Kevin Schwantz: How I rode Part 1

MotoGP

Few grand prix stars are as revered as Kevin Schwantz, the 1993 500cc world champion, who rode with an ocean of natural riding talent and a tidal wave of aggression

Kevin Schwantz leads Wayne Rainey at Assen 1989

Schwantz leads Rainey at Assen, 1989. Rainey won this duel, by seven seconds. Pierfrancesco Chili finished 30 seconds down

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Kevin Schwantz helped define an era of grand prix racing that’s rightly considered one of the sport’s golden ages. The American’s vicious battles with countrymen Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson and Australians Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner are the stuff of legend.

Who better to explain those days than Valentino Rossi, who grew up watching these races and idolising Schwantz?

“The 500 grands prix in that period were unforgettable because the bikes were f**king unbelievable – very difficult to ride – so it was always a big fight with the bikes,” says the seven-times MotoGP king. “They had bad tyres, bad brakes and less weight, but a lot of power, so there were many big crashes and bad injuries.

“I think in this time it was more like war than racing. The battle between Schwantz, Rainey, Doohan, Gardner and Lawson was incredible. These guys were very brave, always many injuries. I think they were the real riders.”

Schwantz was the most naturally-gifted of the five superheroes. His riding technique aboard Suzuki’s RGV500 was raw, with less of the niceties employed by some of his rivals. He did it all with natural talent and guts: big handfuls of brake, big handfuls of throttle and ride it, cowboy.

 

Why were the 500s of the late 1980 and early 1990s so tricky?

You’re riding a bike that weighs 130 kilos – when I first rode them they were 115 – and you’ve got 160 to 180 horsepower in a 2500rpm powerband. That was all the powerband you ever had, if it was jetted right. If it wasn’t jetted exactly right you had even less leeway and it was even more of an abrupt hit. So it was like trying to ride something like a light switch.

We were always trying to soften up that initial hit, so when it first came into the power you were ready for it and when it started to slide your body was in position to control the slide and help the bike not slide too much. There were so many things going on that you were having to anticipate and react to.

“The transition from off-brakes to on-gas was big and huge and sometimes catastrophic”

Off the brakes and making the transition into the corner the suspension always seemed to be good but as soon as you got on the power…

The earlier you released the brakes the better you could set the bike in the corner. If you went in really deep on the brakes and had to chase the bike to the centre of the corner – that’s when the transition from off-brakes to on-gas was big and huge and sometimes catastrophic.

The smoother you could be, the smoother you could make the transition from off-brakes to back on-gas and get the bike set before you really started to dial in the power was the key to it all.

Kevin Schwantz and Valentino Rossi on the podium at COTA 2019

Schwantz and Rossi celebrate on the podium, COTA 2019

Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images

Also, a two-stroke doesn’t build torque in a predictable way – it all depends when and how you open the throttle and so on…

Yeah, you’d be like, the last time I came off that corner it worked really nice, but this time?! I’ve no idea why – is it the longer you leave the throttle shut the richer it is when you open the throttle, so the power delivery is a bit different?

Mick Doohan used the clutch to drain away power and avoid a highside when the rear tyre was spinning too much. Did you do that kind of thing?

Absolutely not and I guess that was the luxury of riding the Honda! Freddie [Spencer] said kind of the same thing – he used to stop the spin with the rear brake. I never found that worked and I never got that far along in my riding technique. I only ever used the clutch for the start and when I got out of shape getting into a corner and the rear wheel started hoping really bad. Releasing the clutch at that point would help get the bike back in line.

So when it started spinning you were just using body position and throttle?

Yeah, throttle and body position, more than anything. You’re trying to get back to the outside footpeg to control the spin. You put some more pressure on the outside ’peg to try and stop the tyre spinning and get it driving a bit, without being hung too far off the bike.

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Modern-day riding position seems to be really different with all the electronics – they can get way off the bike to get around the centre of the corner better. You couldn’t do that on a 500 because as soon as you cracked the throttle it would’ve sent you to the moon.

I’d try to get myself into that neutral position, so I’d got the bike transitioning into the corner, but once I’m there I’ve got to get back on top of the thing, ready for it to start spinning. I’ve got to get some weight on the outside ’peg, because if I don’t it’s just going to spin and go nowhere.

Presumably you also used wheelspin to turn the bike?

Absolutely. I’d probably use spin more to help turn the bike if I hadn’t got it set up right so I couldn’t roll through the centre of the corner as fast as I wanted.

As the championship year [1993] came to fruition the bike started working better and we were closer on bike set-up, plus maybe I started learning how to ride a bike a little differently. Instead of having to steer the bike with some spin to get off the turn I tried to use a little more corner speed and save the tyre by getting it to drive off the corner better.

