Looking around the MotoGP paddock at the riders the teams and manufacturers have riding for them, and one thing you notice is the embarrassment of riches which Yamaha seems to have on their MotoGP bikes. In the Fiat Yamaha team, they have arguably the greatest rider of all time, alongside the youngster who looks capable of beating him. In the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, Ben Spies, the man who blew away the World Superbike championship sits alongside the only rider to get anywhere near the Fantastic Four last year, Colin Edwards. Sitting in the garage, there is the eminence grise of MotoGP, Jeremy Burgess, the thoughtful French genius Guy Coulon and the unsung hero of Ben Spies' career, Tom Houseworth.
Looking at all that talent, we wanted to know just what Yamaha's secret was. So at Jerez, we spoke to Lin Jarvis, managing director of Yamaha Motor Racing and one of the driving forces behind Yamaha's MotoGP project. Jarvis was graceful enough to give us twenty minutes of his time, and to answer our questions about Yamaha's approach to the human side of racing. We talked to Jarvis about who hires the riders for Yamaha's racing projects, how those decisions come about, and what factors make Yamaha so strong in this respect. Jarvis also spoke about his ideal rider lineup for 2011, and how hard he expects to have to fight for it throughout MotoGP's silly season. Finally, Jarvis talked to us about the problems of filling MotoGP grids, and what should be done about it. We started off, though, with the burning question of who is in charge of hiring.
MotoMatters.com: Who makes the hiring decisions in Yamaha? Ever since you've hired Valentino, there's been a string of excellent hiring decisions, hiring Colin as a second rider and development rider, then hiring Ben from the US and bringing Tom Houseworth (Spies' crew chief) and Greg Wood (his mechanic) with him. Who makes these decisions?
Lin Jarvis: That's a good question. As you know Yamaha is a big company, so the decision is never down to one person. So we work as a team between Yamaha Motor Racing in Italy and Yamaha Japan, and we are constantly in touch with each other. Obviously, we meet each other at the circuit frequently. I would say that primarily, the general discussion is between [Masao] Furusawa and myself. But our other colleagues and expertise is always considered, because we have Nakajima as the team director who's a very important guy. Of course we listen to our own team managers who are European. It is a group activity, but finally let's say there's probably Furusawa and myself are the ones most involved in the final selection of what we want.
MM: Is that Superbikes and MotoGP together, or just MotoGP?
LJ: That's an interesting question as well. I should say it's just MotoGP, but it's not as black and white, because as an example, in the case of Ben Spies, I was involved very much in the whole of the negotiations, together with Yamaha Europe. So in that case there was Laurens [Klein-Koerkamp] of Yamaha Europe and myself. But I really guided the negotiations.
And many people still don't believe it, but we did the deal with Ben [for 2010 and 2011] where he was clearly for one year in World Superbike, that was the clear intention, and the second year in MotoGP. But we had an understanding that if at some moment within the timeframe of still being able to make the change, he should want to change his mind and move to MotoGP, we were ready for that.
And I think this is something quite strong with Yamaha. Firstly our global network is strong, so the relationship and the open communication we have between for instance YMR in Italy that does all the negotiations and sponsor discussions and logistics, with Japan who are eventually responsible for the project in its entirety and the technical issues, then with our network, we have very strong relationships with Yamaha Europe, with Yamaha US, with Yamaha Australia. In my opinion, it's one of the really strong assets of Yamaha, and that allows us to work on deals and scenarios that maybe other people would have more difficulty with. Because Yamaha has that level of understanding.
A good example here is also, we could talk about Ben Spies and Colin [Edwards] as an example, the relationship they have with Yamaha US is very strong, but you can see some examples of it by the way we've been able to put together some of these special videos, with them together, stuff like that. So we are constantly looking with a global mindset, not looking only at that racing team, or this project. I think that's one of our advantages.
MM: So that would the same sort thing for a rider like Cal Crutchlow, who's been taken to World Supersport, become champion there, moved up to World Superbikes, possible options in the future, anything could happen?
LJ: Yes, we like to, in business but also in the sport and with our riders, we like to keep long-term relationships wherever possible. It's not always possible, because sometimes things don't work out, sometimes a performance is not good.
