While one involved in an environment as competitive as the MotoGP paddock can never spend too much time focussing on the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of life, the temptation to contemplate ‘what could have been’ is never far away.
For Maverick Viñales’ former crew chief Jose Manuel Cazeaux was in little doubt: the Catalan could have fought for the 2017 MotoGP title until the very end, had he resisted Yamaha’s lure and stayed with Suzuki for a third season.
Viñales and Cazeaux worked together from the former Moto3 world champion’s premier class debut in 2015 through to the end of the following year, when he ensured he was spoken of in the same breath as the class’ leading names by placing the GSX-RR fourth in the world championship.
In that time, a close working relationship between the two was formed. So much so that Viñales attempted to persuade Cazeaux – now working with Viñales’ ex-Moto3 sparring partner Alex Rins – to move across to Yamaha for 2017.
Ultimately early favourite Viñales’ title bid would fade away as he and team-mate Valentino Rossi struggled to find solutions to the ’17 M1’s desperate performance in wet weather and low grip conditions.
Such was the momentum built up in his final season with Suzuki, Cazeaux believes the 22-year old would have been perfectly placed to maintain the factory’s largely upward trajectory in ‘17 and carry the fight to eventual champion Marc Marquez.
“I was expecting Maverick [to be] really strong. He finished the end of the season in 2016 very strong. If you see the average points in that part of the season, he was very high. He was the first one or was very close to Valentino – the first one,” says Cazeaux.
“If he had stayed in Suzuki I think he would have fought for the championship in any case because he was evolving and he could continue with this evolution. He started really strong and then I don’t know…. After Le Mans he struggled more than at the beginning.
“I don’t know if it was tyres, chassis or whatever but from outside it’s very difficult to say. It’s difficult for me to rate Maverick. If I had to rate the package, Yamaha and Maverick, I would say he did a slightly [season] than with Suzuki.
“With Suzuki he did fourth position in the championship and this year he did third with Lorenzo out of the game, because at the beginning Lorenzo struggled with Ducati. He became stronger toward the end of the season. So with one less rider in the competition, he did one position better than Suzuki.
“From outside it’s difficult to tell why. I think it’s experience from himself but also the chemistry with the team, with the factory engineers. I was a little bit surprised because he finished really strong in this aspect with us. But from outside it’s difficult to say. Maybe from outside he looks nervous but in reality he is very calm. We don’t know.”
Not that Cazeaux spends countless hours contemplating such matters. Now working in Rins’ side of the garage, the ex-Ducati electronics technician believes Suzuki has a comparable talent in its midst.
Rins’ debut top class campaign was blighted by well-documented injuries, but come the autumn the 20-year old appeared to have figured out the task of extracting the most from the nimble, sweet handling – yet ultimately flawed – machine.
The results soon followed: Rins really announced his arrival as a top class rider with a fine ninth place at Silverstone – the scene of Viñales’ debut triumph the year before – and two top six finishes in the final four races. Times and comments at a private test at Jerez last November also indicated Rins and Suzuki are well placed to build on a strong end to 2017.
“If we see my side with Alex, after a very bad beginning of his MotoGP career, starting with a bad injury in Valencia then another bad injury in Austin,” says Cazeaux. “Since he came back at the Barcelona test, the evolution was slower but with consistent steps. He finished.
“Now he rides the bike [in the correct way]. He knows he is building a working method, that is very important. He understands that it is not just the talent in MotoGP. He’s building his method, feeling what is happening on the bike, and transmitting to the team.
“My feeling is that we can keep this momentum. I’m quite happy. I believe he has a lot of talent for the future. If he continues like this I expect he will enjoy next season.”
For any rider with designs on a MotoGP ride, possessing a deep well of talent is critical. But understanding and developing a correct working method through a race weekend is just as crucial, as Cazeaux explains: “First thing, you have to have to talent. But if you look, it’s very difficult to improve and very easy to get lost.
“It’s important that when you try the tyres and decide on your configuration for a race during a race weekend, or for a season, you do it with the right approach. Sometimes when you’re on track, you find another rider and you try to follow to do a good lap, but you forget what you are doing.
“It’s very important to do mini-long runs. We need to a minimum quantity of laps to be able to analyse and make some statistical analysis of what is better and what is worse. It’s also better for riders to be convinced that something they are choosing for their bikes is better.
“I think really he [Rins] has a very big potential. It’s difficult to make a comparison because the first year of Maverick with Suzuki the bike was really new. Also the team was new. We had some difficulties that maybe we didn’t have this year. But at the same time, maybe this year we had the injuries of Alex and he is the most important ‘piece’ of the bike.
“We went in maybe the wrong direction on the engine side, so maybe it’s difficult to make a comparison between the two. For sure, in 2015 there were a lot of signs that Maverick would be competitive in his career. This year there were also a lot of signs that convinced me that Alex is going to be very competitive in MotoGP. Now we have to see if I’m right.”