Team: Team Suzuki Ecstar
Riders: Alex Rins, Joan Mir
Test Rider: Sylvain Guintoli
Bike: Suzuki GSX-RR
Best placed rider, 2018: Alex Rins, 5th
Best result, 2018: 2nd, Alex Rins (3), Andrea Iannone (1)
Best placed machine at tests: 7th (Valencia), 10th (Jerez), 12th (Sepang), 3rd (Qatar)

If Alex Rins were to be taken at face value on the final night of preseason testing, Suzuki engineers could have packed up and spent the week preceding round one on the beach. “We have no negative points,” the 23-year old declared following six largely positive days testing in 2019.

In fact, scratch that – make that six largely positive months. For it was around September last year – the weekend of Misano, to be precise – when Rins began to build up a head of steam that he – and Suzuki – carried through the winter months and into the new year.

Don’t be fooled by his tenth fastest time at Jerez, or his twelfth quickest effort at Sepang. Rins has been among the winter’s star performers. When he hasn’t been chasing fast lap times, his attention to race pace has passed few by. He was the most consistent rider in Malaysia, and only Maverick Viñales and Marc Marquez strung a series of faster laps together on days two and three of testing in Qatar.

Thriving in his new role as outright team leader, Rins now carries himself with the confidence seen in the class’ leading names. And little wonder. Ask any of MotoGP’s top men, and they expect the sky blue Suzuki in the midst of the fight, consistently challenging. Would it be a stretch to gently suggest he and Suzuki might even be title contenders?

COTA MotoGP #2 - Last time in the saddle at COTA

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Rins has largely kept his feet on the ground, dismissing talk of a title challenge at any opportunity. Bettering his best result of second is the first aim. “It would be difficult,” he conceded in Malaysia. “But I think we have the tools for winning some races [this year].”

Since overcoming issues related to engine choice at the beginning of 2017, the Hamamatsu factory has barely looked back. Improving a machine capable of four podiums in the last five outings of 2018 was no small order. But it appears engineers have done so, adding greater braking stability and punchier acceleration to a bike already renowned for its agile chassis and, in the latter part of 2018, ability to conserve rear tyres.

The mercurial Andrea Iannone has made way for Joan Mir. The rookie has already showed the speed that carried him to ten race wins in his stroll to Moto3 honours in 2017. Iannone’s ex-crew chief Marco Rigamonti has been retained as an engineer overseeing the set-up of both riders. And aside from the addition of Englishman Frankie Carchedi - Mir’s new crew-chief - a team renowned for its togetherness remains largely unchanged.

Take Viñales’ second year in the premier class out of the equation and it’s difficult to recall so much optimism surrounding Suzuki in the four-stroke MotoGP era. “Overall we are quite happy with this winter of preparation,” Team Manager Davide Brivio told Crash.net. “We followed our plan, made a good selection and Alex is also going fast. He has a good pace when he goes out on track, and he always puts together good quality laps. On the other side Joan is also improving. So let’s get started. I would say it’s going good so far.”

Rins Race Ready

Not even a crash on the final evening of testing could disrupt his confidence. “We are very prepared,” said the former Moto2 and Moto3 runner-up. “We did a very good job with these tests. We tested everything Suzuki brought for us. There were a lot of parts, a lot of very good parts. Not a lot of negative parts, so this is very good.”

Among those changes, Brivio rates an updated frame and motor among the factory’s greatest improvements. “I would say the engine. And I would say a little bit fix in the chassis that makes the chassis more stable, more ride-able. We have to understand more during the race. Normally we are quite good with tyre consumption. We have to see if we are able to maintain this.

“Sometimes it’s also difficult to improve. We were looking for some top speed, some engine power. It’s never enough, but it’s a little bit better. Chassis-wise we are OK. We were able to try some suspension, some chassis parts, and trying to improve braking stability. It looks like we’re on schedule.”

