It has been a tough few years for Yamaha in MotoGP. Since the switch to spec electronic software and Michelin tires, Yamaha have struggled to be competitive. In the first half of the current decade, from 2010-2014, Yamaha won 34 races. Between 2015-2019, that total dropped to 24 race victories.
The decline has been impossible to ignore, but it took some time to both register and to turn the ship around. The situation reached its nadir at the Red Bull Ring in Austria last year, the factory Yamahas qualifying in 11th and 14th, Valentino Rossi the first Yamaha to finish, 14 seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo. That Saturday, MotoGP project leader Kouji Tsuya stood up in front of the media and apologized for the factory team's poor qualifying, an unheard of move by a Japanese factory.
The 2018 season proved to be a catalyst. A string of underwhelming results, and little progress with the bike throughout the season prompted Yamaha to undertake a major shakeup behind the scenes. Personnel were replaced – Tsuya stood down as project leader, and was replaced by Takahiro Sumi – but the whole operation was examined and reorganized.
The objective was to get everyone inside Yamaha talking to each other again, to create open channels of communication between the race teams, the test teams, and the factory. To share information and ideas between groups, rather than retreating defensively behind departmental walls and shifting the blame onto others. It is one reason Yamaha has streamlined its MotoGP test team, to improve communication between the test team and the factory, and dispose of the different working methods between the European and Japanese test teams.
Yamaha's move is reminiscent of Gigi Dall’Igna's arrival at Ducati. The first thing the Italian did in Ducati Corse was change the way the departments communicate, which initiated a huge turnaround in Ducati's fortunes. They started winning races again, and challenging for championships.
2019 was the season that Yamaha started to implement its own organizational changes. New faces appeared in the Yamaha garage, along with more familiar ones: Kazuhisa Takano, the chassis specialist who had helped Yamaha during its most successful period, when Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were sharing the wins between them from 2008 onward, is back working on the chassis of the M1.
The changes appear to be paying off. In 2018, Yamaha won just a single race, and scored a total of 13 podiums. In 2019, Maverick Viñales won 2 races, but Yamaha riders accumulated a total of 16 podiums. Viñales crashed out of a last lap battle for victory with Marc Márquez at Phillip Island, and Fabio Quartararo came within a couple of corners of winning at Misano and Buriram. The Yamaha is competitive again, if lacking in top speed.
To find out more about the behind-the-scenes changes at Yamaha, I spoke to Yamaha Motor Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis on the Monday after the Valencia race, and before the Valencia test. Jarvis explained in some detail where Yamaha had gone wrong in previous years, and what they had done to address the problem. He went into some depth as to how Yamaha had tried to improve the organization and give themselves a chance at being competitive again.
In the first part of the interview, Jarvis talks about the personnel changes, the philosophy behind them, and the strengths and weaknesses of working in a broad-based Japanese factory.
Q: I remember talking to you about this time last year, maybe in Sepang. We had a brief chat about some of the organizational changes. Was Austria last year the trigger, or were these changes already happening?
Lin Jarvis: Neither, I would say. Austria was the lowest point, let’s say, where we faced the brutal reality for where we were. But I don’t think that Austria per se was a trigger point. It’s the collective result of that season was the trigger point. What it really came down to is we’d been talking a lot prior to Austria and after Austria about needing to change something. What we were doing was not working. We needed to find a new solution.
So we finally decided to change probably in November last year. I think it was implemented in December. I think it was implemented from December 1st, which was the change of the project leader from Kouji Tsuya to Takahiro Sumi. But that was the first key factor that happened. Then Sumi came onboard and he started to change the method and the way of working and the approach.
Q: Is it changes in organizational structures, or changes in organizational methods? For example, in Ducati when Gigi Dall’Igna arrived what used to happen is they had an engine team, and a chassis team, and a test team and nobody talked to each other. As I understand it, Dall’Igna started rotating the staff between the teams so everyone understood each other’s problems.
LJ: A little bit of both, I would say. I would say more of an attitude and an approach change. We also had problems I think with, I would call it kind of island mentalities where we had these groups of people that were busy with their own elements and not collaborating enough and not with an open enough mind. Maybe some of them were protective of their situation, because we were under attack. So they became protective rather than open and collaborative.
I think that this new management method was, we have to see the bike and our operations as a whole, so everything is important coming together. If the electronics are the problem, then we need to find out how that interacts with the chassis, with the engine and everything else. So it was really a matter of making every island understand that they all had to collaborate together, because everything has to be considered in the package.
But the fundamental change I think was the need for open communication, interaction, inside the company, outside the company - because there’s a lot of expertise also outside the company. We have only limited resources with engineers and budgets and so forth. So we need to change within YMC, but also to listen and to go more outside and to consider also the expertise of our Italians or our Germans or whoever. And that was something that we were not doing. I think that we were in this dark tunnel and couldn’t see the end, and we became insular.
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