It has been an eventful couple of weeks for Yamaha. Apart from the expected hectic period of preseason testing, Yamaha agreed a new two-year deal with Valentino Rossi. There was also the surprise announcement by Jonas Folger that he wouldn't be racing in 2018, and working with Hervé Poncharal to find a replacement for the Tech3 team. More significantly, they also had to deal with the surprise announcement that Tech3 will be leaving Yamaha at the end of this season, and swapping to become a satellite for KTM from 2019 onwards.
So journalists had plenty of questions for Lin Jarvis, the head of Yamaha Motor Racing, and Qatar was the first opportunity to ask him. In a session with the media on Thursday night, Jarvis answered questions on all these subjects and more, offering an insight into the way Yamaha are thinking. The departure of Tech3 could see Yamaha rethink the way they have been working in the past.
Obviously, the re-signing of Valentino Rossi was a big topic of conversation. What was the main reason for keeping Rossi, Jarvis was asked. "There are so many reasons, it’s difficult to give one," the Yamaha boss replied. "Because of everything he brings to Yamaha, and the sport, and the team, because of who he is. That’s the motivation. But I would also like to add that he is still highly competitive and absolutely a top rider capable of winning."
Was there very any doubt about signing him on for two more years? Jarvis was emphatic. "No, no. Honestly, I had several discussions with them over the winter period as well. We’re pretty much aligned. He will only continue if he is convinced he’s ready to put in that maximum effort and if he’s convinced that he can be competitive. It’s the same for us."
Rossi was getting a new contract because it was obvious he could still be competitive, Jarvis said. "We want competitive riders. If Valentino is convinced, that means he has made that personal commitment and he feels confident. Therefore so do we. If he decided to renew for one year, we’d have said yes. If he said two years, we’d say yes. If he said five years, I might hesitate."
With Rossi set to race for three more seasons, there are no guarantees that he will still be quick by the time his contract ends. "It’s always a gamble," Jarvis said. "Life is a gamble. At any given time you make a decision based on how you feel, what you know, and everything can change tomorrow. You never know in life."
Timing is everything
Jarvis was not overly concerned if Rossi changes his mind and decides to stop at the end of next year, which would leave a highly desirable factory seat open when most of the top riders are likely to be wrapped up for at least another season. Would that make it difficult to find a replacement? "I don’t really see that," Jarvis said. "I think for every problem there is a solution. You’ll find another solution."
Rossi had taken this factor into account when he decided to sign up for two more years instead of just one, Jarvis explained. "As Valentino said earlier, the timing of his contract, deciding to make a two-year contract, is deciding to be aligned with the rider market. It makes it easier to do that. There are some riders that are a bit out of phase, but I think if a spot becomes available in one of the top teams, whether it be Ducati, Honda or Yamaha, you’ll find a solution."
Valentino Rossi wasn't the only one to have taken a gamble. The Tech3 team had also rolled the dice for the future, deciding to leave Yamaha after twenty years and become a KTM satellite team. Was that a matter for regret, Jarvis was asked? "We didn’t leave yet!" the Yamaha boss joked. "We have 19 races to go together. We intend to enjoy the next 19 races in nine months. We will continue to support them to the maximum and we’re already doing that. Johann was the fastest here in the last test. He is possibly one of the hot candidates to win this weekend. So we’ll continue to support Tech 3 until the end."
Rien de rien
Tech3's decision to leave was a matter of some regret for Jarvis. "It was Hervé's decision to leave, and we respect that decision," Jarvis said. "We regret that decision, because we’ve had 20 years together. But sometimes things happen in life and I think he got a proposal that he described as an offer he couldn’t refuse. Normally those offers come from Italy but this one came from Austria. I understand and respect that decision. For sure Valencia at the end of the year will be a sad day."
The crux of Hervé Poncharal's decision was that he believed he didn't get the support he had hoped for from Yamaha. That was not how Jarvis saw the matter. "I don’t believe that Hervé has left because he didn’t feel the support from Yamaha," he said. "This is just my opinion. Hervé left because he had a fantastic offer from a competitor who really needs to have a satellite team. That offer probably included many things including bike performance, or finance or stability. I think you have to see the bigger picture and say that Hervé has not left simply because he didn’t get the support from Yamaha."
One factor was that Poncharal had hoped that Johann Zarco would get a factory bike, in the same way as Cal Crutchlow does at LCR Honda and Danilo Petrucci at Pramac Ducati. "It’s true that we haven’t provided a factory bike to Johann but we’ve always respected our policy and our contract," Jarvis explained. "Our contract with Hervé was not to provide a factory bike. So we’ve provided a bike that is sometimes faster than our factory bike but there are always two sides to every story."
Could the fallout from the Tech3 decision cause Yamaha to reconsider their policy on this? "It could," Jarvis admitted. "It could, yeah. But that will be subject to a new discussion and a new contract with a new team." Did that open the way for Zarco to get a factory bike with another team, so that Yamaha could keep the French superstar? "It’s possible," Jarvis said.
That would not happen this year, however, even if Zarco had a sensational start to the season. "There’s not a lot you can really do during a season once you start because the engines are fixed at the beginning of the year," Jarvis said. Manufacturing was also a problem, he continued. "You have your whole production process of making parts, it’s quite complex. It’s difficult to imagine that. But I think Johann already receives very good support and I don’t think he’s missing support from Yamaha at this moment. Of course then having a different spec bike at the beginning of the season is another story. But I think his bike is already competitive, as you’ve seen at the last test."
