until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Why I still can't give up on MotoGP's ridiculed testing king

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

In the final race weekend of MotoGP's 2023 season, Maverick Vinales went quickest in practice, bagged pole with a new lap record on Saturday morning, and then twice chose the wrong rear tyre and ended up below where he should've been in both the sprint and the race.

It was a very Maverick Vinales weekend - but could it be even more Maverick Vinales-esque? Yes, was the resounding answer, because the Aprilia man then went ahead and topped the post-season test on Tuesday.

Vinales is no fan of his 'testing champion' moniker and understandably so, because it is never used in admiration. His record in testing is only notable because of the juxtaposition to his record in races.

The 28-year-old has already had a good MotoGP career (and the fact he is somehow 28 despite how long he has been a premier-class constant is one that repeatedly catches out this writer). He has nine wins in 160 grand prix starts, putting him in joint 25th all-time in the premier class.

But the testing reputation isn't built on nothing. It is very much not built on nothing. Going back to tally up 55 off-season or in-season collective MotoGP tests Vinales has taken part in, you find that he has been top-three more than half of them - and that he's topped 17. Again, he has topped seventeen MotoGP tests.

Even if part of that is almost certainly explained by a different approach to testing run plans than for some of his rivals, this is a hit rate that is impossible to ignore. And - as I can attest to from the distant future of a few seconds ahead - it feels extremely cathartic and joyous to write descriptions like 'the God Emperor of testing' and 'what if Michael Jordan only showed up for the NBA summer league'.

But I'd like to make it clear that those barbs are intended to come from a place of gentle mockery rather than total derision. You don't top 17 MotoGP tests if you're not seriously rapid.

Tuesday's Valencia test was actually the first he'd headed as an Aprilia rider. On the RS-GP, Vinales has become more of a 'practice champion' than a 'testing champion' - and that also very much reflects the nature of the current Aprilia.

Now that Vinales is pretty adapted to the bike, he - just like team-mate Aleix Espargaro - manages to capitalise on the fact that it is solid out of the box and that it thrives in the low-grip conditions of Friday practice, before mileage through the weekend puts more and more rubber down and helps Ducati, already aided by the in-weekend cooperation of its eight-rider armada, restore the natural order.

It's been a familiar story throughout 2023, and it again looked to be on display at Valencia, though while Vinales has sometimes had a big problem translating practice pace to qualifying relative to Espargaro he managed it with aplomb last weekend for a new lap record.

The choice of a medium-rear tyre for the sprint limited him there, although it was one Espargaro also made. "Don't blame Maverick," he insisted, explaining that the data simply showed "we had better traction with the medium".

You can probably "blame Maverick" for what happened next, then. On Sunday morning, he was pinged with a grid penalty - albeit one Aprilia seemed to strongly disagree with - for failing to sufficiently heed a black-and-orange flag in the warm-up. He was then the only rider on the grid to race the 27-lap grand prix with a soft rear.

It's something described by him in the team's press release as an "unconventional decision", which, uhhh, yes, it was, because nobody else on the grid did that. And the result was a deeply unimpressive 10th-place finish.

Weekends like these contribute to Vinales' stock in MotoGP circles potentially being the lowest it's been - certainly among the media circles, which is the kind of thing that is for sure not helped by him having skipped the post-race media debrief on Sunday. If it is indeed the lowest it's been, that's not because he's the slowest he's been, but just because it has felt like the same story year after year.

Vinales has preached relentless optimism all season, and coming into the closing stages indicated that his side of the garage had cracked the big mystery about Aprilia's somewhat feast-or-famine form. The big limitation - apart from the clutch, which clearly must be better relative to Ducati and KTM - is balance, seemingly between front grip and rear grip and how it interacts with the overall grip level of the track through the weekend.

"As I mentioned since Sepang, we identified really well what was going on," he insisted after the test. "So we understand which was the good balance on the bike, especially also when there was a lot of grip. And also for the new tyres. 

"So once again we confirmed, we confirmed during the weekend and we confirmed also on the test. 

"Aprilia can work on the way to always give me this kind of balance on the track. Fair play to the guys to understand this. Even if it's at the end of the season, it was very important because it's opened a different perspective for the new bike."

Given Vinales had also insisted that these are improvements that can be made without requiring new material, it sounds suspiciously simple - except, well, could the actual answer be even simpler than that?

When asked by The Race about his botched Valencia weekend, Vinales said something quite revealing - even if it had come up already during the year.

"Well, I think during the weekend we made big mistakes on the rear tyre. And today we confirmed, with the medium tyre I was able to ride 1m29s on the rhythm, and at the end of the race on 1m30s. It confirms that we could be there fighting with Pecco [Bagnaia] and [Johann] Zarco all the race. And... we knew, we need a little bit a better system to work through the weekend."

This "better system" for Vinales is effectively an acknowledgment that he hasn't optimised his weekends.

"I think right now is very tough, because I can't rest, not even five minutes during the day. We have a lot of stuff. 

"So for next year we need to really think really well. Because sometimes I need to be very concentrated, especially when we do the meetings. And I will try to be more well-rested, to be more concentrated and more prepared.

"It's the same story for the guys. We'll try to be better."

The weekend schedule is the same for everyone. The calendar overall is, too. But Vinales already acknowledged before that "what makes me most tired is the travel" in 2023 - and while he does have the excuse of a young family, he's also Vinales.

He's just not the most adaptable rider in MotoGP, and both he and Aprilia surely know that to get the most out of him things need to be as smooth as possible.

Perhaps that's too much of a stipulation. Any suggestion that Aprilia hasn't succeeded in its Vinales signing is a bit absurd - he is Espargaro's best team-mate and the second-best rider in the current iteration of the RS-GP project by a pretty healthy margin - but it would be hard to blame Aprilia if it decides going forward that Vinales has taken it as far he can.

He must hit the ground running in 2024 to keep those thoughts at bay. It will help that crew chief Manu Cazeaux, recruited from the ashes of Suzuki, now has much more experience of the RS-GP, and perhaps next year's version of the bike is a better fit to Vinales.

After all, we haven't seen even a prototype yet - at Valencia, Vinales and Aprilia were testing swingarms, rider position and a reworked power delivery for the start. "It's a huge difference," Vinales said of the latter. "Huge-huge."

Above all of those, though, is the question of whether Aprilia can get Vinales, rather than any aspect of the bike, in the window.

He has won nine races in MotoGP, but his talent and pace has warranted probably twice as many triumphs. But missing out on that extra silverware and a genuine title challenge that had been promised ever since a spectacular breakout 2016 season can clearly no longer be attributed to luck or surroundings or a mere lack of polish.

And maybe it's been too long for that to change. But then you see Vinales' name pop up once more at the top of the timing screens - and you're stronger than I am if you can resist talking yourself into him again.

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