The 24MX-powered JWR Yamaha Racing team has dominated headlines this week, as they have announced two new signings; Kevin Strijbos and Vsevolod Brylyakov. What are the new team here to achieve though? This MX Vice interview with the team manager, Johan Westermark, should open some eyes and help with those unanswered questions. Another signing is going to be announced in the coming hours too!
MX Vice: Let’s begin by talking about your team. Why is now the right time to move into MXGP after dabbling in it a little bit over the last couple of years?
Johan Westermark: Now is the right time, because in 2018 we upped our Swedish Championship team to a four-round MXGP team. We wanted to test the water and understand what was required as a team, especially the cost and the workload. Now we feel it is the right time to expand on that. Initially, we were going to go for three EMX250 riders and we spoke to various guys. We spoke to one MXGP rider who we felt could have done very, very well. Unfortunately, however, wages at the time were an issue and then we realized that we started to run before we could walk. We kind of did a full circle. We sat down with everyone, including the guys from 24MX, and understood what they were trying to achieve for next year and how this all slotted together.
Then the opportunity to talk to Kevin [Strijbos] came up. We jumped at the chance, because we felt that the team is not just for next year. We are looking at this long-term plan and Kevin fits quite nicely into this, with his knowledge and his experience. If we are going to go into this at the level that we want to go to, we need somebody with experience who has been there at all different levels and demands the best and understands what the best is.
Kevin can bring that knowledge and bring that experience into the team where we can all learn from it. We don’t just see Kevin as a one-year option. We kind of see Kevin as… He has the potential to do really well in 2019, but we also get the added bonus that he is able to offer that knowledge and experience not only to us, but to all the riders around him.
You said that this year was a test for MXGP. Did it go better than you expected? Were you expecting it to be a difficult thing or did you quickly realize that going into MXGP was actually quite manageable?
Going back to Valkenswaard this year and looking back at Filip Bengtsson; I think he was in sixth place at one point in front of factory riders. We learned from that and at Valkenswaard in the deep sand, with the temperature, we should have had a bigger tank. We did not have a bigger tank and the lap before the end we ran out of fuel. That was a big learning curve. That is the last thing we want to be doing in 2019, but it is these little things that you have to learn.
Going into MXGP at this level is completely different to running in the Swedish Championship, or even any national series nowadays. These are the things that we needed to try. We needed to understand about tracks, how Youthstream works and how the FIM Motocross World Championship works. There are different rules and regulations, as well as expectations by sponsors. So, by testing this for four rounds this year, it gave us a really good insight into what would be expected of ourselves, the riders and from a sponsor point of view what they expect. Plus, we now know what we are able to give them as a return.
I guess just doing European GPs next year is another one of those “not running before you can walk” things? You want to still build slowly.
Yeah. Interestingly, back in August when we were discussing 2019, we were literally going to do ten rounds of EMX250 with three riders. We had three fantastic riders lined up for EMX250. We were going for the title. We believed that two of the three riders had the ability to compete for the EMX250 title. However, even with the best plans and conversations we had, the age rule put that in jeopardy. Luckily, even before the age rule came out, we kind of decided that MXGP is where we want to be. We want to bring through young riders to come through to the MXGP team in the future. We want to basically have a generation of riders who want to ride for JWR Yamaha, start off young and come through. Last year was great, because we kind of understood the basics of what was required.
Now, coming into 2019, by just doing the European GPs we believe that we will be able… It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be a straightforward task. There are going to be ups and downs. We completely understand that. We have read so many accounts from different people about what hell they have gone through in the first year, because everything you think you know is kind of undone. We know that there is going to be some ups and downs. We know that we are going to make some mistakes, but it is about how we as a team come through those together and work as a team.
The age rule obviously caused you some headaches to begin with, but it has all come around and now you have got a Grand Prix winner on your team. Clearly everything has worked out for the best. This must just be a mind-blowing situation now?
Yeah. It quickly escalated from an EMX250 team. After speaking to sponsors like 24MX and other partners, we quickly understood that doing MXGP in Europe would not be too much of a cost difference to ten rounds of EMX250. The EMX250 bikes for the riders that we were going to look to support and have on the team would have been ultra-competitive. The money that we would have had to spend to make sure those guys are able to get out of the gate. Those are the things that would have cost money. Having the option of going to a YZ450F, where some riders do not want or need that extra power, we feel that it is not too much of a difference in budget compared to tuning six EMX250 bikes.
Luckily, we have got some very good support this year from Just1. It looks like we could possibly be going to the two Chinese GPs as well. Again, we are just taking that day by day. The most important thing is that we are at fifteen rounds of European GPs. That is what we have budgeted for and that is what we are fully intending on doing this year.
It sounds like JWR will not be a team that has one amazing year, shows up in Indonesia loving life and then disappears. It sounds like you are in this for the long-run and are planning appropriately to do that.
Yeah. We have a ten-year plan, so we are in this for the long haul. Again, I keep saying, do not run before you can walk. That is exactly what we are doing this year. We would love to be there at the overseas rounds, but we know that is going to happen in 2020. This year is just about European GPs. It is about establishing the team. It is about keeping the mistakes down to a minimum. It is putting in a foundation for the next generation to come through. We would like to have a pathway for naturally-talented riders to come aboard and grow into the team on a YZ65, YZ85, YZ125, YZ250F and then eventually we would like those EMX250 riders to go onto MX2 and MXGP.
We do not really want to be the team where we are swapping and people going from different manufacturers or brands. We want to grow people within the team and make them feel part of our family. We are a very family-focused team. Not in the sense of brothers and sisters, it is more that we have a team vibe. If it is a bad day, then it is a case of not worrying about it and knowing there is always next week. There is no one who is going to be shouting and screaming. Nobody getting angry. It is just going to be a positive approach to motocross. Have fun and do the best we can do.
Is this a business? Is the goal from this to make money and run it as a successful business or would you just describe it as more of a passion project?
For me, I have been involved in motocross since I was young. My father used to do racing at my level. I used to go with him. So, for me, it is in the blood. It is one of those things that you cannot turn off. I run a very successful recycling company in Stockholm, Sweden, and it is hard work. I love motocross. For me, the team helps me escape that grind. I love motocross. I cannot compete at a high level like these guys do, but what I can do is provide a platform and a team for this next generation of riders to come through. It is a fun project.
However, for my partners, it is just pure business; people like 24MX, Renthal, Talon, Just1 and Forma are going to be coming in and it is all business. It is about delivering results on and off the track. We want to create a really, really good structure. We want to create good race results. At the same time, we want to give a return on investment to each one of our partners. They need to sell products. That is the way of the world. That is the circle of life within motocross. One of the things that we have taken on is a sports-marketing person to literally look at building relationships with outside brands from motocross. So, again, it is not just looking at this year… It is looking at how we can develop those relationships over the next three to five years.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: ConwayMX