Fabio Quatararo duly won his first world title last time out and failed to eclipse Valentino Rossi’s farewell celebrations to his home town fans. They finished fourth and tenth incidentally, not that that anyone took much notice of their finishing positions. They took even less of the guy in eighth, despite the fact he’d started nineteenth on the grid as well as starting the season as favorite for the title. Maverick Vinales was right behind his team mate Aleix Espargaro at the flag, further evidence that the Aprilia is making serious progress and that the rider is also continuing his rehabilitation.
There is only a two-year age difference between the two, who started the year as team mates. Quatararo is the younger at 22-years old and unsurprisingly both followed similar career trajectories through Royal Automobile Club de Catalunya (RACC) 50 and 70cc championships before graduating to the CEV – now known as the Junior World Championship and the prime reason for MotoGP’s current obsession with youth. Quatararo won the CEV twice before the MotoGP minimum age regulations were altered to get him into the world championship. Vinales won the title once after finishing runner-up in his debut season. Both arrived in the 125 world championship (Maverick) and Moto3 (Fabio) with high expectations, which only Vinales lived up to, winning 12 races in two seasons before ripping through Moto2 in one year with four wins, five more podiums and five fastest laps. Quatararo, by contrast, scored just two podiums and no wins in two years in Moto3 and looked equally lost in Moto2. When he was recruited to MotoGP by Petronas Yamaha the general reaction was, to put it mildly, surprise. Yamaha had been keeping an eye on him, mainly through Wilco Zeelenberg. After the best part of three years of massive underachievement in the MotoGP paddock, a change of management was key. The constant chopping of teams and manufacturers spoke to prioritization of the cash rewards rather than results. When new manager Eric Mahe found him a home with the SpeedUp Moto2 team for 2018 things didn’t immediately look any better. However, the family atmosphere suited Fabio, he revised his riding style and scored his first GP win at Catalunya. Five races earlier, he’d been on the penultimate row of the grid. Fabio’s first CEV title involved another comeback from a seemingly hopeless position. Clearly, a man with consecutive Junior World Championships to his name was not short of talent; equally clearly he was not short of resolve or intelligence.
It would be facile to suggest Maverick is lacking in any of these qualities, he’s won 25 races across every GP class, but his meltdown when still in contention for the 125 title and similar events this year cannot be a coincidence. Spanish and Catalan colleagues who’ve been in the paddock with Maverick from his CEV days onwards speak guardedly of ‘coping issues’ and doubts about the people around him going back years. To journalists who’ve only known him in the MotoGP paddock, he seems to be either the happiest guy in the world or the most depressed, depending on his track performance. On form, he is a funny and intelligent guy; when things aren’t working he’s monosyllabic and gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere – anywhere – else. Nothing illustrates this turmoil better than the fact his pole position at Assen was flanked by 21st and 24th places on the grid. Yet attempts by previous management to get him to work with a sports psychologist were rejected.
I have precisely zero qualifications to offer an opinion on these matters, but I had hoped he’d take the rest of this year off and enjoy his new baby, it seemed like the right thing to do. Maverick and Aprilia had different ideas and so far it’s working out; there are grounds for cautious optimism. It’d be very pleasing if the final two races of the season removed the lingering doubts.