In and Out of Dangmai

And with a yawn and an eye rub and a ruffling struggle to move the sheets, I roused myself and stumbled to my computer, woke it, woke myself, focused my eyes and found my usual place in the dim light and waited for Maverick Viñales to show once more that

He is who we thought he was.

And who is that? It depends on when you ask. There are a lot of riders like him in this sense, but the feeling with Maverick has always been: This kid’s got it. He’s a world-beater. He has the speed. Let him get on with it.

It’s not like he doesn’t have the resume to back it up. Some riders (less and less so nowadays, granted) pay their way in. Not Maverick. The Figueres native began racing competitively at the age of three and was a regional champion on 125cc bikes at the age of 12. He won the Catalan championship again, plus a Mediterranean Trophy and some sterling rides in the German national championship a year later. In 2009, he moved up to the Spanish CEV 125 series and finished as Rookie of the Year.

In 2010, he only won twice but defeated Miguel Oliveira in the CEV and his four wins through sheer consistency. In a one-off European championship round, he again beat Oliveira. Third home was Alex Rins.

After moving to the erstwhile 125 world championship in 2011 and riding for a team Paris Hilton put her name to, he took just four races to qualify on the front row. He also took just four races to win. At 16 years, 123 days, he was the third youngest winner ever. He closed the season with two straight wins and comfortably won Rookie of the Year over Danny Kent. It wasn’t even close. 2012 should have been easy.

It looked that way — for a little while, at least. He won five of the inaugural Moto3 season’s first nine races and was second in Portugal. It should’ve been a runaway. But all wasn’t well at Blusens Avintia, and by Malaysia, the season was slipping away; with three races to go, he withdrew after insisting on more support he wasn’t getting for his Honda. “I think it’s a second division team,” he said after flying home. “I have to try and win the Championship next year and I don’t think I could do it with this team.”

Eventually, he apologized, but crashed out of Australia and came home eighth in Valencia. He ended up third on the year.

Clearly unhappy, he delicately wiggled his way out of the two-year Blusens Avintia contract and into Team Calvo, who put him up for another go at Moto3 in 2013 despite many believing he didn’t have the mental fortitude for it.

I don’t remember much about that Moto3 season, but I’ll tell you what I do remember vividly: the morning of November 10th. I’d woken up early to watch Marc Marquez win his first MotoGP title (which he would, in time, do), but the three-way scrap for the Moto3 championship was a pleasant appetizer.

It could’ve gone one of three ways: Luis Salom, Alex Rins or Viñales. All three were separated by five points. 25 for a win, 20 for second, 16 for third. And so on.

Salom entered the race the leader but crashed early and never recovered. Rins and Viñales fought to the very last corner of the season. And as Jonas Folger shadowed them the whole way through the long final Adrian Campos corner, Maverick made a lunge for it. He had to. In the run to the line, Rins couldn’t catch him. The stakes may have been low, but I’ve never seen a championship end like that.

His Moto2 year is mostly a yellow blur (well, obviously, being sponsored by Paginas Amarillas), but he’d found his footing by season’s end enough for Suzuki to sign him straight to their reborn MotoGP effort for 2015.

Just two retirements in 18 races. In the points every other race, with a best finish of sixth (twice). MotoGP Rookie of the Year over Loris Baz. It wasn’t even close.

Just one retirement in 2016. And for the first time since Kenny Roberts Jr.’s days, Suzuki were winners when Maverick rode to his first premier class win in Britain. There were three other podiums. He finished the season fourth overall, best of the rest behind Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez.

It was so good for Suzuki that Yamaha had to have him.

2017 is where Modern Maverick begins. He took two poles and three wins in the opening five races and looked commanding. Ah, but then…

Just three poles and four podiums the rest of the year. No wins. A fading third overall behind Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso. Something wasn’t right.

Like Valencia 2013, I don’t remember much about Maverick’s 2018 beyond an extraordinary ride in Australia, one of the most decisive of his career, where he started on pole, took off at the start and was never headed. He still had the speed. So what was missing? Most figured it was the bike.

