Team Suzuki Ecstar Exposed – MotoGP Insider
The following story is from the spring issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine, which arrived on the newsstands before the start of 2016 MotoGP. Since, Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Maverick Vinales was able to earn Suzuki’s first MotoGP podium since 2008 after the Spaniard finished third at the Grand Prix of France.
Barry Sheene. Marco Lucchinelli. Franco Uncini. Kevin Schwantz. Kenny Roberts Jr.
The list of Suzuki’s Grand Prix champions is one of legends.
In 1976, Suzuki fielded the top six riders in the championship standings, and 11 of the top 12. However, since Kenny Roberts Jr.’s championship in 2000 on the Telefónica Movistar Suzuki RGV500 two-stroke, MotoGP success has eluded Suzuki. Chris Vermuellen earned Suzuki’s sole victory in the four-stroke era in 2007 at Le Mans on a Rizla Suzuki GSV-R.
After withdrawing from MotoGP from 2012 to 2014, Suzuki returned last year with the new Team Suzuki Ecstar and a new motorcycle—the GSX-RR. Riding for Suzuki last year was former Moto3 champion and MotoGP rookie Maverick Viñales, along with Aleix Espargaró, who was in his fifth full season in the premier class.
Starting a MotoGP team from scratch almost certainly precludes a run at the championship, and Team Suzuki Ecstar was no exception. Although both Espargaró and Viñales finished the season outside of the top 10, both managed to finish as high as sixth place at various races. Lack of horsepower crippled the Suzuki campaign, though a fine handling chassis allowed the GSX-RR to compete on technical circuits.
Team Suzuki Ecstar has found additional power in the motor in the off-season, and Viñales led the way against all comers— including Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Márquez, and Movistar Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi—on the combined time sheets at the three-day MotoGP testing sessions at Phillip Island Circuit in February.
The 2016 season is shaping up to be an interesting year, as the factory teams come to grips with new rules that include a spec electronics package (ECU and software) and a switch from Bridgestone tires to Michelin rubber.
In exclusive interviews with Espargaró and Viñales— both whom returned to Team Suzuki Ecstar for 2016—we delved into their perceptions of last year and the two racers’ expectations for the coming season.
Maverick Vinales Interview
Ultimate MotorCycling: First off, we wanted to ask you about your first year in MotoGP. What were the most difficult challenges you faced coming in from Moto2?
Maverick Viñales: The difficult challenge here, for sure, is the electronics. Then, of course, the power of the bike—it’s double of Moto2. Anyway, I think we had a good year and I think for the second year we will be able to focus on the objective.
UMC: What were some of the biggest surprises moving into MotoGP?
MV: For me, it was the level. It is really, really high. I mean, every day you need to be 100-percent and go beyond that.
UMC: A lot of champions over the years have spent two seasons in Moto2, but you made the jump in a single season. Do you regret that decision or are you happy with it?
MV: At first I thought it was quite a fast move. But, I understand that in MotoGP, there is a lot of work to do. So, for sure, I’m happy with moving one year before, so I can get started on all the work and be more competitive.
UMC: In the learning process, do you think it helped that the GSX-RR made less power than the rest of the field?
MV: (laughs) No. For sure, no. It makes more work, because then you have to push harder on all the other sides. I think it was difcult to be the one factory that needed to develop the bike. If you’re the factory that already has a bike at the top, everything comes much easier. But when you need to develop a new bike, you need much more time to understand everything.
UMC: We understand that the GSX-RR is handling very well with its current configuration. Do you think it will handle just as well if the 2016 engine creates more power?
MV: Yes, for sure, because you don’t use the power in the corner, you use it in the straights! (laughs) So, it won’t change much.
UMC: How is it having Aleix Espargaró as a teammate? Can you collaborate easily with him?
MV: All of our work is open. They can check our work and we can check their work. So, for sure, it’s good to have another fast rider by your side so some days, when you don’t have a good day, you can still pro t and the opposite. It’s always good to work with another fast rider and you can learn from each other. I think it makes for a strong team.
UMC: Do you guys trade tips?
MV: (laughs) No, not like that. Looking at the data, talking to the crew chiefs, there is always something to be learned from that. Last year was the first year for me on the tracks, so this was really good for me when learning the lines. I profited from this because he’s a strong teammate and we can compare data.
UMC: Are you planning on changing your riding style to suit the Michelins in 2016?
MV: No. I think our bike accepted the tires really well and it has made us con dent. So, I don’t think I’ll have to change my style.
UMC: Are you satisfied with your 2015 performance?
MV: For sure, not. I’ve never been so far in the back but I understand for us, it was going to be a difficult year since we are developing the bike and it happened to be a little bit slower. I’m happy with some of the races but overall? I’m a little disappointed with the result. But that is only motivating us more because in some races, we were there.
UMC: And what are your goals in 2016?
MV: The goals for me and for Suzuki need to be trying to be in the top six through all the races. We need to get good starts and keep a strong pace. If we work hard, we can do it.
UMC: What were your expectations going into the 2015 MotoGP season on the GSX-RR?
