One day after the second annual running of the Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas, Suzuki took over spectacular 3.4-mile Circuit of The Americas near Austin, Texas, in grand style, rolling out a fleet of GSX-R1000 production models, 6 Yoshimura R&D AMA Pro SuperBikes, and the crème de la crème, the steadily emerging inline-4 MotoGP racer. A 160-mile street ride scheduled for Monday was a washout, cut short by heavy rain, wind, and even hail. Back at the track, the race teams were unloading in preparation for a 2-day test on Tuesday and Wednesday. Media were ushered into a garage to meet the largely Japanese 16-person Grand Prix effort. “So far, we are only testing,” said Suzuki MotoGP Team Manager Davide Brivio, who previously worked with Yamaha and managed 9-time world champion Valentino Rossi. “We are working to develop the machine to be ready for 2015 when we will be back racing in MotoGP.” Suzuki pulled out of the series after the 2011 season. Brivio explained that Suzuki’s “biggest job” right now is sorting out electronics. “When we made a plan a year ago, we started to develop our own electronics. Now, the ECU, the hardware, is the same for everybody. Each one can develop his software. That’s what we decided to do. “Then, in the latest days, the regulations change. Basically, we continue to do this job, but we know it will end at 2015, because, from 2016, all teams, all manufacturers, must to use the same software. Despite that, we decided to carry on with our electronics; we use the factory electronics when we enter into the Factory Option in MotoGP.”
I asked Racing Group Manager Satoru Terada why Suzuki switched from a V-4 engine configuration of the previous GSV-R raced by, among others, 2000 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts Jr. and fellow American John Hopkins, to the current inline design, code-named XRH-1. “At Suzuki, we don’t have the Vee engine for the marketing side,” Terada replied. “We want to make more relationship with racing on the streetbike, so we change the engine configuration to inline-4. Also, we have much experience with inline-4 with GSX-R—not just 1,000cc but many inline-4 engines.” Both designs have strong points. “Some disadvantages, too,” Terada admitted. Asked if the crankshaft turns forward or backward, Terada smiled. “At this moment, I don’t say. Sorry.” MotoGP’s only current factory inline engine, the Yamaha YZR-M1, rotates backward, opposite the direction of the wheels, improving turning response. Suzuki is currently using a conventional 6-speed transmission, but a “seamless” gearbox, similar in concept to those currently employed by Ducati, Honda, and Yamaha, is in development in Japan. “I know I have to do something about that already,” Terada said. When Suzuki debuted its 4-stroke 990cc MotoGP bike in 2002, Mitsubishi was its electronics partner, a relationship that continued for more than a decade. “Mitsubishi and Magneti Marelli both have very good points,” Terada said. “If the regulation doesn’t change, it is very hard to choose. At the moment, the biggest challenge is fuel consumption.” “Basically, we will be in the same situation Ducati is now,” Brivio added. “Being a new manufacturer, we will have some help: 24 liters of fuel, 12 engines per rider per season. We were preparing everything under the 20 liters and 5 engines.” Both testbikes are currently running 21-liter gas tanks.
Weather conditions Tuesday morning were much better than they had been the day before, with bright sun and blue skies. “We start at 10:30 this morning because it was quite cold,” Brivio said. “Track temperature is 40 degrees, which is not so high. Unfortunately, the track has become a little bit dirty after yesterday’s rain, so this might affect grip.” Test rider Randy De Puniet spent the morning session making short runs to set up the gearbox and suspension for the Austin track. “We have 2 different chassis—different frames,” Brivio said. “We are doing some comparison between one and the other. Maybe by end of day or tomorrow, we are able to understand better what is the direction.” Watching De Puniet pull himself forward, helmet above the windscreen, as he accelerated out of turn 20 and up COTA’s long front straight, reminded me of Wayne Rainey crawling over the front of his 2-stroke 500cc Yamaha exiting turn 11 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the early ’90s. The wheelie is the enemy! By 5 p.m., De Puniet had completed 56 laps, with a best time of 2:06.41, which would have put the Frenchman 19th on the grid for Sunday’s race. “Lap times maybe could have been better,” Brivio said. “So far is okay, and we have a full day tomorrow.” On Wednesday, De Puniet cut 62 laps with a best time of 2:05.85, roughly 3 seconds slower than Marc Marquez’s pole-winning lap record. Suzuki has 9 test sessions planned this year. “We will do the same job in Argentina,” Brivio said. “We are going to test again Tuesday and Wednesday after that race. We will do again after Barcelona, after Aragon, and we will have 3 other tests—Phillip Island in June, Mugello in September, Valencia in October—not close to a race, just a test. If, if, we confirm a wildcard, it might be Valencia.” Working out of a neighboring garage, Yoshimura Suzuki riders Martin Cardenas, Chris Clark, and Roger Hayden were laying down laps on their factory SuperBikes. “The track is fantastic,” Cardenas said during a break. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a track as big and as nice as this. It has a little bit of everything—fast corners, slow corners, hard braking—it’s very fun but really hard work. The esses require you to be very fit.”