But 2019 was more of the same. Two wins, sure, and three poles… but he only barely managed another third behind Marquez and Dovizioso and ahead of Rins, now having taken his place at Suzuki. Perhaps his best performance of the year was again in Australia, only this time he crashed out on the final lap dicing with Marquez and had nothing to show for it.

He was fed up. He was frustrated. He was chasing front-end grip.

Maverick knew he was staying with Yamaha for another two years even before the belated 2020 season got underway — but he also probably knew that his teammate in 2021 would be Fabio Quartararo. Quartararo’s pace on the satellite Yamaha throughout 2020 justified all the risks managers took to rush him to the top class. Maverick was going to be the de facto team lead, but he was going to be pushed even harder than Rossi could. He had to find a rhythm. He had to establish himself. His late-season form in 2019 suggested maybe Yamaha had found something.

In the opening two races at Jerez, Viñales finished second. Both were to Quartararo.

Then came completely anonymous rides at Brno, Austria and failed brakes through no fault of his own at the Styrian Grand Prix, though he was nowhere near the front for that race, either. In the first race at Misano, he started up front but fell to sixth.

For the second Misano round, he got away cleanly (for once) and shadowed Pecco Bagnaia as the latter inched toward his first win, then slipped off inexplicably as the laps wound down. Maybe it was something on the track, maybe it was a shot front tire… but maybe it was Maverick, who was starting to shave tenths off. Whatever the reason, Bagnaia went down and Viñales did not and we got our sixth different winner in a row. This one, though, came from a man everyone expected to step up this year. He says he’s forgetting to work on rear grip and focusing instead on the front. Whether that frees him up to ride the way he can is, increasingly up to him.

As I write this, he’s qualified fifth for Catalunya — on the first two rows of the grid. How will be go tomorrow?

Does he win? It’s 50…

Yamaha’s long-term future?

The answer, of course, is

But who is that? It depends on when you ask. One day he’s as fast as Marc Marquez, as cunning as Andrea Dovizioso or Valentino Rossi, as consistent as Jorge Lorenzo; the next, he’s as temperamental as Casey Stoner or Lorenzo at his most prickly, as unpredictably good as Andrea Iannone was at his best before the fall, before Suzuki and Aprilia, before the drug ban. If he ever got it together and figured out how to ride around the part of his problem that’s psychic, everyone keeps saying, he could finally put the doubters out to pasture. If he ever got it together.

We know he hasn’t before. It’s incredibly difficult to judge children’s temperaments because just think of the kind of person you were at 11 or 12. Forget being a tween now, can you imagine yourself being a tween then? Do you remember how long ago that was? Before smartphones, before laptops, before everything? Were you frequently referred to as cool, calm and collected? Probably not, right?

So who really knows what Maverick was like coming up in the Catalan championship and the Mediterranean Trophy and the German IDM series and even into the better-documented Spanish CEV 125 championship. His parents, maybe. His father, Angel, probably, because Angel was the one shepherding him around to such exotic locales as Albacete and Navarra and the wine-laden countryside of Jerez. Fat lot of good that does when you can’t even drink.

He won, sure, and he learned plenty. Year after year, he was figuring it out. But after looking so promising in 2011 with Avintia, a team that supported young talent like (youngest ever race winner) Scott Redding and Tito Rabat, he waltzed into 2012 the clear favorite and stumbled out of it with a battered reputation and a penchant for quitting.

“You can sign whatever you want, but when things just get worse and worse, you have to find solutions,” he said in an interview at the time. “It’s always better to finish in a good way, but if they want to be difficult, then we will be difficult, too.”

It was entirely avoidable. The team was confused and offended, the rider defiant. It was a mess, is what I mean.

After flying home from Malaysia, literally quitting the team with three races to go because he’d already signed a contract he couldn’t easily get out of, he returned for the final two races of the season and instead of finishing first or even second overall, he came home a lackluster eighth at Valencia and ended third on the year, a real problem child.

