Part four of Motorsport Week’s six-chapter look at the 2021 MotoGP world championship season illustrates the difficulties Suzuki faced in trying to defend the riders and teams titles it collected in what was a hugely successful 2020 term, a task that ultimately proved a little too steep for the marque.
Suzuki came into the 2021 MotoGP World Championship season as the factory with the target on its back, the Hamamatsu-based marque having scored its first riders title since Kenny Roberts in 2000 with Joan Mir in 2020 alongside the team’s prize.
The relatively small and historically conservative organisation had it all to do to try and fend off the advances of much better-funded manufacturers such as Ducati, Honda and KTM-while also having to deal with the loss of its much-loved team manager Davide Brivio to the Alpine Formula 1 team over the winter.
Suzuki opted to not bother replacing Brivio for this season in the end, with the brand’s project leader Shinichi Sahara instead absorbing the team manager role into his own, a decision that would ultimately prove to be the wrong direction with Sahara unable to spend much time with the engineering team back in Japan due to Covid-19 protocol.
This meant positive development to its GSX-RR was rare throughout 2021, its riding line-up of Mir and Alex Rins forced to make do with a largely unchanged machine as the likes of Ducati and Yamaha in particular made large strides with its own prototypes.
The result of this was a season that saw a significant downturn in results compared to its breakout 2020 term, the only major upgrade for its bike being the long-awaited ride height device that aids standing-starts, straight-line performance as well as reducing a MotoGP machine’s tendency to wheelie on corner exit-its rivals having perfected the advancement long before.
Mir at least managed to enjoy a strong championship-defending season as he consistently extracted the maximum from Suzuki’s challenger, the Spaniard managing a solid six rostrum appearances though he would fail to add to the sole career win he secured at Valencia last year, a third-placed championship result his end reward.
The more worrying stat though was the 70-point deficit to eventual champion Fabio Quartararo by the time all 18 races were contested, despite finishing outside the top ten just twice all year-a pair of DNF’s-pointing to a clear lack of outright performance to challenge the Frenchman.
Rins meanwhile struggled to make an impact as Suzuki fell further back in the overall competitive order, the three-time premier class race winner failing to win a race for the first time since 2018 en-route to just a sole rostrum result-second at Silverstone-while a stiff seven non-scores meant he ended up a disastrous 13th overall.
While showing decent speed more often than not through 2021, Rins suffered a string of crashes as he tried to push his GSX-RR harder than it wanted to, most notably while battling Quartararo for the lead in the Portuguese Grand Prix-a disappointment that would foreshadow the rest of his campaign.
The result of this was a drop from first to third in the teams table behind Ducati and Yamaha’s factory outfits, and while hanging onto third in the constructors its gap from eventual champions Ducati swelled from just 19 in 2020 to a monstrous 117 in 2021.
Suzuki was also one of only two of the six MotoGP factories-alongside Aprilia- to fail to win a single race across the campaign, a scary stat for the reigning champions and one that it will be keen to not repeat in 2022.
After the season ending Valencia GP Mir admitted he was frustrated with its 2021 effort, though he was left significantly more upbeat after sampling some of the upgrades he could expect from the organisation’s 2022 package, including a new and more powerful inline-four engine.
“We worked on the electronics to improve the traction control, engine brake and all these areas with the new engine so we know exactly what direction we have to take,” said Mir following two days of testing the 2022 GSX-RR at Jerez.
“For sure we have other things to try, we still don’t know if this will be the final engine as we gave feedback that there is definitely more power, but we’ll find out.
“I tried a new fairing yesterday, Alex (Rins) tried them today but we mainly focussed on the new engine and the updated electronics but there were many things to try, also things on the chassis side to help us turn the bike better.”
Suzuki will certainly have to pull out all the stops to try and react to the ever improving Yamaha and Ducati, and with Honda bringing an all new contender to the track for six-time premier class champion Marc Marquez-as well as KTM throwing its might behind getting its RC16 back to winning ways-it faces an uphill battle to try and give its newest star a chance to fight for the title once again.
It is close to announcing a new team manager to allow Sahara to focus on making sure progress can be made on the technical side of the operation, and if the new team manager can rally the troops as effectively as Brivio was able, Suzuki really could once again find itself as the dark horse that took the paddock by surprise in 2020.