It has been a tumultuous first half of 2021 for Yamaha. With Fabio Quartararo comfortably leading the championship, Valentino Rossi announcing his retirement from MotoGP at the end of the season, and Maverick Viñales winning the first race and then dramatically splitting from Yamaha mid-season, there has been a lot going on.
On Saturday of the Styria Grand Prix, the first race at the Red Bull Ring, I spoke to Lin Jarvis, Managing Director of Yamaha Motor Racing, about how their season has gone so far. We spoke about Valentino Rossi's retirement, and the impact he has had at and for Yamaha, and we talked about how Yamaha made the M1 more competitive after a difficult 2020.
We also talked about Maverick Viñales, though this was before the Spaniard's bizarre Styria race, in which a pit lane start and electrical gremlins saw him become so frustrated he took it out on his Yamaha M1, holding the bike on the stop in fifth gear rather than changing up. That led to a suspension and eventual split, but Jarvis' views on Viñales prior to these events are still instructive.
That discussion led Jarvis to explain their approach to finding a replacement for Viñales in the factory team, and what happens next at Petronas Yamaha. And finally, Jarvis gives his view of how the MSMA has come together to get through the pandemic, and how that affects MotoGP going forward.
Q: I didn't want to make this interview about Valentino Rossi, but it’s really hard not to start on about it just because of the importance of it. When did you find out he was going to retire?
Lin Jarvis: A few days ago. Maybe last Friday or something.
Q: We know that it’s been a possibility for a while. What did you do to prepare for it? How important has he been for Yamaha?
LJ: I think the importance for Yamaha is pretty obvious for everybody to see. We’ve had fifteen and a half years’ experience and understand his importance. When he joined us, he was really the catalyst that stimulated the renaissance of our MotoGP activities. In particular, he joined us in the beginning of 2004, and in 2003 we didn’t win a single Grand Prix race, which was probably our lowest point – certainly our lowest point since I have been directly involved, which was from ’99.
We had a decent level of success before that in the sense of with the Marlboro Yamaha team, for instance, with Biaggi and Checa we got second position in the world and third position in the world. But we hadn’t won a championship for many, many years. I can’t remember how many. Twelve years prior to that, or something. So, it was time for Yamaha to either step or get out.
Fortunately at that time, Valentino was ready for a new challenge when he was a Honda rider, and he took a giant leap of faith, I think, by accepting the proposal from Yamaha to ride on a bike that literally hadn't won a race. At that stage, he was the king of MotoGP. His arrival was kind of a do-or-die situation for Yamaha. We decided let’s do, and if it works it will be fantastic. If it doesn’t work, anyway we gave it our best shot and then we’ll see. When you take somebody like Valentino on board, you are obliged to step up and do the maximum you can.
I think his arrival combined with the arrival of Masao Furusawa were two key points, and that was approved by the president of Yamaha. It was a big step because he wasn’t cheap when he joined us, and it was a big move. So, also compliments to the president at that time, which was Mr. Kajikawa, for taking and backing the decision. The rest is history, as they say, because he went on to win the first race. He went on to win the championship the first year.
When I say it stimulated the renaissance, it gave us back the confidence that we could do it and that we were capable to win world championships and we were able to recover our glory days of the previous champions that we’ve had so many of over the years with Agostini, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, etcetera. So, it was really the beginning of a new era. We will be eternally grateful to him for that for having the faith to join us and then delivering us four championships.
But more than four championships on the track as well, he’s also been a great brand ambassador over the years. We did two stints with him. Obviously, the first stint was seven years and this second stint by the time it concludes will be a second stint of nine years. That’s pretty extraordinary. You don’t see that very often in motorsports world. But I think it’s a good sign of the collaboration we have together.
I’m really happy finally that when he does hang up his leathers, they will be Yamaha leathers that he finally hangs up. That’s I think for us very important and I really respect that. I think we had to give Valentino the room and the space and the confidence for him to make his own decision. So, I think it’s been a fabulous partnership and I hope it will go on in the future for many years in a different guise, in a different situation.
Q: It felt like last year, Yamaha got some unfair criticism in that everyone was saying, “Look, they can’t win a championship,” and yet you ended up winning six or seven races. It feels like Yamaha have made a small step this year which has had a big effect. And Fabio Quartararo really seems to have come into his own as well. How do you see the first half of this year?
LJ: It is funny because we’re doing this interview while in the Red Bull Ring, and I would say Red Bull Ring last year was probably the deepest point for us, the lowest, most critical moment of last year’s season because we had well-documented engine troubles last year. That started from a mistake in the planning at the beginning of the season, or before the season. Misunderstanding of the rules and a mistake in the planning. Wrong batch of materials. We had all sorts of troubles last year with the engine, from the first race onwards.
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