As a result, he has witnessed Rins flourish: “Probably [he has] more self-confidence after two years of experience. He knows more what he needs. Also I think our second of season in 2018 gave him more self-confidence. We got several times on the podium [and] were always in the top group. Then sometimes on the podium, sometimes fourth, but we were always fighting at the top.

“For sure this is important. It gives you the confidence you can do it, that you can try. Also with Alex and the team the relationship is better, with greater understanding. I can see he made another step during this winter, yes.”

Waiting for a Mir-acle

Fostering young talent is nothing new to Brivio. Suzuki is a small factory with a racing department that pales in comparison to its principle Japanese competitors. After completing just five races in Moto2, Mir’s signature may have puzzled some, not least as Jorge Lorenzo was available. But back then Brivio was impressed by the ex-Moto3 world champion’s assurance and decisiveness of thought.

Testing performances have been largely positive, with the Majorcan never more than 1.2s off the leading time posted at a test. Indeed, his performance on the final day of testing in Qatar (twelfth overall, 0.7s off Viñales) moved Valentino Rossi to include his name on the list of potential challengers come race one on March, 10th.

Across the past three months, Brivio has also seen positive signs. “I can confirm the good impression,” he said. “There is no doubt that he’s a talented rider. He also has a strong mind. We also asked him to test parts and make development. He can make comments. Also maybe he wanted to try them again. We’re quite happy with how it’s going.

“We can’t wait and he can’t wait to start the learning process. It’s the third time we are starting with a rookie. We know a little bit how it works. In this first year he has to play, learn the bike, learn as much as he can, and you learn a lot during the races. If you are able to stay with other riders you see a lot, you learn a lot, and the first year is like that.

“Then normally these talented riders are able to surprise sometimes. Let’s give him the time he needs. But we are pretty sure he can be one of the top riders in the future.”

Enter: Suzuki Racing Company

A more intriguing development at Suzuki HQ over the winter months was the decision to set up the Suzuki Racing Company, an organisation within Hamamatsu that will focus on “promoting the Suzuki brand”, as well as overseeing the factory’s racing duties.

It has been reported the SRC has its own budget to go racing, and Brivio believes its establishment can help “speed up some process” when it comes to decision making on its MotoGP project.

As Brivio explained, “One of the reasons is until now the racing activity was part of the motorcycle division in our organisation. It’s more of an organisation thing. We were a part of a motorcycle division, but in reality the MotoGP activities are something we do to promote the whole Suzuki brand, not only the motorcycle business.

“Suzuki sells cars quite successfully, marine engines and motorcycles – these are the three main areas of our business,” he said. “So now creating a Suzuki Racing Company we put this activity at the service of the whole company. We don’t race only for the motorcycle business, but we race for the entire Suzuki branding and business.

“From an organisation point of view we come out of the motorcycle division but we are of course a racing company for Suzuki. For the moment it’s more an organisation point of view, and how we place our department inside the company. But so far the group of people working is the same, the project leader is the same, the engineers are the same. It’s only an administration re-organisation. Then we will see in the future.

“Being a separate organisation, we hope it can bring some benefits – being more independent in some things, trying to take some decisions. We will see. For the moment this is the situation. In the next year it will tell us if something can change or not.

“As I say, we want to be at the service of the whole company. At the other end – this is my personal thinking – the racing activities are always something different than a regular, daily business. Maybe to have an independent company it might help to speed up some process. It’s also difficult sometimes to go racing within a big, corporate guidelines and procedures. Time will tell if this can be an improvement.”

Hopes?

Does Brivio share Rins’ belief aims must centre on race wins? “I think we have to try. We’re here to try. Of course we are very much aware how difficult it is. The competitors are very strong: strong bikes, strong riders, strong teams. But I would say last year we came close on a few occasions to doing that.

“Why not? We are committed. We are here to try. And we have to try, for sure. It’s difficult, but let’s try. For sure this would be the next step for our team.”

 

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