Shinichi Sahara Interview: Suzuki's MotoGP Project Leader On Joan Mir's Title Defense,Holeshot Devices, Satellite Teams, And 21 Races

In Japan, there is an old saying: "A defeated general never speaks about their deployment," because once they lost the war, everything they say sounds like excuses. Meanwhile, there is another Japanese saying, “know yourself as well as your enemy, then you will win a hundred battles.” In 2020, Joan Mir won the MotoGP championship. It was the first glory for Suzuki in two decades. Suzuki also won the team championship. Then, for the 2021 season, Mir finished in third place in the championship, and his teammate Alex Rins ended the season in thirteenth place. Suzuki was third for the team and constructors championship.

On the Valencia GP weekend, we visited Suzuki hospitality to hear about their review of the 2021 season and the plan for 2022 from their team leader/development manager, Shinichi Sahara. Obviously, Sahara-san had a lot to talk about.

Q: First of all, we would like to know why Joan Mil and Team SUZUKI ECSTAR could not win the championship this season.

Shinichi Sahara: Our perspective for this season was to be a challenger for the championship as we were in the past, rather than a champion defending the title. We did our best, but the simple fact was that our package was not strong enough to win the championship. Yamaha and Fabio Quartararo had a better and more competitive package than ours.

Q: What was the weakness in your package?

SS: I think Joan is one of the best riders in MotoGP currently because he won the championship in 2020. We lost the 2021 championship not because of him but because of something we didn’t have with our bike and in our team. What we have to improve for the next season is in these areas, I suppose.

Q: When I interviewed you in Qatar at the beginning of this season, you said that one of the issues you had to improve was Qualifying. Although you seemed to have this problem throughout this season, finally, Joan took third grid and finished second in the penultimate round at Portimao.

SS: Exactly. We have been struggling with this problem since last year, so we always had to try hard to close the gap to the leading group in the race. Our package had an advantage in the second half of the race, which was why we managed to chase them down. I don’t think we lost this advantage this season. The fact is, our competitors improved these areas so that comparatively we seemed to lose our advantage and it made difficult to move up our positions.

We never downplayed Qualifying. We always did our best to get as high a position on the grid as possible, but our hard work did not necessarily pay off. Sometimes, it was just bad luck such as a yellow flag during a time attack or coming across other riders. In any case, fast riders are always fast whatever happens, so we have to improve our performance in qualifying. However, balance is the key for motorcycles. It makes no sense if we change something drastically and lose the best balance of our bike to lose both QP and the race. To make sure we don't fall between two stools, now we are looking for the best solutions.

Q: When we look at the qualifying performance, the gap between Pole Position and twelfth position is very narrow. Winning the top 2 positions in Q1 to proceed to Q2 is also a very close battle. A fraction of a second in lap times makes a huge difference on the grid.

SS: I think winning in Q1 to proceed to Q2 is more challenging than finishing within the top ten places in FP3 to go directly to Q2. Anything can happen in the qualifying session, and you can easily miss out on taking the top 2 positions in Q1 if something happens. Although both of our riders have enough potential to go to Q2 directly, we sometimes missed out on doing that.

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Akira Nishimura is Japan's leading MotoGP journalist, and a long-time paddock denizen. He is deeply knowledgeable of the sport, and speaks and writes excellent English as well as his native Japanese. This gives him an enviable advantage over other journalists: Akira is able to conduct in-depth interviews with Japanese engineers in their own language, and accurately convey what they said in impeccable English.

Akira writes for several publications, including Mr Bike Japan. You can find his books on MotoGP in Japanese on Amazon.

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I can't help but feel that an obvious improvement in performance and hence the negation of the apologetic tone of this interview could have easily been brought about by JM36 carrying the number one plate. /s

Exceptional interview, thank you Akira!

I was especially struck by Shinichi Sahara's response: "To make sure we don't fall between two stools, now we are looking for the best solutions."  That got me looking for the origin of "... fall between two stools ..." - Paraphrasing: Falling (or aiming) between them implies one doesn't (or won't) achieve the summit/goal/outcome represented by either stool.