Being a replacement rider is never easy. Being asked to replace a factory MotoGP rider is always an honor, and one which nobody wants to turn down, but it also means being thrown in at the deep end, with a new bike, new tires, and sometimes even new tracks to learn with little or no testing.
Bearing all that in mind, experience can make the world of difference. So when Suzuki were forced to replace Alex Rins, after he broke his left arm in Austin, they turned to one of the most experienced riders around. Sylvain Guintoli spent five seasons in 250s and two full seasons in MotoGP, before heading off to World Superbikes, where he won the title in 2014. He is currently racing the brand new Suzuki GSX-R1000 for Bennetts Suzuki in the BSB championship.
In Barcelona, I found myself alone at Guintoli's debrief, and had a chance to spend fifteen minutes talking to the Frenchman. We had a wide-ranging conversation, covering topics as diverse as the changes to the bikes and tires since 2008, the character of the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, and how it compares to Suzuki's production GSX-R1000.
Q: What’s it been like having to come back into the paddock and obviously totally different tires from when you were racing?
Sylvain Guintoli: It’s been a blast so far, to be honest. It’s been honestly a great opportunity, a great experience to back riding the GP race. The Suzuki is a beautiful bike to ride. But it’s also been challenging. Like you said, the tires obviously, the last time I rode Michelins was 2002.
Q: So they’ve changed quite a bit?
SG: Yeah, of course. Then the GP bike was quite a while as well. Le Mans, Mugello and here in Barcelona are tracks I know well from the GP days, but I haven’t been for ten years. So as well, every time I’ve been needing a bit of a refresh. But so far it’s normally been an enjoyable experience. It’s also been a great learning curve and a great experience with a fantastic team. The team is unbelievable. The results in Mugello was starting to come much better. I’m enjoying it.
Q: What have you learned?
SG: You learn every day. This type of experience, obviously this is the most extreme bikes and the most extreme tires and the most extreme of competition, so obviously you are facing this so you are going to push yourself and learn a lot. These bikes, these tires, the work with the team, everything is done – I’ve got a lot of experience through the years and everything is done in a different way, so you have to soak it all in and try and ride the thing as best as possible.
Q: When was your last year in GP?
Q: How have the bikes changed? What’s the biggest difference been between them?
SG: It’s difficult to say. The first time I stepped on the Suzuki in Jerez I just felt like it was very, very sorted the way the power is delivered and how powerful it is as well. Those things are just unbelievably powerful. Superbikes are powerful, but these, it just never stops. Mugello you get to 340 k,m/h and it’s still pushing and you feel you’re going to take off. So, it was a bit of a shock. Even though I knew these were fast, it was a bit of a shock to found out how good the bikes are actually.
Q: It’s been ten years, but recalibrating your brake points – so much has changed.
SG: The brake points, the carbon brakes now are quite a bit different. I had the steel ones that were used in superbike. So this was part, and is still part of the adaptation as well. Carbon brakes just behave in a very different way and deliver the performance in a different way. It suits those bikes because of the corner speed, because of how hard you can slow down. It suits it really well. But you have to get used to it so it doesn’t feel alien. That’s the main thing. With GP bike, it accelerates so fast, it corners so hard, and it slows down so quick. To be competitive you have to work a lot on this.
Q: You have to almost forget everything?
SG: Yeah, it’s adaptation. You have to try and adapt as quick as possible.
Q: Last year when Alex Lowes took the place of Bradley Smith in Tech 3 when he was injured, he said that he actually took away lessons from riding the GP bike that he could take back to Superbikes. Obviously the Yamaha R1 had been based on the M1. Do you feel that it’s going to be the same for you when you go back to BSB? Will there be certain stylistic things that you’ll be able to use? The tracks in BSB are obviously very, very different to Mugello.
SG: I think it is very different. There’s many things that are different, not just the tracks. Also the electronics, everything is very different. So, I don’t know. I think just every experience is a learning curve, no matter how much experience you got or where you ride. Every experience is good and you have to try and it makes you stronger. So, in that respect, yeah. Then I don’t know. For now, I think it’s two very different exercises.
Q: There are spec electronics in MotoGP now, but did they feel like spec electronics?
SG: No. The bikes electronic-wise – well, as an overall package, but electronic-wise specifically feels very sorted.
Q: Did you have any expectations of how the bike would feel before you rode it?
SG: I had expectations, of course, yeah. I had apprehensions also. You never know. Mainly, I always thought the bike would be very sorted because the Suzuki just looking at it on track it looks sorted, and it is. The main apprehension was about adapting to the tires. Actually, this has been really positive. It was a lot better than I thought it would be. To be honest, I thought I would go to Jerez and be like five seconds off the pace. Immediately it wasn’t like that at all. Jerez being a track that I know very well from Superbikes, from doing a lot of winter tests, in Jerez it’s actually where I was the closest straight away. Day two I was really close to Andrea, and then in Le Mans there was the conditions, the wet.
Q: That’s immediately an enormous disadvantage because you’ve got so much more to learn and so much less time to learn it.
SG: Yes. Well, when you perfectly know a track, and this is the first contact with the bike in Jerez was a very good thing to do.
Q: You only had one thing to learn, which was the bike?.
SG: The track, I’ve done a million laps in Jerez. I always have a lot of references there. The Superbikes are actually not much, much slower than the GP bikes on that track.
Q: I remember last year at the test Johnny Rea was very fast on the Kawasaki in the winter.