A good example is maybe James, if we look at James Toseland, his project. Basically, he came from World Superbikes, we brought him into the MotoGP world in harmony with Tech 3. Basically he was a Tech 3 rider from the beginning, but we talked to him, Furusawa and me and Herve [Poncharal] together to bring him into the Yamaha world. We gave it our best shot with him; he gave it his best shot with us; everybody gave the maximum, but unfortunately it didn't work out.
However, we then found another solution. We said, well, look, he's a double World Superbike champion, he's a great guy, he's a super ambassador, and we need a top rider in Superbikes. So if we can't keep him in MotoGP, why don't we place him in the Superbike team? And again, we can do that, because we have the cooperation between Yamaha Europe and Yamaha Japan and Yamaha Racing.
MM: So you've almost got like a career path for riders - career path is probably a bit strong, but you've got much more flexibility in what you do with riders?
LJ: Well, career path, I believe that's too big a word, it's not quite like that. Career path, I look more towards McLaren and [Lewis] Hamilton, that's a career path, when you've taken somebody from a very young age, you've put them out first in karts, then here, then there, you've trained them up. That's a true career path. I don't think honestly we do that. But we try to take care of people, our people, we try to find the area or environment where they can perform best. That also fits together with Yamaha in the racing and in the marketing. And I think that this is our strength, so not really career path, but working together with riders, together with Yamaha network to find good solutions and good opportunities.
MM: Was that also the reason for bringing Tom Houseworth and Greg Wood [Spies' pit crew] in? Because they've moved straight in to the Tech 3 team, and you can see from Spies' performances that he wouldn't be up to speed that quickly if he had a different crew chief.
LJ: Yes, I think that's the other side of what we do, again to work with the riders and to listen to the riders, to try to find an environment where they feel comfortable and confident, and ready to perform.
And it's not with every rider that they have this strong link with one or two people, some riders are more flexible. As an example, when we brought Jorge [Lorenzo] in, we brought him in as a rider, but we selected who we thought would be the right crew chief for him. We chose Ramon Forcada, because Ramon is Spanish, lives close to Jorge, has many years' experience, also had gone through the whole learning curve with Casey Stoner, so was obviously used to working with a rookie moving into the MotoGP class. So we looked at that scenario, and said we should change the crew chief when he arrives, and we personally selected Ramon, and then introduced that to Jorge, and Jorge was wide open to that idea, and it worked.
But in the case of Ben it's a little bit different. Obviously, Ben is an American coming to Europe to start with. So that process started when Ben became available, but clearly an American arriving suddenly in Europe, three times AMA champion, he needs a comfort zone, he needs something where he can trust, he can rely on, he can feel confident and comfortable. So they brought [Houseworth] into Superbikes, and in Superbikes they did a great job, as the results obviously spoke for themselves.
Then when Ben was considering going into MotoGP, firstly anyway the contract was a Superbike plus MotoGP deal, so there was always a little bit of a hybrid element at the beginning, but also we considered, that it had worked out well with Woody [Greg Wood] and Tom [Houseworth], and for sure they had the ambition to come to MotoGP - I mean, had they not desired and been willing to come and follow, then OK, it's end of story - but they're ready, Ben would be happy, Tech 3 can accept the situation, we've had one year already, we know they're good. So there's absolutely no reason not to do it. Again, we worked closely, very closely with Herve, I have a close personal relationship with Herve, and we discuss these things openly and find solutions.
MM: Yes, whenever I speak to Herve, he's always very happy to be a part of Yamaha, because he gets so much support from the factory.
LJ: Yes, we don't say to him, you're an independent team, it's your project, your riders, go and sort it out. We like to work closely. We only have four riders - Honda have more, but we only have four, so we like to use our investment in his project and his investment in his project to find the best solution for him and for us.
MM: The other thing I really notice with all of Yamaha's riders is the level of intelligence, they all have a very sharp, keen intelligence, whereas you see other riders in the paddock who are fast, undoubtedly fast, but they're fast without thinking about it, they don't even know how they do it. Is intelligence something you look at, is it important?
LJ: Yes, we have them do a Yamaha GCSE [British high school exam] before they come in for their first discussion, and if they don't pass the 80% mark, we don't talk to them! [Laughs] No, joking aside, I would say that a winning rider is always an intelligent rider, and we search for winning riders.
