Suzuki Returns from MotoGP
Grand Prix (prototype) motorcycle racing has become alarmingly expensive over the last few years. It was never cheap, of course, but the combination of increasing levels of technical complexity coupled with the appalling economic conditions dealt MotoGP a series of nasty blows.
The problem became so acute that, when both Kawasaki (in 2009) and Suzuki (2011) withdrew, the grid dwindled down to just 16 entrants at one point. Both manufacturers’ issues were complex, but when you boil it all down, everyone races to win.
The level of technology—and therefore expense—had reached such stratospheric heights that neither factory was even close to being able to run at the front. Less than a handful of riders were actually capable of fighting for victory, and everyone else was relegated to being an also-ran.
Unsurprisingly, the two respected competitors decided there was only brand damage and enormous bills in their immediate future, so they withdrew. As a result, the quest to control the spiraling levels of cost became ever more intense.
The situation hasn’t changed all that much in the last five years, despite some serious tweaking of the rules by MotoGP-owner Dorna in an effort to cut costs for the teams. We currently have Honda and Yamaha at the top of the pile going head-to-head, and Ducati trying hard to get there.
While the racing “show” is improving, if more premium-quality manufacturers can be persuaded to join the grid, then likely the competition will be much stiffer at the very top— and stiffer competition equals more ticket sales and higher television ratings.
The good news is that as the economy has begun to improve, Suzuki has now confirmed its re-entry for the 2015 season. Based on their not unsuccessful previous foray in MotoGP — Chris Vermeulen won the 2007 French Grand Prix on a Suzuki GSV-R — one would think that it would be a fairly simple process for Suzuki to just dig out the bike, hire a fast rider, and go for it.
Unfortunately, that is not so — times have dramatically changed. Talking with Satoru Terada, Manager of Suzuki’s Racing Group, at a test following the MotoGP round in Austin, Texas, he laughed openly at the idea that this would be a simple transition.
“We [Suzuki] can design an engine and chassis—no problem,” Terada told Ultimate MotorCycling. “But now the electronics play as big of a role, and that is very time-consuming and expensive to make to a high level.”
In other words, the constantly changing—and ever more stringent—technical regulations have ensured that Suzuki pretty much had to start from scratch.
First and foremost is the engine. The previous GSV-R prototype had, as the moniker implies, a V-4 configuration. Yet, with Suzuki’s astonishingly successful GSX-R streetbike line-up unlikely to change, it made eminent marketing sense for the new engine to be an inline-4. Furthermore, it would serve as a test- bed for future development.
“There are advantages and disadvantages with this configuration, but we have much experience with inline-4 with GSX-R,” Terada explains, and so the as-yet-unnamed Suzuki prototype uses that configuration slotted into an aluminum perimeter-beam frame.
Impressively, Terada’s engineering team has whittled the motor’s size down to a point where it is almost the same width as the V-4 engine and, crucially from an aerodynamic perspective, the bike’s frontal area is no wider at all.
Of course, all inline-4s are not created equal. High-revving (aka “screamer”) fours produce big-horsepower, but they lack low rpm torque. With their relatively narrow powerbands, they are harder on tires and the rider.
Terada-san was particularly cagey about the firing order of the new engine, but judging from the relatively low-drone of the exhaust note as it throttled down the Circuit of Americas’ front straight, clearly it’s something quite different from the current GSX-R streetbike model.
As the prototype accelerated past the pits ahead of the Yoshimura AMA race bikes that were testing at the same time, the difference between the exhaust notes was dramatic. The prototype’s sound is not as basso as the Yamaha M1’s brilliant (and patented) Crossplane inline-4, yet the Suzuki prototype’s note was considerably lower than the spine-tingling scream of the Yoshimura GSX-R engines. Clearly, Suzuki has come up with its own take on an inline-4 motor.
Essentially, enormous low-down torque, coupled with massive horsepower, comes from an off-sequence firing order similar to the Big Bang engines of yore — and that makes the bike more drivable out of corners and relatively easy on tires. When asked whether it had a contra-rotating (backwards) crankshaft — like the Yamaha M1 — to help with the bike’s turning, again Terada smiled enigmatically and said only, “At moment I cannot say.” He quoted the horsepower as “over 240” and when I asked if that was enough, he laughed heartily and said, “No! Never enough horsepower!”
The biggest challenge for Suzuki — and, indeed, all factory entries — is developing that astounding level of power with only 19 liters of fuel allowed per race, and Terada was very open about it. Any sophisticated manufacturer can deliver high horsepower or good fuel consumption—but to do both simultaneously takes multi-millions of dollars in R&D.
The new seamless gearbox is another development of recent years. Very broadly, unlike a conventional transmission where the gear cogs slide on the shafts, in a seamless transmission, the gears are attached to the input/output shafts while movable bullet-type dogs join the ratios. As there are several of these bullets, some can be preselected to the next ratio before drive to the previous one is ended.
Because power transfer is truly seamless, drive to the rear wheel is uninterrupted. Rumored to be worth as much as half a second a lap depending on the track, these gearboxes are a jealously guarded secret. Although Suzuki does not yet have a seamless box, apparently they are working on one and will have it by the time they take to the 2015 MotoGP grid.
The chassis is the second area of necessary development and, more specifically, chassis rigidity. The manufacturers all know the ideal numbers for rake, trail, and wheelbase to make the motorcycle handle well. Yet, as is always the case at the highest level of competition, it’s not quite as simple as that.
