Return of the Mack

Exclusive: We catch up with Suzuki’s rising Spaniard at a circuit where his star has shone.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

It’s raining at Phillip Island – nothing new there, as long-time watchers of MotoGP from the Australian coastal circuit will attest – but Maverick Vinales doesn’t look the slightest bit bothered.

The 21-year-old Spaniard has made most posts a winner since he took his maiden world championship 125cc victory in just his fourth race as a 16-year-old in 2011, and while he’s had success across the globe, it’s Australia that he enjoys visiting most. And with good reason.

In his maiden MotoGP race at the Island last October – one remembered for the ferocious battle between Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Valentino Rossi for the victory – Vinales was a hugely meritorious sixth on a Suzuki, just six seconds behind that front-running quartet in one of the fastest races in the sport’s history. Vinales’ achievement almost went unnoticed given the drama further forward, but for those in the know, his display showed that the star of the future might not wait that long to muscle his way to the front.

Coming a year after a winning the Moto2 race in Australia and finishing second (by three-thousandths of a second to Alex Rins) in Moto3 the year prior, last year’s result simply confirmed to Vinales that there’s no circuit like the Island.

“I like a lot here, because it’s always one of the most beautiful tracks to come to, it works well with my riding style and I always seem to be strong here,” he tells redbull.com.au, sheltering from the incessant drizzle.

“When I come here, it’s like an extra motivation because I like the track, and as much as that, I understand how to go fast at this track, so I always feel very confident here.

“Last year in Australia was by far the strongest race I had as a rookie, and to finish so close to the front in a race that was so fast made it my best performance.”

MISANO,ITALY,12.SEP.15 - MOTORSPORT - MotoGP, Grand Prix of San Marino, Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. Image shows Maverick Vinales (ESP/ Suzuki)

It was the high point of a 2015 campaign that impressed most onlookers, even though Vinales felt frustrated by finishing 12th in the championship. Winning your fourth world championship race as a teenager – and being in the mix for the title every year thereafter – made a finish outside the top 10 hard to stomach, even if it was explainable.

“When I look at this and see 12th position, I get a bit crazy because in my first four years in the world championship, I finished in the top three,” he laughs.

“But last year, I knew what would happen in my first year of MotoGP because the bike was not ready, and there was a lot of work to do for the team in the first year and for me as a rookie. When I see 12th I get a little bit angry, sure, but I know there was a lot to do behind the scenes and we needed to grow together as a team.”

Being around the MotoGP paddock is one thing, being on the grid in the premier class another entirely. Vinales felt he knew what to expect coming into the category’s top flight as a 20-year-old debutant, but admits there’s nothing that can prepare you for the pace and consistency of the world’s best riders when you’re rubbing shoulders with them.

“You see MotoGP from the outside when you’re riding in Moto2, Moto3, 125s, but when I get there, the thing that surprised me the most was the level of the riders, the level of the performance,” he admits.

“The level last year was higher than it has ever been in MotoGP. The standard is so high now. For us to still be really strong in some parts of the championship made me happy, and if the Suzuki was like the top bikes, I think we could make a really good result. We worked hard as a team and got a lot of information in 2015, so I hope this year we can take profit of that.”

This season, Vinales is equally ready to benefit from his experience in the category. No longer a rookie – the one debutant in the series in 2016 is compatriot and 2014 Moto2 champion Tito Rabat – Vinales has a wise head on young shoulders, but it’s not all about being serious and hard work. When you knock about in the paddock of the world’s circuits with good mate Jack Miller, the pair of 21-year-olds keep things light. Especially in Australia with Miller as the unofficial host of MotoGP’s travelling troupe as the only local rider on the grid.

“I understand that always the Australian riders are quite crazy,” he grins about Miller.

“But Jack is always good and I always like to spend time with him, he makes you laugh a lot. On the track, I think if he concentrates 100 per cent, he can do a really good job. Being in MotoGP is extra motivation for him and if he can work hard, I expect him to do really well because he’s a very talented rider.”

Vinales could easily have been talking about himself. Big things are expected – both internally and from MotoGP fans – of this rising Spaniard in 2016.

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