Aleix Espargaro: It was nice to be a factory rider for the first time in my career. The bike was good—the problem was that we didn’t improve the bike so much during the season. But, the first season with Suzuki MotoGP team was quite good.
UMC: What is the biggest difference between riding for an established satellite team and a new factory effort?
AE: It’s so different to be a factory rider than a private because you have a lot more support. You can set up the bike and build the bike as you want. You tell the engineers what you need and they create a bike that really fits you as a rider. This is the most important thing and biggest advantage to becoming a factory rider.
UMC: In 2014, you finished in seventh place overall, while riding a satellite machine. How do you feel about your 11th place finish in the 2015 season?
AE: Obviously, this was not the position I was looking for; I was aiming for a better position. But it was the first season for Suzuki and my first season as a factory rider; we have to be satisfied with the result. Next season, we’ll be working harder to improve the results.
UMC: Do you think that the GSX-RR will handle as well if more horsepower is found in 2016?
AE: We’ve been trying to improve the feeling of the bike everywhere, especially getting a little bit more power out of the engine. It’s too early to say, but we’ll work around it and we hope to aim for the top six in 2016.
UMC: Have you had to change your riding style because of the new Michelin tires?
AE: I don’t think so. Obviously, things may change a little bit because the Michelin tires demand something different, but I don’t think I will have to change my riding style so much.
UMC: How is Maverick Viñales as a teammate? Does it make for some good collaboration?
AE: It’s really nice! He’s a young and talented rider. We are able to push each other in a positive way and this is always good.
UMC: What are your goals for 2016?
AE: We’re going to try and improve the results over last year—fighting into the top six. It’s not going to be easy because the level of riding this year is really, really high but I believe if we work hard, we can finish in the top six.
Help from sak_art design
To match world-class riders, Team Suzuki Ecstar tapped the tal-ents of sak_art design in Cascina, Italy, to develop the livery for the GSX-RR. We profiled sak_art a year ago—a trio of visionary designers—and the blossoming boutique company is now a major graphics player in MotoGP.
However, the story of sak_art design’s involvement with Suzuki began a year earlier. “One of the rst articles worthy of the name that we read on a specialist magazine about Suzuki’s return to MotoGP was on your page, exactly in Ultimate MotorCycling July/ August 2014, ‘Suzuki returns to MotoGP’ by Arthur Coldwells,” they tell us.
“Our cooperation with [Suzuki Ecstar Team Manager] Davide Brivio and Team Suzuki MotoGP was in its early stages, but we still remember the abundance of details, the great pictures, and the interesting interview with [Suzuki Ecstar Team Director] Satoru Terada during the tests in Austin.”
sak_art design was responsible for the striking “30 Years of Performance” livery the GSX-RRs wore at the 2015 GoPro Motorrad GP Deutschland and Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
“We are passionate about the racing world since ever, and our roots go back to ’80s and ’90s when Suzuki had a leading role in the legendary 500cc GP class,” sak_art design’s Davide Sacchini explains.
“Suzuki did celebrate its GSX-R 30th Anniversary, spending a great image effort in MotoGP during Sachsenring and Indianapolis GPs, thus needing a complete restyling for the whole team, based on the iconic blue and white chromatic scheme from ’80s,” sak_art design’s Nicola Sacchini tells Ultimate MotorCycling.
“It was a huge effort for both Suzuki Ecstar Team, and for us as well, being committed for previous months. The whole Design Team originates from the creation of the graphic for the special livery ‘30 Years of Performance’ for both Maverick Viñales’ and Aleix Espargaró’s Suzuki GSX-RRs.
“It was a dream and at the same time a hard test bed to design and sew a new ‘old style’ dress, inspired by amazing ’80s Kevin Schwantz GSX-R bikes, with current MotoGP GSX-RR high tech features. This special livery then gave rise to the coordinate design, from what the team and riders wear, up to pit garages graphic design.
“To be hosted by the team for the whole weekend in Germany was just the cherry on top for us, we had the chance to know every member of the team and, among the others, a very special host like Kevin Schwantz. In that occasion we exactly understood and appreciate the real meaning of being part of the amazing Suzuki family.”
After that special project, sak_art went to work on the 2016 GSX-RRs. This meant an Italian design team would be working on a Japanese motorcycle with Spanish riders.
“Crossing our purely Italian design sensibilities with Japanese technique and method is an exciting and useful experience that will surely help us in the future, as well,” sak_art design’s Fausto Colombini says. He then quotes Brivio to explain the harmony desired: “Between Japanese and Italian people, we can create an almost perfect balance. While they have method and organization, we reply with our ‘stroke of genius’, intuition and, most of all our absolute passion for racing.”
“In this almost perfect balance setting, sak_art found its own positioning supporting and satisfying during the season all the requests of a top team like Suzuki in MotoGP,” Colombini goes on to explain. “The team is mainly Japanese because Suzuki decided, with its return after a three-years stop, to control everything. But, it still has a strongly Italian mark, from its Team Manager Davide Brivio to the management entrusted to Suzuki Italy.”
With increased horsepower and a year of experience under the belts of the GSX-RRs, riders, and crew, and a new look for 2016, Suzuki’s march toward the MotoGP podium appears to be picking up pace, and not a moment too soon.