Suzuki’s GSX-RR: don’t touch a thing!


Suzuki won last year’s MotoGP championship with the GSX-RR, so what should the factory do to help the bike retain the crown in 2021?

Joan Mir, 2020 Suzuki

MotoGP champion Mir in full-attack mode on the 2020 GSX-RR, the sweetest ride on the MotoGP grid


Imagine you’re sat around a table with half a dozen Suzuki engineers in the factory’s race department, discussing what needs to be done to the GSX-RR MotoGP bike for 2021.

If I was there I’d be screaming: “Don’t touch a thing!”.

More than ever MotoGP engineering is a balancing act – a 220mph highwire act. The latest 1000s have too much of everything: too much horsepower, too much torque, too much braking, too much lean angle, too much electronics, too much aero. And all those elements must be transferred to the racetrack via Michelin’s very fussy front and rear slicks.

Therefore the secret to winning isn’t using any single performance element in extremis, but rather balancing them all out, so they work in harmony, without one negatively impacting the others.

Currently the GSX-RR rides that highwire better than anything else, because it gets the best out of the hard-to-please Michelins, generating more grip from lights-out to chequered flag.

“We have a way to understand the tyres and our results come from our attention to the tyres,” confirms Ken Kawauchi, Suzuki’s MotoGP technical manager.

Suzuki’s greatest challenge for the new season is to get more out of the Michelins in qualifying. Last season Joan Mir started only four of 14 races from the front two rows of the grid. MotoGP is now so tightly contested that a rider starting even from the third row of the grid usually wastes too much time and burns his tyres trying to fight his way through the pack.

No doubt Mir would’ve taken more than one victory in 2020 if he had been able to start from the front. To prove the point, the only race he did start from the front row was August’s Styrian GP at the Red Bull Ring, which he was leading by two seconds when the red flags came out.

So how do Mir and team-mate Álex Rins achieve better grid slots in 2021?

The problem is that you are asking the bike to be two different things. Suzuki spent the last six seasons tweaking the GSX-RR bit by bit, so that its riders can baby the tyres over 25 laps better than any of their rivals.

Qualifying is the exact opposite of that. Instead of wanting the bike to help the tyres spread their performance over many laps you want the bike to use everything the tyres have got in one or two laps.

2020 Suzuki GSX-RR

Last year Suzuki went back to an all-aluminium frame, without carbon-fibre sections

Mat Oxley

“We are still working on this and it’s not easy because every bike has its positives and negatives,” says Mir’s crew chief Frankie Carchedi. “What we do in preparing the bike and how the rider rides the bike has a benefit in the race, which is also a negative in qualifying. Somehow we have to work out the best way of achieving both and we are making progress in this.”

Somehow Yamaha’s YZR-M1 – another inline-four, just like the Suzuki – is the opposite to the GSX-RR. The M1 is very good at getting the maximum out of its tyres over one lap but is prone to overheating its tyres during the race. Different philosophies produce different outcomes.

Most teams follow a fairly straightforward plan during qualifying: adjust the torque map, then maybe a couple of turns of front and rear preload and maybe raise the ride height a fraction to cope with the extra forces generated by softer tyres and more aggressive use of the throttle and brakes. Like everything else it’s a balancing act.

The GSX-RR’s strong points in the race are its inline-four engine and its very smooth natural torque curve, both of which make life easier for the rider, the chassis and the tyres.

Related article

Also significant to the bike’s success is Michelin’s latest rear slick, introduced at the start of last season. This tyre has a softer construction so it deflects more for a bigger footprint and more grip, especially on the shoulder, rather than the edge. The tyre naturally works better with the smoother riding technique encouraged by inline-four engines. Both Ducati and Honda had nightmares with this tyre last season, though by the last few races Honda had adapted its RC213V much better to suit its characteristics. Ducati still has work to do with the tyre.

The Suzuki makes its lap times with big, sweeping lines through the corners, using all that speed to exit faster than the V4s, which are slower through the turns and then make their lap times by unleashing the V4’s superior horsepower.

However, if Mir or Rins find themselves battling with a few faster bikes they can find themselves in trouble.

“It can be frustrating at times – last year there were races when Joan had to deal with two or three Ducatis at the same time, which isn’t easy,” adds Carchedi. “We work on our advantages and try to improve our negatives, because that’s what we have and we can’t change it. I think Suzuki does this very well – we know what we have and we try to get the best out of what we have.”

This is another reason Suzuki riders need to qualify better, so they can get the jump on the faster bikes at the start, get out front and run their own lines. This is the one advantage that Yamaha currently has over Suzuki.

Of course, Suzuki won’t leave the GSX-RR entirely unchanged for 2021 but you can be sure that its engineers won’t try anything radical for the new season. This is not their style.

Suzuki garages 2020

Half a dozen GSX-RRs during the 2019 Czech GP at Brno, belonging to Mir, Rins and Guintoli

Mat Oxley

Rather than look for a quarter of a second improvement in one area of the bike Suzuki always looks for that improvement across all areas, by inching forward with every element of performance, which avoids the complications of creating a positive in one area of performance which nearly always causes a negative in another area.

“Now our bike more or less has a good balance, so to keep this balance we will make every area little bit better,” adds Kawauchi. “Always the most important thing is to extend the bike’s ability in all areas.”

This is the opposite of Ducati, which attaches new parts to its Desmosedici like kids decorating a Christmas tree. And each new part that brings positives also brings negatives, which have to be balanced out.

Suzuki’s test team – led by rider Sylvain Guintoli and crew chief Tom O’Kane – is a vital part of the factory’s conservative development strategy, by filtering out any issues with new parts and cross-checking each improvement across several different racetracks, wherever possible.

Last year’s success was also thanks to subtle tweaks to the chassis, with Suzuki always looking for the best balance of lateral, longitudinal and torsional flex. After several years of using aluminium frames with carbon-fibre sections the GSX-RR’s all-aluminium 2020 frame gave better turning and better grip, allowing the rider to be more precise.

Suzuki was also the first factory to switch to the 2020 Öhlins BDB (bi-directional bleed) rear shock, which gave better traction and more importantly better turning, which is so important to get the bike into the corner-exit phase as soon as possible.

Perhaps this year’s most important job for Kawauchi and Suzuki race chief Shinichi Sahara will be preparing for 2022, when the factory hopes to run more than two bikes in MotoGP, for the first time since the days of the RG500 in the early 1980s.

Ever since Kevin Schwantz and the RGV500 raced in the 1980s and 1990s there have been rumours that Suzuki would put four bikes on the grid, because the more bikes on track the more feedback for the engineers and therefore the greater chances of solving problems and accelerating development.

Last November’s season-ending Portuguese GP at Portimao was perfect example of what happens when you only have two riders to evaluate tyres, settings and so on in just a few hours of practice.

MotoGP had never raced at Portimao, so all six factories had to work extra hard at gathering data for the race. Unlike their Honda, Ducati, KTM and Yamaha rivals Suzuki only had two riders to do all the work. Mir and Rins ended up qualifying 20th and tenth, which left them struggling in the race.

“With the Covid situation it’s very difficult to do something more with our race activities, but if we can do this [run four bikes] it will be in 2022,” says Kawauchi. “We just need the budget and understanding.”