SG: In the winter the track is very fast for superbike.
Q: Which catches a lot of Moto2 riders out when they come to race at times because the grip is gone.
SG: The conditions change. When the track heats up it changes a lot. But in Jerez because the track was so familiar, and it was hot so the tires were giving a lot of feedback, I was immediately quite close, very close. Then from Le Mans and Mugello also it’s been every time – and it’s going to be like this in some respects – I’m expecting a bit less, hoping as well. But Le Mans we got there. It was cold. It was wet on day one, also morning of day two. So, I got thrown into FP4 with no dry time. And it was quite cold. In the end, it worked out good, but obviously when you don’t know perfectly the track and you haven’t been for a while… It’s all about adapting. It’s how fast you’re going to adapt and you’ve got to be competitive or not. So in Le Mans it was what it was, and then in Mugello we managed to be in the race quite a bit more competitive.
Q: The objective here is just to close the gap and be as close as possible?
SG: That’s it. In Le Mans I scored a point, which was great for the history. For me it was great to score a point in Le Mans. I was a minute and six seconds off the win. In Mugello, I managed to beat three regulars, so that was great. But I only finished 46 seconds off the win. So this is a lot. This is 30% closer. So this is positive. It means we are building something. But it’s not easy. Those guys are quick.
Q: What’s the strengths and the weaknesses of the bike that you’ve found?
SG: So far for me we’re working on the ultimate confidence with the tires. I think this is the main adaptation thing. And getting used to the high corner speed, because the way you can actually enter the corners and go through the corners is not normal. It’s too fast! So, to understand this and commit to it is where I can improve. For me, the bike is very good. It’s great. It’s strong on braking. We can see on data when we put it altogether right it’s competitive. It’s really good. The engine is very strong. It’s a great bike.
Q: It’s interesting talking to Alex Lowes when he came over because he said the DNA of the Yamaha R1 and the M1 are similar. Is there any sort of shared DNA between the Suzuki GSX-RR and GSX-R 1000?
SG: Yeah, you can tell the new superbike, the new GSX-R, the project leader was Sahara-san, that was for a very long time in charge of the MotoGP project, was the project leader of the racing part. So you can tell he’s transferred a lot of that DNA into that bike. I expect the Suzuki superbike to be very strong. It is strong in Superstock, so either way.
Q: Which is always a good sign that the base package is good.
SG: The base package is good. Over the years I’ve tried many, many different bikes and I just know that the base of the road bike is actually unbelievable. It’s so great. So, you can tell. This DNA is there. It’s only a matter of time before that bike becomes competitive. You can tell the way the bike handles, the VVT [variable valve timing] system with the engine. This is there. The torque on the road bike from low revs is… I don’t know if you tried the bike, but it’s unreal. From the very, very low range on throttle you get no injection problems. I’m talking like below 2,000 revs where you can just drive in fourth and the bike just has so much torque. It’s great. So, it’s a very strong base to work with. In some respect the engine in MotoGP, obviously it’s very powerful, but it’s got that strength.
Q: All the way through the rev range?
SG: This is part of the character, and in the chassis as well. The way the bike is designed it’s very close to an actual race bike. You’ve got the small engine that is with the short front end and because of the way the engine is placed, this is fundamental of a race bike. Because of the way it’s placed you can get the long swing arm for the stability on the drives. The way the bike is built is already - the measurements of the road bike is already what you would find on the race bike, or very close. You can tell when you ride it.
Q: It’s more like you’re still learning the limit of the tires rather than the limit of the bike?
SG: Yeah. The bike, I think I’ve sussed it now. I feel good. It’s a bike that is predictable. It’s honestly lovely to ride. It’s just so good. It’s just finding the limit of the grip, the leaning as well. You can use more lean, and this is something that takes time to get used to. It takes time if you don’t want to chuck it down the road every 500 meters, which I don’t want to. So, with this, when I decided to do this, I just didn’t want to do it in a way that you just come back and try and be a hero, because it doesn’t work like that. This bike, if you try and be like this, they just bite you. Your experience is finished before it even starts. So, you need to be respectful to the machine and what it can do, and also what it can’t do. So, you’ve got to be there soaking it up, but you also can’t be too impatient. These bikes are the best, fastest bikes in the world. They offer fantastic performance, but when they bite, they bite.
Q: In Superbikes and BSB your objective is to compete, is to try and win. Here, you can't expect just to turn up and win. How does that change your mentality?
SG: No, it’s not about that. It’s not about the expectations, because obviously I still have expectation as a competitor to do well.
Q: As a competitor you want to compete though?
SG: 100% you want to compete. Like I said, when I beat those guys in Jerez, I was so happy. I haven’t been there for ten years. This was like fair and square, and that’s it. It’s a great feeling. That’s what we’re here for. Jumping in the middle of the season on a type of bike with tires that I’ve never ridden, with tracks that I need to relearn, this is a lot to take on. So, you’ve got to be focused. You’ve got to be as professional as you can. For me the way to do it was not to have any expectation and just do as best as I can and put as much energy into it as I can and soak it up all, the experience but also the technicality, and understand what’s going on and work with those guys. They’re fantastic, this team. They’ve got so much experience. The crew chief, Manu [Jose Manuel Cazeaux], we actually worked together in the past. All the experience that he’s got for the tires and what they can give you there, it’s a fantastic experience to be able to experience this.
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