Inside Suzuki’s Return to MotoGP 2014

After a 3-year hiatus Suzuki will return to MotoGP competition next season with a new team—and a 1000cc prototype. The yet-to-be named machine is in the final stages of development by Suzuki’s overhauled and now fully in-house Hamamatsu, Japan-based factory racing squad.

And this time Suzuki says it’s getting serious. Despite years of success in both Superbike and Supersport racing with its GSX-R line of sportbikes, the Japanese motorsport giant hasn’t been able to transfer that success to GP racing since the series moved from 2-stroke to 4-stroke equipment 12 years ago. In fact the brand has recorded just a handful of podium finishes and only one race win—in the rain at Le Mans.

To prove how motivated the firm is it has retained the services of former Yamaha man and long-time team manager of its factory MotoGP squad, Davide Brivio. It has also cleaned house—retaining just 5 persons from the old English-based team led by Paul Denning. It has brought the entire operation in-house to Japan with French MotoGP rider Randy de Puniet serving as the primary development rider. Supporting him is long-time GP racer and Suzuki test rider Nobuatsu Aoki, who helps verify the feedback from de Puniet.

Another huge change is the configuration of the engine with it now utilizing an Inline 4 format instead of the previous 75-degree V-4 design: “We have many experience with street bike but [for a] pure racing this is a first-time with the Inline 4,” says Satoru Terada, Project Leader for the Suzuki team.

Despite inexperience in prototype form, Suzuki says outright engine power (it claims it makes in excess of 240 horsepower) or durability isn’t a problem. Fuel consumption, however, is. Fortunately Suzuki will be granted a little extra leeway next season getting an extra 4 liters of fuel for ’15 under the ‘Openclass rules—similar to what Ducati and the satellite Honda teams are allowed to run.

Over the course of this year the team has a busy testing schedule with 9 planned tests some of which will occur after Sunday’s MotoGP races (Austin, Argentina, Barcelona, and Aragon). There’s also a chance it may compete as a wild card entry at the Grand Prix of Japan at Motegi in October.

“It’s a company that has a lot of know-how and experience in racing,” says Brivio in reference to what it’s like working with Suzuki. “So the engineering of the bike is very good. It’s a very nice bike with many details taken care of. They’ve paid attention to make the mechanics job as easy and quick as possible. They definitely have the know-how and experience to prepare a bike for MotoGP.”

“Being a new manufacturer we will have some small help like 24 liters [of fuel] and 12 engines,” explains Brivio. “It’s a help, but we’ve been preparing everything under 20 liters and 5 engines [rule]—but we’ll take the help and do it for one year. From 2016, and on I am very happy that everything will be equal and everyone will be on the same conditions.”

Without question, dialing-in the prototype’s electronics, including traction and wheelie control will be the biggest challenge for the brand to be truly competitive next season. After a long relationship with Mitsubishi, Suzuki has made the switch to Magnetti Marelli hardware with it choosing to develop its own software through 2015 (In 2016, all teams and manufacturers will use spec hardware and software).

“The electronics side. This is the point we need to improve,” said de Puniet. “We changed since Malaysia to Magnetti Marelli and it was a big, big change and the direction of the bike was completely different. It was like we start from zero. Step by step we improve the bike.”

During the most recent post MotoGP race test in Austin, the Frenchman recorded a best lap time of 2’05.85 on the second day of the private test—3 seconds slower than Marc Marquez’s pole-position winning qualifier time proving the team has considerable work ahead of them. But to be fair, the lap time was set on a cooler track, and after a heavy dousing of rain that erased some of the rubber from the past weekend’s race.

Still de Puniet isn’t deterred and says returning to racing next year is his ultimate goal… even if it isn’t with Suzuki: “It’s not easy,” he says. “To come here during the race weekend to see all of your friends racing. But it is my choice. I have one goal. And that is to come back in ’15 that’s it. I only have this in my head—to do the best job I can do and to prove I still have a place here.”

“We still do not have any agreement with any rider and we don’t yet have a clear idea on who our future riders will be,” adds Brivio. “Obviously we are talking, considering our various options, making contact with agents to see what the riders’ contract situations are and weighing up the interest in riding our bike.”

“Randy de Puniet is one of the candidates,” he continues. “The fact that he will have been working with us for 2 years could be a plus. We have not guaranteed anything to Randy, but he is on our list of candidates.”

During Suzuki’s 2-day test in Austin, ’93 500cc World Champ Kevin Schwantz also had a chance to spin laps on the new prototype—something he hasn’t done since ’06 on the last 990cc generation GSV-R.

“The size of the engine in that thing looks like a 500,” he said.” It’s amazing how well it pulls. 4th, fifth and sixth gear feel like first, second and third. You almost got to get ‘em as quick. It goes fast and stops really fast. I couldn’;t make it do anything wrong besides put it in the wrong place.”

As far as price is concerned Brivio says it’s hard to put an exact cost of the 2 prototypes.

“It is always very difficult to come up with a cost on this bike,” he says. “To create a MotoGP bike a group of engineers working a long time to prepare maybe 2 prototypes so the cost is very, very high. You could possibly make a price with a single part cost but this doesn’t include all the development, travel and time.”

Following this weekend’s inaugural MotoGP race in Argentina the factory team will test on the 4.806-mile circuit later on next week.

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