How does a smaller MotoGP factory beat bigger, better-funded rivals such as Honda and Yamaha?
That was the question put to Suzuki team manager Davide Brivio, whose squad did just that when Maverick Vinales won last year's British MotoGP.
The victory came in the second year of Suzuki's MotoGP comeback but ended a win drought for the factory stretching back to 2007, or 2001 if only dry races are included.
By contrast, Honda and Yamaha won every MotoGP race from Phillip Island 2010 until Andrea Iannone's Ducati win in Austria 2016.
"What we have done is quite surprising and of course we are very happy with what we have achieved in only a couple of years," Brivio said. "We started two years ago with a new team, riders and bike - managing to win a race last year was amazing. Thanks to the effort of everybody, the engineers in Japan and our team."
Having also been team manager during Valentino Rossi's multi title-winning first Yamaha chapter from 2004-2010, Brivio knows exactly what Suzuki are up against.
"After we won, it looks almost natural that we won, but it's not! It's hard. Now the difficult part is to continue."
What is your strategy to beat the bigger factories?
|Vinales, Brivio and Suzuki celebrate victory at Silverstone 2016 (pic: Gold&Goose).|
"We are a smaller factory and less resources than others, but I think we have clever engineers! That is one point," Brivio replied. "But you have to try to be creative. Like maybe when we chose Maverick: After only one year in Moto2, many people said it was too early, it was a mistake and things like that.
"Another challenge which I think worked was to bring Aleix, who had only worked for private teams but was ready to join a factory team. We gave him responsibility he had never had before and were happy with the job he did. So we have to try to be different."
After a solid rookie season, Vinales claimed four podiums and fourth in last year's world championship with Suzuki, but couldn't resist an offer to join Yamaha for 2017.
In response, Suzuki 'reset' its MotoGP project with some more creative decisions; signing Iannone to lead the team in place of Aleix Espargaro, with rookie Alex Rins pencilled in as a Vinales-style future star.
"With Alex, it's the same [creativity]. I think it's interesting to invest in young riders that can be potentially a top rider and grow them up. Maybe we will have a difficult year this year, but if we are able to work well we can secure a top rider for the next years. This is the challenge. You have to be creative in this sense.
"Also Andrea Iannone. Sure, he is already a strong rider, but coming to our team we gave him - at least at the beginning, until Alex grows up - the responsibility to be the number one rider. Which is a new situation for him. I trust this guy and I think he can do it.
"Creative means going for something that has not yet been explored."
Do you do any statistical analysis to help make rider decisions?
|Iannone, Brivio and Rins (pic: Suzuki).|
"To be honest, I'm quite passionate about statistical and mathematical calculations, but I always find it difficult to apply! So of course, you look at statistics - riders that win many races, riders that never win... But mostly it is a feeling.
"You also have to consider that the development of the rider is very unpredictable. Because you might have a talented rider in Moto3, then they go in Moto2, maybe they have a difficult year or are in the wrong team… Or maybe somebody that in Moto2 was a good rider, works a lot, comes to MotoGP and improves a lot.
"It's very unpredictable. So when you chose a rider there is always some risk. But it's a challenge. Of course, we now come from a great experience with Maverick! I know it's not always like that, but I can see Rins is one of the riders that can be at the top of MotoGP in the future.
"You can see he has a talent. Back on statistics; you can see every year since 2013 he's always been fighting for the title, or at least top three. Moto3 and Moto2. Successful in his first year in new classes. When the rider has the 'habit' to fight at the top, to fight for the title, it gives you the right mentality.
"These type of guys - there are many, including the top guys in MotoGP like Marquez Lorenzo, Valentino - they won titles before. Okay, Alex didn't win the title, but he was fighting for the title all year. You know what it takes to be a contender until the end, know what is important, the consistency. If you cannot win, you have to take a third or fifth place sometimes, but bring points home. Things like that are important.
"With Alex, it's a feeling. We wanted to try a new project. I mean, with Maverick leaving the team, first of all with Andrea we were able to secure a rider that can bring the bike at the top. Then we took the decision, in this situation, that with Alex we can also prepare our future. Another future top rider for our team. So that why we restarted our project. It's very exciting. A nice challenge."
Does creativity apply just to choice of riders, or other areas as well?
|Suzuki engineers (pic: Gold&Goose).|
"I think it's also in other areas. We try to get - it's not always possible - new or different ideas. Even maybe choosing staff and engineers and organising the work in the garage - how we can organise in a different way, or what we might need as additional support. Maybe an extra engineer that does some other jobs. Things like that. It's something that everybody does but if you win your challenge you get a small advantage, let's say!"
Have you changed the team organisation much from last year?
"A little bit. I mean the staff are the same. I'm really happy about our team and the atmosphere. Our guys are fantastic and always trying to improve, everyone can give his contribution. We started this project two years ago and nobody left, instead we have welcomed some new members.
"We have got a new crew chief [Marco Rigamonti] who came with Andrea, but Tom O'Kane [formerly Espargaro's crew chief] remains in the group with other important jobs.
"We slightly re-organised the work of the engineers inside the garage - the same people but dividing the jobs in a different way. Somebody was working for one rider but now works for both riders, in a central position, doing something for both. Things like that."
Does it help having worked for Yamaha… is the organisation the same at Suzuki?
|Rossi, Burgess and Brivio at Yamaha in 2004 (pic: Gold&Goose).|
"We are not organised the same as Yamaha, slightly different. We adjust. I mean, okay there are some types of organisation that are common for every team - crew chief, data guy, mechanics etc.
"But then when it comes into - especially now with the electronics - an engineering area, then you can have different variations.
"Because you have the mapping job inside the garage, the data analysis at the back of the garage… These areas you can have different ways of organising. That probably is the main difference."
The relative size of MotoGP
race departments and resources (not to be confused with overall company size) is a closely guarded secret, but a rough 2016 hierarchy would probably be: Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki, Aprilia.
Where would new arrival KTM go? Probably somewhere around Ducati, assuming Red Bull's KTM MotoGP backing is roughly equal to Philip Morris at Ducati.
Suzuki and Aprilia do not have an 'outside' title sponsor, Ecstar being Suzuki's own brand of oil.
Iannone set the second fastest lap time in the opening test of the year at Sepang, with Rins leading the Suzuki challenge with the sixth fastest lap at Phillip Island. The final pre-season test takes place in Qatar from March 10-12.
By Peter McLaren