Top gun

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2016 ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE

Let’s get this out of the way early, shall we? Yes, Maverick Vinales has one of the best names in world sport. Yes, he’s named after Tom Cruise’s character in ‘Top Gun’, despite the 1986 movie hitting our screens nine years before his birth. And given his choice of professional sporting endeavour, Vinales clearly feels the need for speed. We done? Good.

What’s also good – better than good – is this young Spaniard’s CV after just two seasons in the world’s premier two-wheel motorsport category, MotoGP – and what’s even better than that is what likely lies ahead. The man from Figueres outside of Barcelona is the second-youngest rider in MotoGP (Aussie Jack Miller is six days his junior), and has made most posts a winner in his five years on the world championship scene to date. But it’s next year – and his move to Yamaha to partner none other than Valentino Rossi – that marks Vinales as a name Australian mainstream sporting audiences will become increasingly familiar with.

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It’s not the name that stays with you after an audience with Vinales. He greets you with a strong handshake and a brief raising of his prominent eyebrows, a crooked grin momentarily visible before his face tightens in characteristic pose. His English, improving all the time, comes at a rush, occasionally punctuated by pauses as he searches for the right word in his non-native tongue. On the scale of Spanish two-wheel personalities, he’s more Jorge Lorenzo – serious, brooding, impatient – than the high-wattage smile of Marc Marquez. Vinales in a word? Intense.

When it’s put to Vinales that his career started towards the top and has stayed there ever since, he’s not buying it. On reflection, perhaps he should.

In his first year in the world championship, in the entry-level 125cc category in 2011, the acne-riddled 16-year-old took all of four races before winning for the first time at Le Mans for a team backed by, bizarrely, Paris Hilton. Two more wins that year saw him finish third in the world championship, and he won five Grands Prix a year later to again finish third overall. Ironing out the inconsistencies that had plagued him in 2012, Vinales then took the Moto3 title the following year in a thrilling three-way shootout with compatriots Alex Rins and Luis Salom in Valencia, a championship won against the backdrop of 104,000 rabid fans, all of whom had seemingly brought firecrackers to the circuit to celebrate a local champion.

A move to the world championship’s intermediate class beckoned, and Vinales was snapped up by the Paginas Amarillas Moto2 outfit run by former Spanish rider Sito Pons in 2014. The 600cc 148kg bikes were unlike anything he’d ever ridden, and with control Dunlop tyres and the same Honda engine powering the entire field, it was expected Vinales would take time to get up to speed. Forget that: by round two in Austin, he’d taken his first Moto2 win, and after winning three of the final five races of the year to finish third overall, he was off to MotoGP as Suzuki’s figurehead as the Japanese manufacturer returned to the series after a four-year hiatus.

Two years on from beating the world’s best teenagers, Vinales was suddenly brawling against the likes of Rossi, Lorenzo, Marquez and the rest on 1000cc 350km/h monsters only months after his 20th birthday. His 2015 had fleeting high points – a front-row start at his home race in Catalunya turned heads – but on a bike that struggled for straight-line speed relative to the competition and was lacking for rear grip, 12th overall was all he could manage. It was a position that was explainable, but not one that he enjoyed.

“For me, 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 says, his face breaking into a brief grin.

“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 from behind the scenes.”

While Suzuki struggled to find its feet, Vinales began to outperform the machinery at his disposal more regularly the longer the season went. And it was his performance here in Australia that truly marked him as a man to watch. In a Grand Prix described as one of the best in world championship history, Marquez emerged triumphant from a furious four-way fight with Lorenzo, Rossi and Ducati’s Andrea Iannone to record a famous win, the quick quartet separated by 1.058 seconds in a manic race that featured 52 changes of position among the top four and 13 lead changes. On a bike that had no business being in the same postcode, Vinales finished sixth, just six seconds behind Marquez.

“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,” he says of Phillip Island, where he was the fastest rider in pre-season testing in February this year.

“When I come, 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. 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.

“With Moto2 I win in 2014, and I nearly win in Moto3 in 2013. Most times this track has been really good for me and the riding style that I have.”

It’s a style that’s Vinales’ own, but one that angles more towards Marquez’s acrobatics than Lorenzo’s metronomic precision. Standing trackside, nobody matches Marquez for lean angle and body positions that seemingly defy the laws of gravity, but Vinales takes similar lines, albeit with a bit of a built-in safety net that’s perhaps a result of riding a Suzuki than a full-factory championship-winning Honda.

If there was a criticism of Vinales in his maiden MotoGP campaign, it’s that he often went backwards on the first lap of races; part of that was his producing one blinding lap in qualifying that wasn’t repeatable on a Suzuki lap after lap in a 45-minute race, but he often made tardy getaways from high grid spots, getting beaten up in the opening turns by his more experienced rivals. At 21, he knows there’s still much to learn.

“You see MotoGP from the outside when you’re riding in Moto2, Moto3, 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.”

Vinales set his own standards earlier this season when he finished on the podium for the first time in the premier class when he was third at Le Mans. His consistency – he finished seven of the first 10 races inside the top six – was notable in a championship where Yamaha and Honda set a searing pace, and Ducati finally won for the first time since the Casey Stoner era when Iannone saluted in Austria in round 10. On the fourth-best bike on the grid, Vinales cemented himself inside the top five in the championship by the mid-point of the season, and took his maiden Grand Prix win at Silverstone in September. But it’s next season where we’ll get a better picture of where he truly stands.

At the Italian Grand Prix in May, Vinales announced he’d be jumping ship to Yamaha to replace Lorenzo for the next two seasons, with the reigning world champion heading to Ducati. Like so many other riders on the grid, Vinales has looked up to Rossi – ‘The Doctor’ was winning 125cc races when Vinales was barely a year old – and a common sight this season in qualifying has been the future teammates taking turns to provide a slipstream for one another. The relationship between the two riders – separated in age by 16 years – is good, but will that evaporate as soon as they’re both dressed in Yamaha blue?

“Valentino is my childhood hero,” Vinales told motorsport.com in July.

“What’s good about Valentino being there is that I will learn a lot. He’s now 37 and he’s still winning, there is something in his way of working which is giving him success.

“But in the end, when you join a team, you have your own crew, you work and you try to win. That your teammate is a legend doesn’t change anything.”

That’s to be determined – it’s hard to forget Marquez admitting he still had posters of Rossi on his bedroom wall in Cervera in his rookie season before they came to blows just two years later – but what’s not up for debate is that Vinales belongs in the top echelon of riders in the top class of two-wheel road racing. Chances are you’ll always remember the name – how could you not? But by the time MotoGP returns to Phillip Island for the Australian Grand Prix this time next year, expect Vinales to be a thorn in Rossi’s side, a multiple race-winner and, should Yamaha build a bike that can combat Marquez’s ragged-edge genius on a Honda, a chance to be MotoGP’s top gun.

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