The Yamaha M1 and the Suzuki GSX-RR have a lot in common. Both are inline four cylinder machines, and both rely more on corner speed and maneuverability than outright speed. And the riders of both machines have complained about a lack of speed at great length.
So great was Joan Mir's frustration with the Suzuki's lack of power in 2021 that he made a veiled threat to seek solace elsewhere. "A lot of people finish their contracts in 2022 and we are hoping to renew, or to take a different decision," the 2020 world champion said before the test at Sepang. "Honestly, the test will be important for me. It will be important to understand everything. As a Suzuki rider now, I feel great here, I feel like I am at home, but it's true that a change is something that in some moments can be good, also. But at the moment, I cannot speak more about it, because there is nothing decided. But let's see."
The biggest difference between Suzuki and Yamaha is that where for Fabio Quartararo those complaints continued after the tests at Sepang and Mandalika, Joan Mir and Alex Rins pronounced themselves happy. Unlike Yamaha, Suzuki had brought an engine upgrade significant enough to actually close the gap to the Ducatis and Hondas. They had also brought a third version of their rear ride-height device, which improved drive out of corners and helped even more with acceleration.
And so a much happier Joan Mir left Sepang, and embarked on the Mandalika test before missing the last day with intestinal problems. " Today was an important day to understand the potential of the engine, because the electronics were working a lot better, and I was able to be quite fast, really consistent on lap pace. So that's really good," Mir said after Sepang.
The new speed made a big difference. "We are close, we are happy," Mir said. "We improved clearly our top speed, we are there in the middle, which is really really important. Because we know that we have a fast race bike. But always, to fight with the Ducatis and these guys with the engine that we had, it was difficult to overtake. The same story in all the races, it's always a bit difficult. So a little bit more power is a big help for me. And I expect with this advantage a lot better."
Alex Rins felt much the same way. "The thing that impressed me more during these tests was the engine," he said after the Mandalika test. "I mean it’s not easy to put more horsepower in the engine and keep the same 'answer' from the engine. Sometimes it takes time to make a good first touch of the throttle, but sincerely, in Jerez, Malaysia and here the engine was quite good."
Contrast that with the words of Fabio Quartararo after the tests with the new Yamaha. "It's something really big that is missing, to be honest!" the 2021 world champion exclaimed, before going on to say he wasn't going to focus on it, preferring to look at what he has, rather than what he doesn't have. A sound psychological strategy. But not a sign of great confidence in your bike.
So the 2022 Suzuki GSX-RR looks like being a very complete package, more along the lines of 2020 than 2021. Rins certainly felt ready to start the season after the test. "We did a good five days riding in Sepang and here in Mandalika. I had a very good feeling with the bike, I think we improved quite a lot our bike," the Spaniard said. "So I’m quite happy and I feel ready for the first race in Qatar. I don’t want to say that ‘we will be there’ because then the rest of the bikes will be in the front. But if we start in Qatar with the same ambition as we had here then I think we will do a good job."
It is hard not to keep making the comparison with Yamaha when discussing Suzuki. But the parallels are hard to ignore. The bikes are similar in layout, and the development philosophy runs along similar lines, making incremental changes which they keep refining, rather than going all in on radical change. The difference is that this year, Suzuki's incremental changes have been larger and more effective, Yamaha content to sit on their hands after winning the title in 2021.
Outside of the new engine, the changes Suzuki have brought are relatively small. A new chassis which has a little more stability in braking, but sacrifices turning. The new ride-height device, which is better, but still has to be operated manually. And a lightly modified aero package.
The aero package is where the biggest question marks remain. It was, again, an incremental upgrade, with a bit more downforce, though the bike still lacks side pods, one of the last not to use them. The trade off for more downforce is a loss of top speed, and though Suzuki have more in hand in that respect, they still have less to play with balancing top speed against controlling wheelie on corner exit.
"I think the priority now is to improve the aerodynamics," Alex Rins said after Sepang. "We need to improve exiting from the corners, the first part. Exiting from the slow corners in low gears we have our front wheel in the air and the others are able to stay on the floor. And with the tire on the tarmac the engine is still pushing. I think we need to improve in this phase."
The good thing for Suzuki is that they don't have to get both the ride-height device and the aerodynamic package right at the first race. Ride-height development can continue through the season, and with tests at Jerez and Barcelona, they will have a chance to make improvements throughout the year. If the aero package is not quite what they need at Qatar, they will get a second chance to bring an updated package later in the year, again with a chance to test at Jerez and Barcelona.
So from the outside, Suzuki look ready to tackle 2022. The GSX-RR has a solid engine, good throttle response – both riders spent a lot of time at the Mandalika test setting up the electronics – and good acceleration. The bike is as agile as ever, and stable on the brakes. Joan Mir is looking as fit and determined as ever, and the 2021 season only sharpened his resolve. Alex Rins looks chastened from his mistakes of past seasons, and is more focused than we have seen him in recent years. His weakness has always been a tendency to make mistakes and crash, and better focus should help in that respect.
And Suzuki finally have a team manager, in the figure of Livio Suppo. Suppo can take on some of the workload being carried by the committee set up to run the team after Davide Brivio's departure just before the start of the 2021 season. That will allow Shinichi Sahara and Ken Kawauchi to focus more on bike development and running the Japanese side of the operation.
It is hard not to see Suzuki heading into the 2022 MotoGP season with a justifiable sense of optimism. The bike is good, the team have a good base setup, the riders are hungry, the organization no longer has the major question mark of who would be team manager hanging over them. Both Mir and Rins were fast over a single lap, and showed strong pace on used tires during testing. While fans and media focus their attention on Fabio Quartararo's title defense, the rise of Pecco Bagnaia, and the return of Marc Marquez, the Suzuki riders are flying under the radar. And they may well turn out to be a much bigger threat than anyone expects.
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