Jarvis hoped that the loss of Tech3 would not mean the loss of a satellite team for 2019. He hoped that Yamaha would have something in place for next year, but was noncommittal on whether it would definitely happen. "I hope we have a second team," he said. "Of course it’s an option not to do it as well. We know there are two options, to replace the Tech 3 team with another team, or not. So we have to evaluate that, depending on the possible partners we can find, the conditions, we’ll evaluate as discussions progress."
The decision would have to come before the middle of the year. "We’d like to have it done probably before June because then you start to get into planning for the next season. You have to be ready with all of your decisions regarding man power, support, ordering parts, and so on. So we’d probably like to be ready by June." A decision before that is more likely. Both Marc VDS and the Angel Nieto team have indicated that they would need to make a decision about which bikes they would be running next year before the end of April.
More than four
One thing standing in the way of Yamaha finding a replacement is the belief that the VR46 team will be given the satellite Yamahas once they move up to MotoGP after Rossi retires. That concern could be overcome if Yamaha could commit to running six bikes if the VR46 team steps up to MotoGP, something which Yamaha have been reluctant to do for over a decade now. Jarvis gave the history of how the current situation came to be, as background to why and how that might change in the future.
"If you go back way into the past, Yamaha was supplying more bikes than that in the days of Luis D'Antin," Jarvis explained. "We were supplying eight bikes. Then we changed. From supplying eight bikes, we said, 'that's not getting us the victory', which is what we were missing in those days. We had a lot of quantity but not so much quality."
That had forced Yamaha to make a change in direction. "We found the optimum level to achieve both was to have four bikes," Jarvis said. "Now that may change in the future as well, because a lot of things have changed in the last ten years. Year by year, things are always changing so we will definitely be open to looking at supplying more than four bikes in the future. I don’t see that as a problem."
With Rossi signed to race through 2020, Yamaha had at least three years to think about the best solution to the situation. "Valentino hasn’t even decided yet to enter definitively into MotoGP, so firstly there is that factor. Secondly, if he should enter, is it in ’21? If he enters, is it with one rider or two riders? So there are many factors. That’s three years away. We can change a lot things between now and three years time if we want to. It’s certainly something we will consider and I don’t think it will be a barrier to another team considering getting involved with Yamaha."
If the VR46 team were to get the Yamahas, would they serve as a feeder for rider talent, in the same way that Marc VDS and KTM both have teams to support young riders all the way through the three Grand Prix classes? "Well, we have a relation with the VR46 academy," Jarvis said. "We keep an eye on the rider’s market in general. We also have a program with the VR46 Academy with the idea to take some of their guys if they’re interesting for us."
That doesn't always work out, though, as Jarvis went on to explain. "A good case in point was Franco Morbidelli. He became available to move. We would have been very interested to take him on board. But at that time when he had to make his decision Jonas Folger and Zarco already had confirmed contracts for that year. Rossi and Viñales already had confirmed contracts for that year. We had no place. That was the problem there."
Pecco Bagnaia had been a similar situation. And in fact, it was thanks to Bagnaia that Yamaha found out that Tech3 had decided to switch to KTM. "The reason we eventually discovered that Tech3 would change was because we considering whether we could take and place Bagnaia. When we found that maybe we would be interested in that, we found the team couldn’t accept it." In the end, Poncharal's decision meant that they had lost their chance to sign Bagnaia. Which is in itself ironic, as Poncharal has made no secret in the past of his desire to have Bagnaia in his team.
Nobody's fault but mine
With so many riders already signed before the season had even started, the rider market had gotten a little out of control. But Jarvis admitted that Yamaha itself was to a large extent to blame for that. "It's a little bit ironic me saying something, because we have been the protagonists that have advanced things. It makes it more complicated these days. Because there are six factories involved now, you need to make your moves earlier, sometimes to block, sometimes to keep. It creates situations where if somebody makes a move it means from those two riders that are still in that team, one of them is going to be gone. Beginning the season knowing you might not have a ride the following year, is not particularly a good thing."
It meant that the factories had to try to think well ahead, Jarvis explained. "It means as team managers and factories, it’s like a chess game, you have to make your moves, trying to imagine who will be competitive in the future. It’s not so easy. With six factories it’s definitely a hotter market and you have to stay very much on your toes. But it’s not totally new. We signed Lorenzo when he still had one and a half seasons to ride in 250s. It’s not totally changed but nevertheless it’s very competitive, just like the rest of the grid is very competitive. The rider’s market is also very competitive." The danger was that teams and factories could get it horribly wrong sometimes having to make decisions so early, he added.
Having six factories also competing for the interest of teams, and not just riders, made the whole picture even more complicated. "From a sporting side, it’s a positive development. The reality is that KTM is going to supply the Poncharal team. So if you are Dorna, it’s great. We have six manufacturers now in the game and six manufacturers now ready to supply satellite teams. But for us, it broke a relationship that existed for 20 years. Did we know that it was a threat? Did we see it coming this early? No. Are we glad we discovered it so early? Yes, because now we can at least plan for an alternative," Jarvis told us.
That was good for the championship, but made the situation a good deal more difficult for the manufacturers in MotoGP, Jarvis said. "It’s more competitive for manufacturers to keep a good satellite team, and to keep good riders, yes. It’s not easy. There is only limited money in every factory’s budget. You can’t just open your wallet and throw it all out there. It’s not possible. Some compromises will probably have to be taken."
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