Factory Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo says he’s taking inspiration from MotoGP championship rival Pecco Bagnaia, the man who wrestled his title from him last year, as he prepares to start the 2023 season.
Quartararo is beginning the season off the back of a torturous winter testing campaign that finally yielded some light only on the final day – but gave him enough hope that he can still be competitive as the season progresses.
Quartararo was initially delighted with Yamaha’s 2023 offering when he first tried the latest iteration of the M1 back in September last year with a significantly upgraded engine bringing him what he’s called out for for years – more straightline speed.
Straightline speed is now absolutely crucial in modern MotoGP if you want to hold off the waves of rocketship Ducatis on straights. It’s been such a significant weakness of the Yamaha that even the fact that a revamp upset the bike enough to leave the team struggling until the very final day of pre-season testing hasn’t been enough to dampen Quartararo’s enthusiasm for the straightline improvement.
After both Quartararo and team-mate Franco Morbidelli found themselves completely unable to extract the benefits of a new tyre from the bike, it was the unusual step of going back to a machine much more similar to last year’s bike rather than this year’s (albeit with the new engine still installed) that eventually got Yamaha moving rapidly in the direction it needed to go, ensuring that Quartararo left Portugal smiling.
“We made a big improvement, especially with new tyres,” he told MotoGP.com. “We’ve been back a little bit with old aero package, a few settings that were working well from the past.
“I’m pretty happy. Still missing a few things but we made a massive step from yesterday and from Sepang.”
But as Yamaha only appears to have found the root cause of its problems at the end of three hard tests and has little time to address things in time for the start of the year, it is bound to be missing the base setting that many of its rivals have already got dialled in for the Portuguese Grand Prix.
“We are not ready yet,” Quartararo insisted. “We are still missing a few things. I think we made more than half of the job today.”
However, the Frenchman is taking motivation for the year ahead from perhaps an unlikely source: his 2022 title rival Bagnaia after the Ducati rider’s own rocky start to his title-winning season.
A substantially-revised 2022 Desmosedici had left Bagnaia on the back foot for the first five races of the year, before he was able to rally and make such a huge improvement in the second half of the year that he’d rather handily defeated Quartararo by the season’s end.
And with the engine the only part on the bike that must be homologated and sealed before the start of the season, it means that the Frenchman is well aware that if Yamaha keeps up its hard work, he’s still got the potential to close down the gap in what is set to be MotoGP’s longest-ever season.
“Yes, exactly,” he enthused when asked by The Race if he was keeping Bagnaia’s situation 12 months ago in mind.
“I think that for four years we’ve almost been with the same bike. Three years, anyway. But this year we have changed quite a lot – I think, too much. The others made it step by step, but we’ve been the same for three years then completely different.
“For me, we got lost, and now we’re back with what we’ve used in the past but with small modifications.
“I’m feeling confident that we can do it. Of course, the first races might be more difficult, but if Yamaha keeps working this year and bring some stuff, then I think we can be there in the second part of the year.”
Of course Bagnaia’s difficult start to the 2022 season and subsequent charge back towards the title fight was helped by Yamaha stagnating in the second half of the season (Quartararo scored just two podiums in the last 10 races). In fact, Yamaha and Quartararo’s early grip on the points lead wasn’t down to a convincing bike advantage but some own goals from Ducati and Bagnaia and some heroic rides on days where Yamaha was second-(or even third- or fourth-)best.
There’s no guarantee that Bagnaia and Ducati will provide that same opportunity to the behind-the-curve Yamaha during 2023, especially with a horde of seven potentially superior Ducatis, most of whom are ready to step up to the title challenge if Bagnaia isn’t.
But the big step in terms of power should logically provide a lot of room for growth through optimisation – something Quartararo will have to hope is enough to keep him in the fight with the Ducatis this year.