But absolutely, when you were in a pinch because you’d gone into the corner to get underneath somebody, so maybe you’d used a tighter entrance and you weren’t able to shape the apex like you needed to, then yeah, definitely use some spin and get off the inside of the bike a bit more because you could weight the inside ’peg and help the thing to spin.

You could definitely cause the bike to spin more and you’d do that if you were, like, I need to tighten up the exit because if I don’t I’m gonna be on the kerb, which in my days were crazy slippery. Don’t ever touch the paint! Not ever!

Kevin Schwantz leads John Kocinski and Wayne Rainey at Donington 1991

Schwantz leads John Kocinski and Rainey at Donington, 1991. Schwantz rode around Rainey to win by 0.8 seconds. Kocinski finished fourth.

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When your new crew chief Stuart Shenton arrived in 1992, did that help you ride with more corner speed?

Absolutely, though it could also have been the transition of my riding style, from what it was when I got on a grand prix bike in ’88 to where I ended up in ’93 and ’94.

Maybe I got a bit smarter – hey, this makes my life a whole lot easier because I’m not having to kill everything on the brakes, because I can get off the corner and drive down the straightaway with those guys.

“I used to squeeze the brake as hard as I could instantly — yaaah!”

If the Suzuki wasn’t completely sideways and hung out of shape my top speed wasn’t all that bad. In ’93 the bike wasn’t quite that last mile an hour as fast as the Honda but at most places it was right there with the Yamaha, except maybe those times when we didn’t quite get the jetting exactly right so the motor wouldn’t run at the top like it needed to

What was your corner-entry technique – front and rear brakes while shifting down?

I never touched the rear brake. I only ever touched the rear once I got in trouble somewhere, which usually caused more trouble.

I can tell you the three times I used the rear brake other than that. Well, I don’t remember the other two but the first turn at Phillip Island was the classic. I was trying to chase down [Wayne] Gardner [in 1990] on the last lap when I crashed at the first turn: oh shit, I’m in a little too deep, so I just want to feather the rear brake. So I touched the brake and yaaak, I was down. My boys had put in new brake pads before the race!

The front brake, I remember it like it was yesterday – I used to squeeze the brake as hard as I could instantly. I never let the load transition to the front and then bury the brakes, it was squeeze them as hard as I could from the first time I touched the lever – yaaah!

I’d transition as hard onto the brakes as I could and then if I hadn’t quite got the thing square in line for the corner, or if I put it in there so the bike got out of shape, I’d just use the clutch to help to settle the thing down.

Kevin Schwantz lifts the front wheel of his Suzuki at Suzuka 1988

Schwantz and Suzuki’s RGV500 on their way to the first of their 25 GP victories – Suzuka, 1988

Suzuki

You were a demon on the brakes – see god, then brake and all that – was that just sheer aggression and holding on for dear life?

That was such a challenge for the engineers, to get a bike that would transition off the brakes. They’d say to me, you’re not giving the thing a chance to transition because you’re absolutely burying the thing on the front brake.

I remember the race at Suzuka in ’91 – it’s what I call my best race ever.

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I remember coming out of the chicane, getting onto the straightaway and I could see the guys tipping into the first turn. The first part of that race the front was burying itself on the bottom of the suspension stroke. Every time I went into a corner the front would go crunch!

Then as the fuel burned off the bike got better and I got back to the front and won the race.

In that race the thing was an absolute bag of shit to ride in the beginning and it was a race-winning motorcycle at the end, so it wasn’t fun at the beginning but it was fun at the end.

I think what Stuart brought to the table from 1992 was making something that was good and more consistent for the whole race – okay, let’s concentrate on running a fuller fuel tank in practice so we know what race set-up we need, rather can giving me five laps of fuel for each practice run.

It seems like you worked a lot of the magic by yourself. Did it help that you had long arms and legs for levers – a bit like Rossi – so you could manhandle the bike and wrestle it into submission?

Absolutely. I think a lot of that came from all the dirt-bike riding I did. Whether it was motocross or trials or flat track you’re always riding something that’s wriggling and moving, so you figure out how to make it as smooth as you can.

And riding from a young age gets you ahead of the bike, so you’re always anticipating where you need to be on the bike a few milliseconds before it happens…

You get the transition onto the brakes really well and you know where your body needs to be. That took me a couple of seasons of roadracing to figure out. Wham – slam the brakes on, hold on, I’m getting close to the corner, let’s move my butt. Then you think about it – hey, why don’t I do that before I do anything else, so the transition into the corner is much smoother.

Modern-day guys probably don’t have that luxury because they get hung so far off the bike so they have to make another transition. They start getting it loaded on the brakes, then they’ve got a foot hung out, then they’ve got get that foot back to the ’peg and slide over and get into position for the corner and get their elbow to the ground. No doubt, it’s more physical.

Next week – part two!