Suzuki: 'Too much workload' on Sahara, more GSX-RR power 'not straight forward'

Suzuki's Shinichi Sahara says 2021 MotoGP season only '60 to 70 per cent of what I expected'.
Shinichi Sahara, Valencia MotoGP, 12 November 2021
Shinichi Sahara, Valencia MotoGP, 12 November 2021
© Gold and Goose

Reigning MotoGP world champion's Suzuki suffered a rocky start to 2021 when team manager Davide Brivio left for Formula One in January.

Brivio's move blindsided the Japanese factory which, mirroring its careful approach to technical development, resisted a knee-jerk response to finding a replacement and instead shared Brivio's duties between existing staff for the remainder of this year.

But most of Brivio's work fell on the shoulders of project leader Shinichi Sahara who, with hindsight, says it was "way too much".

“I would say that, despite not getting quite the results we were hoping for, the year was around 60 to 70 per cent of what I expected," Sahara wrote in his blog for the Team Suzuki Racing Magazine.

"2021 was different for all of us, coming off the back of winning the title [with Joan Mir], and the team manager leaving. We all had to step up and find the way forward.

"I had previously been the Team Director, mainly managing things from the factory in Japan, but in 2021 I took on a new role as Team Manager and Project Leader. This workload, coupled with still being the Group Leader in the development department in Japan, was way too much.

"But on the other hand, I learnt a lot, and being at the race tracks more has given me a unique insight that I didn’t have in previous years."

Sahara, who regrets that he only attended one race during the Covid-shortened 2020 season, feels he was able to "notice every detail on the GSX-RR and how it behaves on the track" in 2021. Being present also allowed Sahara to get to know the Suzuki team members and paddock much more closely, but he still missed "having someone to discuss the big things with.

"When I was based remotely in Japan, I felt I could see the big picture and offer good advice, but when you’re on site and surrounded by everything it can be hard to take that step back and look at things objectively, and this is where I miss the role of someone to discuss everything with."

The current status of Sahara's search for a new team manager remains unclear.

Rumours have suggested Brivio could well return, although Sahara – while confirming he remains in regular contact with the Italian and would like him to re-join the team one day - insists he wants Brivio to succeed in F1 first.

Suzuki is also now facing competition from Pramac Ducati, which needs a new team manager to replace Francesco Guidotti (joining KTM), although the likes of SRT's Johan Stigefelt remain on the market.

Returning to this season, Mir suffered the disappointment of failing to win a race (or lead a lap) during his title defence, although consistency netted third overall behind Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha) and Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati).

"In terms of team spirit, we reached my expectations, we just lacked a bit in terms of results," Sahara wrote. "One clear thing on the bike performance front, is that the step of improvement from last year to this year was not big enough – not as big as the previous year.

"That doesn’t mean a lack of effort from the factory engineers, they did everything that was necessary and I’m very satisfied with their work. But I think I needed to control something more, for instance the order of the jobs or items in terms of priority."

Rins, Miller, Mir, MotoGP race, Grand Prix of the Americas, 3 October 2021.
Rins, Miller, Mir, MotoGP race, Grand Prix of the Americas, 3 October 2021.
© Brian J. Nelson

The GSX-RR's design and development is overseen by technical manager Ken Kawauchi.

Kawauchi admits rival factories made a bigger step over the winter and while Suzuki was the last factory to introduce a rear ride-height device, after the summer break, he is proud it worked effectively from the start.

“The 2021 season has come to an end, and we have to admit that it’s been a hard year from a technical point of view," Kawauchi wrote. "From the start of the season we could see how much the other manufacturers had improved compared to us, and we realised that our advantage was smaller than last year.

"We needed to keep our heads up and keep our focus, improving the bike over the course of the season, introducing things such as the rear ride height adjuster.

"After a successful 2020 when we won the World Championship, we worked to develop the bike in our usual way, which is to improve many things in a small way rather than take a huge leap.

"Not only is this our philosophy, but it was also necessary due to the engine development freeze for all manufacturers.

"However, we were very impressed with the most visible part that we introduced; the ride height adjuster.

"When we brought it, mid-season, it was just a first prototype but it made us happy to know that a newly-developed part could be introduced immediately and work well – this is largely thanks to the work done in Japan."

Nonetheless, on paper, the ride-height device didn’t transform Suzuki's results.

Mir only scored six more points during the second half of the season, when the ride-height device was available, than without it during the first half. The Spaniard's six podiums were also divided equally between before and after the ride-height device arrived, although 3 x 3rd places progressed to 2 x 2nd and 1 x 3rd.

"The biggest improvements, however, were not made with one big thing, but many small things," Kawauchi added. "The ride height adjuster was something very noticeable but behind the scenes there were other things being tried and tested. I feel that each race we improved a little bit, which overall helped our performance and brought us to where we are now."

Looking ahead to 2022, Mir and fellow inline four-cylinder rider Quartararo have been vocal in requesting more engine performance from their respective manufacturers to fight Ducati, which dominated the closing stages of this season.

"One of the things that we’ve heard a lot this year is ‘the GSX-RR needs more power, more top speed’ but it’s not straight forward; if you increase the power you have to balance out the rest of the machine so as not to lose out in other areas," Kawauchi explained.

"So, it’s always about balance and a complete package – we need to improve everywhere, not just in engine power.

"Top speed and power demands change track by track or case by case, what you need from the bike changes depending on the track. My job is to not react too much to each request and instead keep in mind the overall picture.

"We’ve already improved the engine compared with 2020, but we need another step. We will have a busy winter with lots of things to try."

Praising Mir for his efforts, Sahara and Kawauchi also both gave their backing to Rins, who suffered a torrid season with no less than six race falls. While mistake prone, Rins had at least been ahead of Mir on four of those six occasions, and did lead a race, underlining his speed.

"Joan has the ability and potential to win the title again for sure," Sahara wrote. "He has consistency, speed, and a smart brain. He’s able to put in strong results even when luck goes against him. We’re already planning how to put all those elements together again for 2022 and we trust in him completely.

"Alex is a totally different rider, and this season has been tougher for him. When he is switched on, he is one of the hardest riders to beat - he has big potential and speed, but sometimes he seems to struggle to turn that switch on. He always has a lot of motivation pre-season and during the start of the season, like we saw this year, he was very fast at the beginning.

"But when he has a crash or a mistake that costs him, it seems to spiral and he struggles to get back into the swing of things. We need to work with him because, when we find the way to activate his switch, he can be unbeatable."

Kawauchi added: "Despite our performance sometimes not being enough this year compared with the other manufacturers, or even compared with 2020, Joan always gave 100 per cent and sometimes even more.

"He did a great job, and he brought us some podiums and I want to thank him for his hard work. Together we’ll try to prepare a stronger bike and we want to challenge again next year.

"Alex also showed determination, and at the beginning of the season especially, he had good speed, but in the end he couldn’t get the results he wanted, or we wanted.

"Having said that, I still fully trust in his ability to compete at the top level in MotoGP. With improvements next year I’m sure we can achieve much better results than this year. "

Mir and Rins, who like the majority if the MotoGP field are out of contract at the end of next season, will continue development of the 2022 GSX-RR when testing resumes at Sepang in February.

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