As Yamaha embarked on its first foray into Grand Prix racing in 1961, the third race for the new team was the Dutch TT. Running the RD48 250cc air-cooled 2-stroke twin, Fumio Ito and Taneharu Noguchi finished 6th and 8th place, respectively. In the following decades, Yamaha grew into a force in racing and accomplished a great deal, and half a century later on June 25, 2011, two YZR-M1s in 50th anniversary livery lined up on the grid for the Dutch TT.
2011 was the final year of 800cc machinery in the premier class of MotoGP, and for Yamaha, the season was also one starkly different to every one previous: Valentino Rossi—the factory team’s longtime star rider—was in his first season with Ducati after making the decision to leave Yamaha, saying “Unfortunately even the most beautiful love stories finish.”
To take Rossi’s place in the team alongside reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha promoted American racer Ben Spies up from the Monster Yamaha Tech3 satellite team, where he finished 6th overall the previous year and won Rookie of the Year honors. Taking Spies’ place in the Tech3 team alongside American Colin Edwards was British racer Cal Crutchlow, making the jump across from the World Superbike paddock.
These four would launch Yamaha’s 2011 campaign at the opening round in Qatar, which included a moment of silence for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. With his YZR-M1 adorning a “Ganbarou Japan” and “With You Japan” stickers, Lorenzo finished 2nd there and followed it up with a win in Jerez and another 2nd place in Estoril, starting off the season with a string of strong results. However, both Lorenzo and Spies crashed out at a wet Round 6 in Great Britain, taking some of the sheen off the strong start.
With this special YZR-M1 entrusted to Lorenzo and Spies, conditions were declared dry for the race but the air temperature had only climbed to 13°C and on top of that, the track temperature was also low due to early morning rain, making grip a concern. Spies had qualified in 2nd and got off to strong start and took the lead, nonetheless, while Lorenzo slotted into second. But not long after, the Spaniard was brought down early by a mistake from Marco Simoncelli, effectively taking him out of contention. Spies kept his cool at the front and put in a determined ride to take his sole MotoGP win, bringing the anniversary-liveried M1 to the center of parc fermé.
Spies started racing on a YSR50 as a young boy and grew into a multi-time AMA Superbike champion before moving to World Superbike with Yamaha in 2009, winning the title as a rookie on an all-new crossplane YZF-R1. “It definitely needed to come together this weekend with the 50th anniversary colors and all the legends here watching, but the race went extremely well for us. This is the track that I always watched when I was a kid, so to be able to win here on the weekend that it is for Yamaha is super special.”
In 2012, MotoGP’s regulations changed to allow engine displacements of up to 1,000cc, imposed limits on bore × stroke ratios, and set a maximum of four cylinders. Yamaha introduced a new 1,000cc YZR-M1 and continued its development.
Armed with this new M1, it was Jorge Lorenzo who staged a fearsome charge to the championship crown. Of the 18 rounds held in 2012, he was on the podium an incredible 16 times, winning six races and finishing in 2nd place on 10 occasions. This incredible consistency kept him ahead of nearest rival Dani Pedrosa on the Honda and he successfully lifted his second MotoGP title.
In 2012, Yamaha fielded its traditional lineup of two factory machines and two satellite machines. Lorenzo and Spies piloted the factory bikes while Crutchlow was joined in the Tech3 satellite team by Italian rider Andrea Dovizioso. Rossi returned to the Yamaha camp the following year in 2013, becoming Lorenzo’s teammate once again, while teaming up with Crutchlow at the Tech3 team that year was fellow Brit, Bradley Smith. The factory lineup remained unchanged for 2014 and 2015, while the Tech3 team featured 2013 Moto2 World Champion Pol Espargaró alongside Smith from 2014.
There is a clear purpose behind the two-team, four-rider lineup. In Yamaha’s view, its satellite team has two chief missions: the first is to gather additional data for technological development and the other is to help develop promising young racers. For this reason, it was important for the satellite team to also run a Moto2 and Moto3 team to be able to scout and develop up-and-coming riders. Winning titles is important, but Yamaha also aims to discover and nurture future world champions.
MotoGP’s regulations were again revised in 2016 to make Michelin the sole tire supplier and use of the series’ spec ECU and its unified software package was made compulsory. Factories that had achieved at least one victory in the dry between 2013 and 2015 were allowed only seven engines for the course of the season. The minimum weight limit was increased by 7 kg to 157 kg and the fuel tank capacity limited to 22 liters. From this year onward, Repsol Honda rider Marc Marquez proved to be a dominating force and would go on to win four consecutive titles. Yamaha was unable to mount a firm title challenge, but development of the YZR-M1 remained ongoing and multi-faceted, including the new trials presented by the mandatory spec ECU.
For Yamaha, the switch to the new Magnetti Marelli spec ECU was akin to reverting to two or three older versions of its own electronics package. Some team members confessed that “it was like telling somebody using a PC with the latest operating system that they had to immediately start using a version from a decade or so ago.”