Cardenas didn’t encounter any of the front-tire degradation with his AMA-spec Dunlops that plagued some Bridgestone MotoGP riders on Sunday. “I’ve done 30 or more laps on one front,” he said, “and it looks okay. One of the rear compounds we were trying gets a little wear, but the harder compound is fine.” Hayden also liked the track. “It’s fun, it’s wide, it’s so safe,” he said. “When you’re riding, you never see a wall or anything like that. The first part is fast with a lot of esses, and the back is tight and technical. It’s the best of both worlds, to be honest.” For many in attendance, especially the Suzuki MotoGP crew, highlight of the day was watching 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz knock out nearly a dozen laps on the MotoGP bike after spending the morning circulating on a hybrid 2013/14 Yoshimura SuperBike in preparation for his appearance at the Suzuka 8-Hour in July. MotoGP prototypes and production-based SuperBikes are rarely on track at the same time, and the difference in acceleration between the 2 machines was staggering. “Compared to the SuperBike, the MotoGP bike felt like a 250cc GP bike but with a real big motor,” Schwantz said. “I couldn’t make it do anything wrong. It never moved in the back, it never gave me any funny feelings or chatter from the front. “Throttle pickup is even smoother than the SuperBike, and that bike is really good. Some of the earlier fuel-injected bikes were really abrupt. It feels a lot like a Suzuki—like some of my racebikes. It has that nice, neutral feeling and stops really well. It’s unbelievable how much better carbon brakes are than steel brakes, how much bite they have.”
Schwantz rode a GSV-R in Valencia, Spain, in 2006, but refused to compare the 2 machines. “I’ve ridden so many bikes since then,” he said, “and it’s such a different venue—so much speed, so much happening here. Valencia is such a short, simple place.” About the track he helped design, Schwantz said, “I think it benefits the guy who can be closest to perfect every lap. Is it a place I would have liked to have raced? Maybe not. I wasn’t the perfect guy, that’s for sure. That lap chasing Martin was my best lap of the day. I drove her off into turn 3 and thought, ‘I’m going to gather him up some.’ Whoa, missed turn 4. I had to go back an extra gear, and he put friggin’ 15 bike lengths on me. If you try to force it, you’re going to get somewhere and not have any racetrack left.” Schwantz, who won 25 GPs during his 8-year premier-class run, lapped COTA on the MotoGP bike in 2:12.75, a few tenths slower than the best time Hayden laid down Tuesday on his SuperBike. Longtime-friend Mark Gerow was on hand to wrench for the 49-year-old Schwantz. “In the ’80s,” Gerow said, “we used to say that Kevin could go fast on a coffee table—and he often did.” “Kevin is a hero for everyone who likes motorcycles,” Brivio said. “And so it was for me. I was watching him in 500 riding in a crazy way. So to be in our garage riding our motorcycle is fantastic. I’m also glad Suzuki has understood MotoGP is important. After deciding to stop, they now come back. So that is positive and shows how important racing is.” The sooner Suzuki actually begins racing, the better, Schwantz said. “You can test all you want, but until you’re actually out there when the lights go out, you’re not going to know.”