Maverick Viñales is without any doubt the big sensation of this season. There was a reason why Suzuki and Yamaha had an intense bidding duel for Viñales’ riding services in 2017. But truthfully, I don’t think there were many who thought he would be performing as well as he is now.
One of the first who realized the potential of Viñales was former 250cc Grand Prix winner Wilco Zeelenberg. After working with Jorge Lorenzo in the factory Yamaha garage for many years, in 2017 Zeelenberg was given the task of working with Viñales. Naturally, we were very curious to understand the Dutchman’s opinion of the Viñales phenomenon. But perhaps even better, to get his view on the contrasts between the two Spanish riders.
First of all: what is the job description on your business card?
Rider performance analyst.
Interesting. So you arrived to the Yamaha factory team to help Lorenzo?
No. I was team manager. When I arrived in 2010, I was the team manger because Valentino Rossi had Davide (Brivio, who is now team manager for the Suzuki Ecstar team) and I was with Jorge, and they wanted to have the same treatment.
And who was with Lorenzo before your arrival?
(Daniele) Romangnoli, but basically it didn’t work. In 2009, Yamaha stopped the World Supersport team and I was asked to join the factory Yamaha team as a team manager for Jorge. When I had my first appointment with Jorge, he understood that I had been a rider and he said, ‘Wilco can you have a look around the track while we are riding? I always miss the information from the other riders, how they ride, where they miss the apex or whether I need to hit the curb, or if I need shift or which gear they are using.’ So I’m the ears and eyes to watch the others to try to get better.
So that was your job from 2010 to 2016?
Yes…and also to make a tight group with our side of the garage because Vale already had his group, and organized it very well.
So how has your job changed with the new rider?
Before Jorge left, when Brivio left because Vale went to Ducati, we wanted to change from the system of having two team mangers. Because this was on request from Vale, and back then he had an issue with Jorge because they were clashing with Bridgestone and Michelin, and they were big competitors. So Vale said he wanted Davide Brivio as team manager and that was when they decided to have two team mangers. But when Vale left to Ducati, we wanted to have a different situation where we had only one team director. Which was [Massimo] Meregali, because he was living in Milano, so he was doing the daily organization. Like planning and logistics and preparation. And I was in Holland and I couldn’t do that. Before Davide was doing that and I didn’t have to take that role. In supersport I did that role, but with this team I was living in Holland. I was not in Italy. So we tried to change the system a bit. I had already taken this role as rider analyst for Jorge, and he said, ‘Let’s try to change Meregali to the team director’—because at the time we didn’t have a team manager anymore, we had a team director. And two rider performance analysts—me and Luca (Cadalora, for Rossi)—at that point the roles changed a little bit. I’m still doing different things than Luca because I’ve been in this role longer and I’m still a small manager for this group.
How did Viñales accept your job beside him?
When he stopped with Suzuki we had a winning team available for him. Finally we won with Jorge in Valencia, and Maverick just went open-minded into this team. In Valencia before he jumped on the bike, I had a meeting with him and I explained how I worked with Jorge and what he thought about doing the same. We changed a couple of small things but overall we do the same. At the moment I’m still the eyes and ears around the racetrack. Even though he is much more…I would say, mature…about schedules and timing and all that. With Jorge, I needed to be very sharp, otherwise he missed the practice. He had no idea about time, Jorge. But Maverick is very precise. Ten minutes before the practice he is there. Jorge, sometimes before the practice he wasn’t there and I needed to find him. I needed to be very sharp to get him into the box and prepare him so he didn’t miss anything. But with Maverick, this area is easier. He is very sharp; when we have a meeting at four he will be right there at four.
Does he listen to you as Lorenzo did?
When we have something to say, it needs to be something with extra value. And to prepare him for the weekend, he needs a type of information, but no bullshit. With both riders it was a different way of working but you need to be analyzing constantly. It’s difficult to explain what especially because he has a completely different riding style, you cannot make the same information flow as with Jorge because he rides the bike differently and he attacks the corners differently. I already told [Viñales] that with his style, we can make a better bike out of the Yamaha. Because he brakes later and creates more temperature in the front tire, we are able to [make the bike] turn better, basically. And with his body position, it helps to steer the bike.
I once heard you state that Lorenzo was better than Viñales in using the Yamaha’s cornering speed…this sounds like a contradiction.
Mid-corner speed? Yes that is true, but we don’t want to make a ‘Jorge’ out of him. There is some space to improve, like mid-corner, but always when you want to be better mid-corner, you will suffer on braking. My philosophy is that when you have the skills to brake very late and are able to make the corner, and are able to exit the corner better or just as well (as the other riders), it’s better to keep that going than to brake earlier and have high corner speed. Like what Johann (Zarco) is doing for example, because he studied the details of Jorge last year a lot. Also he has his bike from last year. We have a different bike than we had last year and we have a different rider, but Johann, when I see him riding, I see Jorge. He is very fluid and he is trying to shift at exactly the same places as Jorge, he studied his data very well. This helps him a lot. Maverick has a different riding style and I think he should stay with that.
