Suzuki Grand Prix Racing Hero Past Meets Present Star

Suzuki has an up-and-down past in Grand Prix roadracing’s premier class. The late Barry Sheene won back-to-back 500cc world titles in 1976 and 1977. Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini did the same in 1981 and 1982. Kevin Schwantz ended a decade-long drought for the Japanese manufacturer in 1993. And, in the penultimate season for the two-stroke RGV500, Kenny Roberts Jr. capped the century with his championship in 2000.

Honda and Yamaha have since dominated the series, winning 10 and seven titles, respectively. Suzuki suspended its MotoGP program at the end of the 2011 season, ultimately abandoning the 990cc and 800cc V-4s it had run since 2002 and returning instead in 2015 with a new 1,000cc inline-four, the GSX-RR. A year later at the British Grand Prix, Maverick Viñales gave Suzuki its first race victory since 2007.

Álex Rins, now in his third season on the much-improved Suzuki, has been knocking at success’ door for the past year, earning five podium finishes—three seconds and two thirds—in 2018. This past weekend at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, the 23-year-old Spaniard kicked down that door, racing from seventh on the grid to pass childhood hero Valentino Rossi and give Suzuki its inaugural premier-class victory on American soil.

Schwantz is closely tied to COTA, having been involved in its conception and design. Overall length of the 20-turn facility, 3.43 miles, is a tribute to the number he inherited from his uncle, acclaimed flat-tracker Darryl Hurst, used throughout his professional career, and that was ultimately retired by MotoGP commercial-rights holders Dorna. Austin resident Schwantz remains an ambassador for the track.

Prior to Rins’ win on Sunday, I sat down with Schwantz and Rins for a conversation about a variety of racing-related subjects. Many aspects of the sport have changed since Schwantz shrugged off his leathers for the final time nearly a quarter century ago, yet he and Rins remain connected through their affiliation with Suzuki and on-track successes at what remains the zenith of international roadracing.

Factory Suzuki MotoGP rider Álex Rins steadily improved this past weekend at Circuit of The Americas, completing the two Friday practices with the 15th- and sixth-quickest lap times. He was fifth in damp FP4 and qualified seventh, 0.747 second behind the pole-sitter, six-time COTA race winner Marc Márquez.

Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Qualifying is everything…

Kevin Schwantz: We had qualifying for an hour, and it was always late in the session: Put on a new tire, go out, and it was four, five, or six laps in. If we had “gotta do it in a lap,” just put me at the back because I can’t do it.

Álex Rins: For sure, the Suzuki is better than last year, but something is still missing in qualifying. I don’t know why our bike is hard to do just one lap, but I’m suffering a little bit. Corner speed is very nice, but on the straights, we are missing 2 or 3 kph compared to the others.

Schwantz: It’s got to be the most difficult thing in racing to try to find the limit on a brand-new tire, to go as fast as you can and know the second lap is going to be slower because the tire is probably not as grippy. With the field as close as it is now, qualifying is everything. If you can’t start in the top five or six, maybe eighth, it’s a long way to the back.

Rins: I’m stronger in practice and the race than in qualifying, for sure. The key to a win or the podium is to start the maximum in front as much as possible.

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Everybody is on the limit…

Schwantz: We had such a variety of tires, typically four or five fronts, maybe six rears every weekend. And it seemed like Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki always used up the full supply. The Dunlop guys were always really good in the beginning, and you could find yourself pushing pretty hard early on, maybe not wearing the tire out, but making a mistake on a cold tire and crashing.

Rins: The pace in the first race at Qatar was very nice. If I were able to do a complete lap from the first corner to the finish line in first position, maybe I would have been able to open the gap second by second. Maybe Andrea Dovizioso would have come with me. I don’t know. But I was feeling very good, and I was riding without pressure. For sure, I tried, but Dovi was overtaking on the straights every lap.

RELATED: Márquez Falls, Suzuki And Rins Rise At Circuit Of The Americas

Schwantz: At the British GP in 1994, I used a 16-1/2-inch rear. The 17 was half to three-quarters of a second per lap faster, but the 16-1/2 stayed the same throughout the whole day. After about 8 to 10 laps, they were quickly going away from me. Then I went from being sixth, seventh, or eighth to, “Oh, look. They’re all starting to come back.” If I would’ve had to conserve the tire, no way.