So, you know, I quite like this aspect of the job and the world, because you can see quite clearly, the closer you get to the riders, you can see the different skills and abilities they have, and I think, of course they have to have pure raw talent, but to succeed as the very maximum level, one should never underestimate the intelligence that's needed to work on the bike, develop the bike, manage themselves, manage the press, manage the race strategy. It's not easy, there's a lot of pressures on these guys, and normally it will be the ones who are the most shrewd and intelligent who will be successful.
MM: Speaking of intelligence and the talent that Yamaha has, you're in a real quandary. You have three of the five best riders in the world, and you've only got two factory seats.
LJ: That's true.
MM: And it's contract time.
LJ: That's also true.
MM: How far along are you in that process, or are waiting to talk to people?
LJ: We are busy with our own thoughts, planning, and we are always busy discussing with the riders and the riders' management; it's a constant process. I wouldn't say that on day one you begin something. You know, Jorge's negotiation and situation started, what, now three and a half years ago, and it's a constant process. Ben is the only rider on a two-year contract, so Ben has a contract with Yamaha Motor Company for 2010 and 2011, without being specified where he will be placed.
The ideal scenario for me at the moment would be honestly speaking to retain all four. That would be the perfect scenario. I don't know whether that's possible or not, because Colin is towards the back end of his career, I don't know when Colin will decide to stop. Also we have to look at young blood coming in, but last year he had a fabulous year and he earned his seat again with Herve and that's Herve's decision as well, which we fully support. Ben has the contract and so he could be flexible. I think where he is now he's very happy and it works well, so for him it's Tech 3, or if anything let's say a step up, if I can say that, but he's very very happy where he is now. Vale, we want to continue with Vale, we want to continue with Jorge. That process is ongoing, I mean they are probably the two most desirable riders on the scene. I'll let you know when we have something to say.
MM: The real dilemma must be between Vale and Jorge, because they're both such incredibly powerful marketing images as well. And you know that Valentino Rossi will be selling R1s or whatever has replaced them in 2025, and Jorge has the potential to be the same, he's only 23 right now.
LJ: In a way, our problem [with Lorenzo and Rossi] that we have now has been created by, I would like to say good planning, because nobody knew when Valentino may or may not stop. And so we recruited Jorge early, in order to bring him on and bring him up to speed so that if eventually Vale decided to retire or go to cars or Formula One or rally or whatever, we would have a succession scenario.
Now we have a situation where Valentino is riding as good if not better than ever; he's still motivated and wants to stay in the sport, and Jorge has done pretty much what we expected of him, so they're pretty much, often on an even par. So it's not going to be easy to keep them both in our project - we would like that, but let's see, because I'm very much a realist.
I personally think something's got to happen in Honda; they will make a move sooner, rather than later I believe. And depending on what they will do, well, there's only a very limited number of super top riders at the moment. Ben is already on a contract with us so you can rule out Ben, so you've got Vale, Jorge, Casey and Dani. I think Honda will be quite aggressive in their rider recruitment, and let's see which rider they will approach. But, it's not going to be, it's a good position for those top riders, but let's see. I think both for Vale and Jorge, we'd like to keep them here, and I think they're both very happy here. I still believe for next year this will be the best place for both of them, but … nobody knows what will happen.
MM: Any thoughts about the 2012 regulations? About continuing to run 800s, or going to 1000s, I know Yamaha wants to keep running the 800.
LJ: I have no comment on our plans at the moment. But with the MSMA we agreed together with the FIM and Dorna on the new regulations to try and find a solution to increase the number on the grid etc. How we will decide which configuration to use will be done later, we will be evaluating all of the possibilities and the elements and the investment as well and the performance potential.
But something's got to change in my opinion, in order to allow the possibility for more people to enter the grid. I think that Yamaha making four bikes is a step in the right direction. Personally, I have always felt this and said this, I think Suzuki should put more bikes on the grid. I think Honda are doing a good job already, Ducati are doing a good job. I think we also have to look at Superbike at the moment. In Superbike, the principle is that you should be racing production bikes, but I think some of the new manufacturers there in Superbike are racing with what in my opinion is much closer to a prototype than a Superbike. Those manufacturers should be here; this is the prototype class. So I think we need to do, the existing participants, some of them need to provide more, and we have to find a way for other factories, the other constructors to enter. And this is the solution that's been tabled at the moment, and probably it's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.