Interviewing Suzuki Bosses: How Suzuki Went From Concessions Team To Potential Race Winner In 2018

The following is an interview which leading Japanese MotoGP journalist and friend of Akira Nishimura conducted with the heads of Suzuki's MotoGP program, Shinichi Sahara, Ken Kawauchi, and Daijiro Mashita. Nishimura conducted the interviews in Japanese, and translated them into impeccable English. I then edited them in English for style. Any inaccuracies or errors are therefore mine. - David Emmett

Team SUZUKI ECSTAR started the 2018 season as a Concession team. Thanks to Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins’ hard efforts, Suzuki managed to score three successive podiums from Round 2 to Round 4. At Aragon, Round 14 of the championship, they finally accumulated 6 concession points in total, which lost them their concession status and restored them to the normal MotoGP rules for 2019 alongside their competitors. At the end of December, we visited their headquarters Hamamatsu to interview Suzuki’s MotoGP Project Leader Shinichi Sahara, Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi, and their engine design team leader Daijiro Mashita. They gave us a lot of interesting answers and honestly revealed their resolutions for the forthcoming 2019 season.

Q: You started the 2018 season in good shape, taking three successive podiums in Argentina, COTA, and Jerez. Were these results just as you expected?

Kawauchi: Even though we had good results in these races, I had to say we weren't confident we could achieve it, to be honest. In fact, we were fortunate to take third place at Jerez, but it was a result of the crash by other riders. So, we recognized we had to improve ourselves to be more competitive.

Q: Concession teams can update their engines during the season. Did you update your engine and other parts from the beginning of the year?

Kawauchi: We started using the new chassis which has carbon reinforcement (*1) from Mugello. Then, we brought the updated engine at Assen. So, there were two occasions in 2018 that we had major modifications to our bike.

Q: If I remember correctly, Alex Rins started using the carbon reinforced chassis (*1) during Mugello weekend, and Andrea Iannone used that chassis from Catalunya. How was the feedback from them?

Kawauchi: Both riders said they had more confidence with the new chassis, especially at the entry of the turns when they trail the brake.

Sahara: In Mugello, Alex crashed in FP4 and he couldn’t use the latest chassis for Qualifying. But it gave him a good feeling, so he used it for the race. Although he had pain with his shoulder, we were very happy that he battled for the podium until the end.

[*1: they improved the rigidity for the updated chassis by wrapping with carbon sheet on the front half of the conventional ally swingarm.]

Q: Could you give us any details about the updated engine in Assen?

Mashita: Nothing special. We didn’t need any radical changes, so we increased the power just a bit, and reduced the friction loss. It was very normal improvement, let’s say.

Q: Alex Rins told us in the media debrief that he liked the updated engine and it helped him a lot. However, after you brought the updated engine, both of your riders didn’t get another podium until Aragon (where Iannone took third place). What happened to Suzuki during that period?

Kawauchi: We don’t think Brno, Red Bull Ring or other tracks in the middle of the season are not any good for us. Actually, the gap from the podium finishers to us was very small. But it is true that we didn’t get a podium in those races. Our competitors were able to manage the tire grip better until the end of the race. On the other hand, we could not manage it well enough, which is why we had to struggle in the final few laps of the races.

Q: In Assen, you reached five concession points. Was that as you planned?

Sahara: Well, we thought it would be a matter of time, but as you know, it took a bit longer before taking the sixth point. At the beginning of the season, when our riders crashed, they were in fourth or fifth position, so we thought that the potential of our package — I mean, our bike and riders — was high and we were following in the right direction. The next target for us was improving the stability. We developed the chassis and many small parts, then brought them in the middle of the season to respond to the request from the paddock. They worked very well in the final part of the season.

Q: Which area is this ‘stability’ you are referring to?

Sahara: Like Kawauchi said before, when the riders have confidence in the braking area — I mean, when they have more feedback from their bike and tire to lean the bike, they can understand more easily where the limit is. And that helps them avoid crashing. Before we brought the updated materials, it was difficult for our riders to gauge the limit. Even when they recognized the limit, it was too late. That’s why Andrea and Alex had to crash. But after we brought the new parts, they could find the limit more easily before the crash.

Q: Were there any major updates after Assen?

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Very nice to get an inside view on the season and their developments. I sincerely hope they are a regular podium finisher with a couple of wins this year.

Intersting comments about the IMU's too. It will be fascinating to see if any leading manufacturers really suffer because of the intorduction of unified ones.

Terrific interview! They were quick to dispel the recent notion that the V4 was somehow better than the Inline 4. "I think it (the tire performance) has nothing to do with the Inline 4 or the V 4..." I think it is also significant that they acknowledge their weakness in 2018 was a) engine performance and b) tire performance in the dying laps. That they claim to seek evolutionary improvements over revolutionary improvements, yet at the end of the interview they are expecting a major step forward for 2019. They must have discovered something special over the winter! Lastly, I was impressed with the commentary of their riders. They said it took Rins a long time to learn how to ride around handling problems, while Iannone was able to do that immediately. It sounds like Iannone was better at helping them find improvements early on. Their comments about Mir struck me as only hopeful. I don't understand why they dropped Andrea in favor of Mir. Add in that they let Vinales walk suggests that Suzuki is not at the same level as Yamaha or HRC when it comes to selecting racers who can win for them.