Rins: In the races, I don’t know why—maybe the motivation—but I go one step more. In Argentina, for example, starting P16, I destroyed the tires overtaking other riders. The first laps everybody is on the limit, and I had to push more than normal.

“We would do the first three flyaway races and try to get to Europe without having dug ourselves too big of a hole,” said Kevin Schwantz (34), seen here during his 1993 championship season on the grid at Eastern Creek in Australia, a race he won. “It was an easy bike to ride that year. Back then, we could also test when we wanted.”

Gold & Goose

We have good drive…

Schwantz: Getting the Suzuki moving was a little more difficult once you started to come off the corner and the edge of the tire. You could get some good spin, but you could also control it pretty easily. Trying to find maximum lean angle and get drive grip was always tough.

Rins: We have good drive, but we need to control all aspects of the throttle so we don’t spin the tire at the beginning. In general, I am very smooth with the throttle, and this helps me arrive at the end of the race without good performance from the tires.

Schwantz: The Suzuki would turn really good, but halfway through a corner—trying to get it to come back—using the throttle was the easiest way to get the 500 to turn.

Rins: We can turn a lot, and we have a lot of drive. Sometimes in the middle or at the end of the race, if the tire is getting worse, you can help the rear grip a little to turn by sliding the bike.

Really good on the brakes…

Schwantz: It may not have had the speed, but when the Suzuki was close, it would out-handle anything out there. Still, about halfway around long 180-degree corners, like Barcelona—that long right before the two quick rights on to the front straight—you’d start heading for the hay bales. You had to get what you could out of it, and if that wasn’t enough to win on the day, then you had to get as many points as you could.

Rins: This bike is very fun to ride when everything is under control. It’s easy to ride maybe one second from the fastest guy. But then to go faster, it starts to be very difficult. We are looking for more stability on the brakes. And for sure, more top speed on the straight.

Schwantz: When I raced, the Suzuki was always really good on the brakes. But when you needed it to come back on itself, typically the only way you could do that was to raise the back end, then halfway through the race rear grip was completely gone.

Rins qualified 10th in Qatar, 16th in Argentina, and seventh in Texas, and in the races finished fourth, fifth, and first, respectively. “In the race, when I was behind Valentino [Rossi],” he recalled, “I said, ‘C’mon, Alex. You need to arrive.’” Rins has won in all three classes—Moto3, Moto2, and now MotoGP—at COTA.

Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Just one American track…

Schwantz: We wanted something that was going to have all different aspects, not just a big, fast track with long straightaways and stop turns, but challenging sections that remind me a little bit of Donington Park or Suzuka. A two-minute-plus lap with a sequence of corners that if you mess up one spot, the lap is done. I think I would have liked the layout, but I don’t think we could have gotten the Suzuki to do everything we needed for it to be competitive.

Rins: This track is different than the rest of the tracks. It’s really long. It has a lot of corners, especially the first part to the chicane. The MotoGP calendar has just one American track, so the feeling every time we come here is special.

More time to enjoy…

Schwantz: After the race ended on Sunday, I did everything I could to completely separate myself from racing. You could find yourself too immersed in it, and at the end of the day saying, “I’m going to go crazy if I don’t get away.” On Monday, if we were in Europe, we might find a place to go mountain biking or golfing. If there was a weekend off between Grands Prix, I flew home. I could do my fishing, motocross riding, mountain biking, whatever.

Rins: I think Kevin and the others had more time to enjoy, but, for sure, we have time to do everything. I dedicate maybe two or three hours of my day to train—mountain bike, gym, swimming pool. Then I have the rest of the day.

Schwantz: Back when I raced, this sport was much less of a strain on the rider. Thursday? I flew in on Thursday.

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Race by race…

Schwantz: I always waited to base judgment on our competitiveness until we got to Europe and tracks we’d raced on more frequently. The first two or three races used to be Japan, Australia, and Malaysia—all flyaway stuff. You might have a good bike one weekend and not so much the next, but you wanted to make the most of the first three. You didn’t want to sit back and watch, but you also didn’t want to give up big chunks of points either.

Rins: Same feeling. I like to go race by race. I feel really strong in the races now, so I think we can do a good job like this, improving small things. We can arrive at Valencia in November with a lot of points.