As Suzuki waved goodbye to the MotoGP world championship following the 2022 season finale at Valencia last month, Motorsport Week decided to look back at the brands storied history across its time as an integral part of the pinnacle of motorcycle grand prix competition.
The world of MotoGP was thoroughly shaken following the shock announcement by Suzuki in April that it would quit the championship at the end of 2022 just four races into the campaign, the series losing one of its perennial underdogs that always found a way to have its day.
The Japanese manufacturer has a rich motorcycle racing history dating all the way back to the 1950’s, where it entered machines formed by moulding a bicycle and motorcycle together into local hillclimb events.
It first entered top-flight grand prix racing as a factory-run operation in 1974 – with independently operated Suzuki’s having been run since the early 1960’s across the 50cc, 125cc and 500cc classes – with Barry Sheene and Jack Findlay – the latter having scored Suzuki’s maiden premier class win on a privately-run bike back in 1971.
Suzuki’s first premier class championship would come courtesy of the immensely talented Sheene in 1976, with the Brit backing up his success with a second consecutive title the following term with the rapid RG500.
Further titles would follow in 1981 and 1982 with Italian’s Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini respectively, though the Hamamatsu-based marque would have to wait another decade until it was able to taste ultimate victory again.
Kevin Schwantz was the man to bring glory back to Suzuki after defeating Yamaha countryman Wayne Rainey to win the 1993 500cc world championship, the brand going on to win one final title in the pre-MotoGP era at the turn of the millennium in 2000 with Kenny Roberts Jr.
Suzuki struggled to make a consistent impact at the top of the points table in the early years of the enlarged 1000cc formula though as it struggled to make ground on the likes of Honda, Yamaha and Ducati who dominated the leading positions.
The organisation would score a measly total of three rostrum results thanks to the efforts of Roberts and fellow American John Hopkins over the opening five years of the MotoGP era, though it finally managed to make a significant step forward with the 2007 iteration of its GSV-R.
Hopkins would end up finishing fourth overall in the rider’s standings with a total of four podiums, while team-mate Chris Vermeulen also showed well in sixth – the Aussie having also scored Suzuki’s first win since 2001 with a brilliant ride at a soaking Le Mans.
Suzuki now looked in a position to push on and return to its 500cc glory once again, though its ’07 upswing would ultimately prove to be a false dawn as it slipped back over the subsequent few years before going as far as dropping to just a single machine for the 2011 campaign – piloted by Alvaro Bautista – before pulling out at the end of that season as it looked to refresh its programme.
Fast forward three years and Suzuki was back with an all new MotoGP weapon dubbed the GSX-RR, the prototype making its debut in the final race of the 2014 season in the hands of development rider Randy De Puniet at Valencia ahead of an all-out attack the following season.
In an attempt to fix the wrongs of their previous premier class stint, Suzuki hired former Yamaha MotoGP team manager Davide Brivio, a signing that would turn out to be a masterstroke as the Italian crafted a real family atmosphere within the squad that allowed the entirety of its staff to maximise their potential.
Progress was swift relative to its much better-funded and resourced foes and after a consistent first year back in the fray in ’15 with riders Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales, it made a welcome return to the MotoGP rostrum in 2016 courtesy of Vinales finishing third in the French Grand Prix.
The young Spaniard then went one better with a crushing victory in the British GP at Silverstone as he took the chequered flag 3.4 seconds clear of LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow and Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi – Suzuki was back.
Or so it seemed, as it was setback significantly by the departure of Vinales to Yamaha for 2017, with Suzuki instead entering the campaign with an all new line-up consisting of ex-Ducati racer Andrea Iannone and Moto2 front-runner Alex Rins after also parting ways with Espargaro.
The factory took a major step backwards in form in ’17 as it failed to score a podium all year, with Iannone ending up as its highest-classified rider down in 13th overall – a dismal failure mainly explained by the Italian choosing the wrong engine development path prior to the season.
With this error rectified for 2018 the manufacturer was back towards the sharp end once again, with Rins enjoying a strong sophomore season en-route to fifth overall having racked up a total of five podium results, with Iannone ending up tenth off the back of further four rostrums on the GSX-RR.
Rins went one better the following year to fourth overall – just six points adrift of Vinales’ Yamaha – having scored a pair of emphatic wins at the Circuit of the Americas and Silverstone, while new signing Joan Mir made good progress towards the end of the his rookie term – the team looked to be in good shape for 2020.
And so it proved as Brivio’s team made another big step with the GSX-RR as it efficiently toiled away on the bikes weaker elements, with both rider’s continuously running well inside the top five all year en-route to a well deserved – and rather unexpected – teams championship, while Mir scored a grand total of seven podiums in 14 races to secure a maiden rider’s title in only his second season.
The outfit’s stunning year was capped off with Rins ending the year in third overall, with only the might of Ducati and Yamaha denying the marquee a clean sweep as they pipped Suzuki in the constructors championship by a narrow margin.
The follow-up campaign saw Suzuki slip back slightly in the overall pecking order as Ducati hit a strong note with its Desmosedici, though as always the team continued to make the best of what it had and etched away at the biggest weakness of its package – the power produced by its inline-four powertrain – for 2022.
Its hard work was immediately evident at the start of the year as it posted impressive speed trap figures at the power-hungry Lusail International Circuit, Suzuki having managed to achieve a feat even the might of Yamaha couldn’t by bringing its straight-line performance more in line with in V4-engined rivals.
The news of Suzuki’s upcoming exit – made as it looks to pool its resources towards electric mobility in the coming years – unsurprisingly stunted the team as its staff looked to find alternative employment, with its strong start to the year soon falling by the wayside.
As the guillotine hovered across the final few races though the squad – with most employees having found new jobs by the time the final events rolled around – reminded the paddock what it could do when firing on all cylinders, with Rins scoring a pair of farewell wins at Phillip Island and Valencia in fine style.
That’s how Suzuki should be remembered, not for its clumsy of dealing with its exit – a problem firmly laid at the door of the corporate higher ups rather than the race organisation – but its continuous strive for supremacy against its better funded and resourced fellow factories, battles which the operation usually won with flying colours through patience and guile.