The thing about fast guys, though, is that their speed covers up their flaws. So no matter how ugly it got with Avintia, unless he burned every possible bridge on his way out of 2012, Maverick Viñales was always going to find a home for 2013. Sure enough, that home turned out to be Team Calvo.

Again: Who knows what Team Calvo did differently. Maybe they coddled him a little more, convinced him they were doing more to develop the bike. Maybe the food in their motorhome was better. The real answer is probably lost forever now.

Whatever it was, Maverick found himself again and rode a steady campaign right to the deciding corner of the season, after thousands of miles of testing and racing, to slip inside Alex Rins on the last turn of the entire year and win the Valencian Grand Prix by just 0.186 of a second, the championship by 14 points. It was much closer than it looked on paper in the end.

His season with Pons in Moto2 is a muted memory, but in a team alongside one of the men he beat for the Moto3 title, Luis Salom, Viñales showed his talent with sustained consistency. He completely outclassed the rookie field and was best of the non-Marc VDS bikes. It was (former Avintia rider) Tito Rabat’s year.

Maverick was, perhaps, a surprisingly quiet presence on the grid in his Suzuki years. His promotion to the premier class suggested he’d found a maturity in his post-Avintia years that promised exactly what people had originally thought of him, that he was a champion in the making. Suzuki’s first year back after a three-year hiatus meant a number of concessions other manufacturers didn’t get, including more testing time and a larger engine allocation in case they started blowing them too often. 2015 was the only year of his career that Viñales didn’t score a victory, but a win at Silverstone the next year coupled with a season good enough for Suzuki’s best single-rider performance since John Hopkins in 2007 meant that he wasn’t long for them anyway, allocations or no allocations.

So he took Jorge Lorenzo’s place at Yamaha and gave himself what looked to be his best chance yet at a MotoGP world championship. Again, this was on paper.

For a sustained period of 2017, it looked like Maverick was living a charmed life, comfortably beating Marc Marquez and easing steadily away from the rest of the field. Ah, but then…

Then it was grip. Then it was bad qualifying. Then it was power down the straights at the really fast tracks. Then it was aero. Then it was this. Then it was that. Then it was excuses.

After Mugello, he was only on the podium three more times in the remaining 12 races. There were no wins.

And there was only one win in 2018, though it showed the spark was there.

And there were only two wins in 2019, though it showed the spark was there.

And there has been only one win in 2020, though it showed the spark is there.

“We can win races, but…” is where Viñales has been for more than three years. Like former Yamaha rider Carlos Checa, Maverick is lightning quick in Friday practice and can even snatch pole positions with regularity. But when the lights go out on Sunday, if you don’t get a winner, you get the man of a million excuses. You can set your watch by his race, too: Poor start leads to bogged down in midpack leads to spending the first half of the race mired in traffic, and he doesn’t appear anywhere near the front but runs laps on par with the leaders from middle distance on. I don’t envy anyone who remains a dedicated fan of the guy because I’d be pulling my hair out most weeks. I’m not sure I’d have any left at this point.

In the movies Kaili Blues, there is a beautiful 41-minute tracking scene that would put the GoodFellas sequence to shame. It’s the protagonists’s journey to the dream city Dangmai, and it feels like a dream. Languid, occasionally busy, but mostly lost. I think about that scene every time I watch Viñales ride around in sixth.

He’s been outshone by Valentino Rossi. He’s being outshone by Fabio Quartararo, if only just. As I write this, he’s qualified fifth for Catalunya — behind all three other Yamahas. How will be go tomorrow?

Does he win? It’s 50…

Yamaha’s short-term present?

The answer, of course, is

Yes.

No matter how he finishes, no matter how long it takes my blurry eyes hunched over this hideous laptop light to tell, ever a duality in a way he almost actively seems to encourage, maddening and masterful, whatever it takes, he’ll be there to remind us that

He is who we thought he was.

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