is a powerful bike, but turning is not one of its strong points. We knew that if they are not able to fix the mid-corner feeling, Jorge's style doesn't pay. Since Brno, I see him more comfortable on the bike. He will return strong.

How do you see Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso?

He has been strong and calm this season. He rides smart and knows he doesn’t need to override the bike to stay on top in the race. I think the information Lorenzo gave also helped Dovizioso a bit. It looks like the Desmosedici is a bit more stable, turns better, and he won two races in a row.

And Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki?

He is struggling with the Suzuki. I don’t know why so much. He has the potential but, at the moment, the package doesn’t work very well.

Can Vinales win the title this year?

I believe so. Especially at the beginning of the year he was very strong, and Marc made some mistakes. But we threw away many points crashing twice. We didn’t score well in four races and Marc was able to come back.

Is Marquez the favorite?

He is three-time MotoGP world champion, the Honda has improved, and he is leading the championship. From this point on, it is important for Maverick to return to the form he had at the start of the season to put pressure on Marc. The target is to have the speed back. I also would like to see them battling. Brno was the first time this year they were together on the podium, which is strange for the first and second rider in the championship. This means they are both struggling.

Finally, how is the atmosphere in the Yamaha garage?

It’s very good because Vinales and Rossi are both in competition for the title—they smell the lead. It’s the bike that is not always competitive for the win.

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