Between 2004 and 2015, Yamahas were ridden by Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to seven world championships, while the Japanese manufacturer won the coveted ‘Triple Crown’ — rider, constructor and team titles together — four times.
Presiding over those glorious years, titles and legendary riders, and still the managing director of Yamaha Motor Racing, is the enigmatic Lin Jarvis.
In many ways, the Briton embodies the characteristics of his team’s bikes. During a race, the TV cameras will often peer into the Yamaha garage to see Jarvis’ steely, inscrutable expression, blue eyes staring intently at the box monitors.
Multi-lingual, thanks to two decades living in the Netherlands and over a decade in Italy, he is the consummate internationalist in MotoGP’s most multicultural team. To the outsider, he appears professorial and more than a little stern.
“That looks like a guinea pig I used to have when I was younger,” the Yamaha supremo offers, as CNN Sport’s microphone is placed on a chair next to him. We’re in the team’s sleek hospitality pavilion in Valencia during post-season testing, and Jarvis has already defied expectations with a warm grin.
The last four years have not been especially kind to Yamaha. The emergence and subsequent dominance of Honda’s all-conquering Marc Marquez has cast a long shadow over his rivals, and Yamaha’s river of success has run rather dry. Jarvis admits the team has been in something of a “trough.”
“What are the reasons for that? I think they’re numerous and some are technical, some are human,” he explains. “The rise of Marc Marquez should not be underestimated, because he is truly a phenomenon, a talent, one of these extraordinary people who arrives from time to time, as Valentino did in the past, and as Lorenzo did when he arrived.
“To make a result, you need both man and machine, and I would say in 2015 our bike was clearly highly competitive, super competitive, because we were first and second,” Jarvis continues. “In 2016, there was a new regulation introduced where we went to common software; I think that some of the decisions we made at that time were in the wrong way, in the wrong direction, and we paid the price for that.”
A common observation of Marquez is the way his aggressive style — heavily influenced by dirt track riding — has changed the rest of the paddock’s approach to racing, believing they need to beat him at his own game. Jarvis disagrees: “Lorenzo won in 2015, using a very, very different style. Lorenzo was very smooth, very precise, very high corner speed, not brutal and ragged, and that’s Marquez’s style, but a consequence of Marquez’s style is that he’s managed to get this Honda matching to his particular style, but it seems to be very difficult for other Honda riders to tame the beast.”
Jarvis is taking his team down a different path. “To beat your competitor, you don’t necessarily have to go down the same route and try to beat them in that same way, you try alternative ways and maybe different styles and bikes with different attributes,” he says.
“So, the Yamaha style is more balanced, in terms of the bike, more precise. We’re clearly struggling a little bit in speed and horsepower now, but our vision is to beat Marquez in our way, in the Yamaha way, with the skills of the Yamaha riders.”
Now in his 20th year in MotoGP, one of the most challenging periods for the veteran team boss was also one of Yamaha’s most successful. In 2008, following the spectacular arrival of Jorge Lorenzo in MotoGP, the previously indomitable Valentino Rossi appeared rattled by the challenge within his own team. A wall was erected down the middle of the garage to separate the teammates. While Jarvis admits it was tricky to handle, he also believes it was not necessarily a bad thing.
“If you have collaboration in the box for a manager, it’s definitely the easiest way to work, but it’s not necessarily the most rewarding,” he contends. “So in the past we had this infamous rivalry between Lorenzo and Valentino together and the famous wall, which was maybe understood or misunderstood by different people, which was constructed primarily because we had Michelin tires on one side and Bridgestone on the other, and part of the rules of engagement was that we couldn’t see and share.
“But that was at the same time as the rivalry, which was very hot because Valentino was the king of the moment, and Lorenzo was the newcomer, the young gun. So, it was difficult to manage, it is difficult to manage when you have two top riders in the team, but when we managed it we — three times in a row — became Triple Crown champions.
“So, when you have competitive riders in the team it elevates the team, they push each other, and you just have to hope that they are not self-destructive.”
Jarvis pauses to reflect on the retirement of Lorenzo this season, after a largely unsuccessful period away from Yamaha. “We were just smiling because when we hired Jorge when he was a rookie, before he was even in the MotoGP class, we hired him to replace Valentino Rossi because we thought Valentino Rossi would retire soon and go to race in Formula One, and this was back in 2006, and it’s kind of like ‘who could ever have predicted that Jorge Lorenzo would retire before Valentino retires?’ Life is strange sometimes.”
Jarvis admits the solution isn’t straightforward. “We have to think of today, tomorrow and also the future, but it’s difficult to say what the solution will be,” he says. “Clearly Fabio has great potential, and we would like him to stay with Yamaha, also I believe he should stay with Yamaha because he seems perfectly matched to the characteristics of our bike. So definitely he’s a huge talent for the future.
“Maverick definitely is also a huge talent. And when he started with us, back in 2016, he was very strong, won three races almost straight away, and now he’s coming back to form. Valentino is an iconic rider, still highly competitive, so we don’t know what Valentino’s future is, we don’t know whether Maverick will stay with us, we don’t know whether Fabio will stay, but we will do our best to put the strongest package together, and together with the satellite team.”
Could Rossi take on a kind of elder statesman role within the team? “No, I think, not yet,” Jarvis says. “Valentino is a factory rider and his mission is to go and win races and to try to win championships, so it would be incorrect for us to push him into that role when he is a factory rider. We’ll see what happens in the future depending on what his career becomes.”
2020 should be an intriguing season, with a re-emerging Yamaha fighting with the Marquez brothers at Honda and an increasingly competitive Suzuki team, as well as Ducati and the deep-pocketed KTM.
Jarvis is hopeful that Yamaha is back course for success. “We and everybody else have been surprised and impressed by the way [Quartararo] has achieved such excellent results in his first year, you know he’s rookie of the year, best independent rider of the year, and also his team has been best independent team, that’s a pretty strong entry for a new team and he’s played a major part in that.
“With Maverick I would say he’s re-found himself at the moment. I’m hoping that Valentino will find that with some of the changes of the bike and the change of team organization next year, but Maverick has already found it and is back in his groove again.”
At the end of the interview, CNN Sport stops to take a photo of Jarvis, and that steely expression is there once again. “Don’t look so cross” quips CNN, and 61-year-old breaks into that warm grin again. “I tell him that all the time,” laughs the Yamaha press officer. You get the impression next season may bring Jarvis more to smile about.