Before the spec ECU was introduced, Yamaha had developed and used its own proprietary software. The M1’s ECU would calculate a physical model of the machine in real time based on the minimum required data from sensors like onboard gyros and accelerometers, and then construct a control system that would predict the bike’s current state. In actual races, the ECU would detect the rider’s throttle input and control the engine’s torque to keep things at the innermost edge of the tire’s friction circle to thereby keep the bike stable at the fastest possible speed.
This spec ECU truly was a rewind to a much older operating system and many were concerned that racing with it simply would not allow Yamaha to call on its store of electronics knowledge and expertise. Some team staff were understandably discouraged, but as these rules were set to help to keep development costs down, help close the widening performance gap among entries, and contribute to the healthy development of the sport, Yamaha accepted the changes and threw itself into development.
YZR-M1s with such electronics claimed winner’s trophy after winner’s trophy, and finally, at the French GP in 2017, Maverick Viñales recorded Yamaha’s 500th Grand Prix victory.
In 2021, Fabio Quartararo became Grand Prix road racing’s first-ever French premier-class world champion. He made his MotoGP class debut in 2019 riding a YZR-M1 for the PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing Team, but his performance that year belied his rookie status: the young Frenchman secured pole position six times, stood on the podium seven times, finished 5th place in the points, and won Rookie of the Year honors. In his second season with the team, he took back-to-back wins at the opening two rounds, in the process recording the first win for PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing Team, the first win for a Yamaha satellite team in over 20 years, as well as the first win for a French rider in MotoGP in over 20 years—it was a clear message of his potential. Then in 2021, he was promoted to the factory team as Rossi took his place in the Petronas team. He went on to take five wins and five more podiums to maintain his points lead, and headed into Round 16 in Misano with one hand on the championship title. Come race day, he fought his way up from the fifth row of the grid to take a brilliant 4th place finish at the checkers, and with his main title rival crashing out, it was enough to claim his first MotoGP title.
In a race with the title on the line, it’s only natural that any racer would be nervous. But on October 24, 2021, Quartararo was different. The preceding Friday and Saturday practices had been in the wet, leaving the team no chance to confirm the M1’s dry setup before the race. However, because Round 14 had been held a month earlier at the same circuit, the team elected to use the same setup from that race, even though the track temperature was 7–10° colder. Quartararo lined up in 15th on the grid and finished the first lap two places down in 17th, but that was when he began his forward charge. The Frenchman was into the top 10 by lap six, fighting for the top five by lap 13, and in podium contention with 3rd by the final stages of the race. Just before the finish, Ducati rider Enea Bastianini managed to come past to snatch away 3rd, but Quartararo coming 4th meant he had still done it—he was the 2021 MotoGP World Champion.
It was the first title for Yamaha since Jorge Lorenzo’s in 2015 and the fans and team staff cheered and clapped in celebration of the achievement. But the feeling is slightly different for those in charge of the team. “The happiness lasts only for a brief moment,” confesses a former team manager. “Just developing a single MotoGP machine involves our engineers at Yamaha, our prototyping departments, the team staff, logistics partners, and of course our suppliers and sponsors around the world. It’s the passion and hard work each one of them puts in that creates an M1. So there’s happiness in that all the work you’ve done together with your partners and colleagues has borne fruit, but you’re soon already thinking about next season.” All told, Quartararo’s title was emblematic in that it demonstrated the merits of Yamaha’s two-team, four-rider approach, fulfilling one of the satellite team’s missions to discover and develop talented young racers.
With this title-winning 2021 season, Yamaha recorded another milestone in its 60th year in Grand Prix road racing, but our racing challenge will continue in 2022. Yamaha has already signed a five-year contract with Dorna that runs through 2026, but the approach will not be the same as before as Yamaha’s MotoGP engineers are already looking toward tomorrow.
“What will be expected of MotoGP going forward is including elements that will serve as real-world tests of technologies aimed at carbon neutrality. Yamaha’s mission is to discuss and examine possible avenues together with the various manufacturers and organizers involved to help build MotoGP for the next era. Will the first step be biofuels? Hybrid engines? Downsizing? Electrics? While there’s a lot we don’t know yet, this work will be essential not only to spread the fun of motorsports but also to remind the world of the advantages of easy, fast, and fuel-efficient personal mobility.”
Top racing series are often referred to as “laboratories.” In the midst of a once-in-a-century revolution in mobility, MotoGP and other motorsports will likely act as a driving force for innovation while providing entertainment and spectacle at the same time, and Yamaha will immerse itself in the center of this revolution through its never-ending racing challenge: for new victories, for new Kando,* and for the new era of mobility.
This final entry to the history section of the Yamaha Grand Prix 60th Anniversary Website marks the completion of the site, and we would like to thank everyone who has visited it and followed along between March and December of this year.
For Yamaha, this milestone year was also an opportunity to look back on the past, to remember and continue the challenge begun by our predecessors, and to feel anew the incredible presence of the fans that have continued to support our racing story. At the same time, it has renewed our resolve to continue taking on new challenges so that we can be a brand, team, and company that our fans always want to support.