Do you feel as useful with Viñales as you were with Lorenzo?
Useful? I don’t know, this is a difficult question. I don’t think he needs me as much as Jorge does. But it’s important to say nothing if they don’t need you to. You need to try to add things. When he gets off the bike and is telling you something, it’s important to listen, not just say bullshit. At least when he asks me I can confirm, and when he forgets something, then I can add the value—I see many things around the track. If he nearly crashed I will tell him, “you nearly highsided,” so that confirms I’m watching and taking notes so that he knows. Every start—this is one area we try to improve, because he has always been not very good with the starts. But in Mugello, we had a good start and he was leading in the first corner; even though Johann took him in the second one, but he had a good start. I asked him what happened last year, because he was second on the grid and in the first corner he was thirteenth. So that screwed his race completely. So this is an area we can work on and improve. But you need to ask him that question. To me, if he keeps on winning races, that tells me that’s enough. This is what I am here for, and if I add value or not doesn’t matter so much.
Viñales declares that he still isn’t 100 percent with the bike. In your opinion from outside the track where is he still weak?
I’m not going to share that opinion. I think he can be better, because he is just six races old with this bike and Jorge had nine years on this bike. So winning three out of six races we are quite satisfied.
The fight between Viñales and Rossi is quite strong. We saw in Le Mans, Rossi crashed trying to get back up to Viñales. The level of competition is high between them. How is it in the garage?
There is no issue. I think they make each other strong, and I haven’t seen any action that was sharp. They were both on lap record pace on the last lap in Le Mans, and that’s a good point. Vale made a small mistake in turn 6, running wide, Maverick passed him and Vale tried to prepare the last corner overtake and lost the rear. But no issue at all. To get a championship, they need to beat each other.
Mentally, Viñales looks stronger than Lorenzo.
No, I don’t think so…Jorge is very strong. But emotionally, Maverick is a bit stronger. He is always able to think a bit more clearly and understand the other side too. To accept that it’s not just…he doesn’t let himself get affected by emotions. This was a difficult area with Jorge, he angered quickly and after ten minutes he was ok. This attitude is very Spanish, like very hot. Maverick is also Spanish, but he has this emotion in check. But he can also get angry, like we saw in qualifying in Austin. Then he realized that yes, you need to prepare yourself, you need to find the hole, it wasn’t just Vale’s mistake that he was there, it was also his mistake. You have to prepare himself better to have a bigger gap.
From the trackside, how do you see Lorenzo on the Ducati? He’s had some problems.
He’s getting better; he is trying everything to make this package work. He is learning at the moment to try to find the best way to ride this bike without losing his specials skills of precision and pushing the bike to the limit. He needs to adapt himself as well.
It seems he didn’t go to Ducati at the best moment. When you see also Dovi is in trouble…
Well, it was his decision, we all said it’s probably not your bike yet, and stay with Yamaha. But it was his decision to leave.
It wasn’t a bad opportunity for you to get Viñales.
I think this is an important point. As soon as Jorge decided to leave, it was difficult to find a rider with his level. We did everything to get Maverick because we thought he was the only one capable to replace Jorge’s position. And we were right. We started early to try to get him, and we fought hard to get him because Suzuki didn’t want to let him go. But we were determined to get the best option for Yamaha’s future, and this is credit we should take. It would have been easy to get another rider, but he was our goal, we all agreed that he was the new guy. He isn’t a champion yet, but he is winning races and riding well, and is strong, and we are happy.
This championship is quite different than last year. Lorenzo is suffering with the Ducati, Márquez is having problems with the Honda…so we have two riders who are not up in the front. Viñales is there. We also have a new rookie Zarco not doing so bad.
It’s interesting. Everyone said we should not make mistakes and after only five races, everyone has made mistakes. This is a surprise. They all knew that they should stay on the bike but they couldn’t. That tells us that it’s very difficult to ride the bike on the limit and to stay on.
Due to the tires in your opinion?
Yes. Of course. The background is that the tires don’t warn—there is no warning. If you win races, you can be happ,y but in the next race you can be on the ground and have nothing. They [Michelin] work hard though, I can’t say anything about that, they work much harder than Bridgestone. To try to find solutions, they work with different rubber and solutions, and this is something we have to live with. But these top riders don’t crash for no reason.
Regarding Zarco: Are you impressed with what he is doing?
Yes, you asked me last year, and I said I was impressed by him. And you asked me about what position he would be in; I told you top five and you weren’t sure. You don’t remember? That’s what I said and that’s what I expected. He is doing better than we all expected and based on that we are happy to have him in our Yamaha family and I hope he will continue like this.
Rossi is at the end of his career. Do you think that Zarco, even though he is 27 now, could be an option for a factory team?
If he continues like this, for sure. The are no guarantees as you know, but if you are on or close to the podium consistently as a non-factory rider, there is no other way.