The spec tires—currently supplied by Bridgestone, but from 2016 onwards by Michelin—are so good that over 60 degrees of lean angle is now routine. The snag is that with the bike leaned that far over, the suspension becomes less effective as the forces acting on it are more sideways than up and down.
To prevent the dreaded chatter, where the tires hop rapidly and transmit that vibration through to the chassis, the frame has to have some flex built in to absorb just enough of those forces. It acts like a limited suspension, if you will. The big question is: How much flex exactly?
Suzuki was testing two bikes at Austin, and one machine clearly had frame side beams with differently welded center sections. Terada-san and his crew were trying differing levels of stiffness to see which the riders prefer. It seems that the new one was better.
Terada was quite blasé about the engine and chassis compared to the electronics side of things, and this has been the biggest area of technical improvement in recent years. It is also probably the most expensive to develop.
Every top team has a small army of software engineers seated in the back of their pit box, poring over their laptops and analyzing endless amounts of data. Suzuki retained only five engineers from the previous bike’s team, and the new team has around 16 guys in the pit box, with a much bigger staff back in Japan.
At the start of each race meeting, a mechanic will walk a shopping cart-like device containing a black box of sophisticated electronic equipment around the track and map each corner precisely using GPS.
The GPS-equipped bike will then be able to communicate precisely where it is at any given moment, and the engineers can tailor the fuel mapping, traction control, and engine braking for each of those corners. This is very, very delicate, intricate stuff.
One can’t help but wonder how much difference all this voodoo makes. Of course, in the rarefied world of GP racing, everything is measured in hundredths of a second, and it is not uncommon for a half second to cover the top ten riders on the grid.
Turning down the electronic interference a tad wouldn’t necessarily slow the rider down too much, but the fuel consumption would climb. Factory teams are limited to just 19 liters per race and Open teams are allowed to use up to 24 liters—a world of difference.
The snag for Suzuki is that their previous Mitsubishi ECU hardware is now outdated. Dorna has mandated that every team use their spec ECU supplied by Magneti Marelli. Although Terada said the software wasn’t that hard to migrate across, anyone who’s ever changed their computer will know it is not that simple, and Terada did admit it would take time.
With the triple challenge of developing a new motor that produces enough power, is thrifty on gas consumption, has a chassis with the right amount of flex and feel, and an electronics system sophisticated enough to optimize everything while keeping it all under control, clearly Suzuki has a big hill to climb. Happily, the factory is up to the challenge.
I found Terada-san to be one of those relaxed chaps with a ready smile and an engaging manner. Behind that smile is a highly intelligent, carefully measured personality who knows exactly what he is doing. Part of the key to success is testing, and Suzuki is making the most of the lead-up to 2015 with a punishing schedule of testing at the MotoGP venues in Austin, Argentina, Barcelona, Aragon, Catalunya, Phillip Island, Mugello, and, finally, Valencia.
The fastest lap time at the recent Austin test with Randy de Puniet on board was not great. Still, considering the infancy of the project, it is respectable and, according to Team Manager Davide Brivio, on target.
Using the softer Bridgestone tire (because they didn’t need it to go race distance) De Puniet’s fastest lap (unofficially) was a 2:06.40—which is just under three seconds off race-winner Marc Marquez’ quickest lap on his Repsol Honda. The time would have placed De Puniet 19th on the grid.
Although the sixth row is a pretty dismal position near the back of the field, not too much can be read into it. Besides the technical challenges, it was Randy de Puniet’s first time at the Circuit of the Americas on the Suzuki and he lacked a baseline setup for the bike; that alone is worth probably a second.
Suzuki-mounted 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz was present at the Austin test in preparation for his attempt on the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race in late July, and he had a chance to test the Suzuki prototype as well.
His comments afterwards were notable because he could only come within six seconds of de Puniet’s time — and Schwantz, an iconic Grand Prix racer, is no slouch in the saddle, even now.
Talking to Schwantz later, he was surprised—quite shocked even—by the sheer capability and speed of the modern MotoGP machine. “I couldn’t make it do anything wrong, except put it in the wrong place,” he said. Clearly, he was impressed.
Despite having 240+ horsepower and electronics that are still being developed, Schwantz said, “I never really felt the back end moving at all; it’s as sound as it frickin could be.” This is coming from a man who is legendary for the lurid back-end slides he produced using the hair-trigger powerband of the 500cc two- stroke Pepsi Suzuki.
The trickle-down theory of race machines reaching the show- room floor does have merit, although the current Suzuki GSX- R1000 has almost nothing in common with this new prototype. However, the lessons learned during development of this machine will undoubtedly reach the public in a few years’ time, so it is well worth watching the technical progress as details emerge.
In the meantime, we will watch how Suzuki’s testing schedule goes and the step-by-step progress they make this year. By the time Suzuki lines up on the grid in Qatar for 2015’s first round, it will be fascinating to find out how close the bike is to the com- petition. I’m willing to bet it will be right up there.
Another big part of the equation will be the rider(s). Terada-san grinned and asked me conspiratorially, “So, who shall we have ride the bike?”
When I asked him how many machines, he told me two. My suggestion was Andrea Dovizioso (former factory Honda rider and current Ducati factory racer) and two-time CRT class champion Aleix Espargaró, and he seemed to agree. I guess we’ll see how that works out. Roll on next year, and the 2015 MotoGP season!
Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Arthur Coldwells
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine. For subscription services, click here.