Suzuki’s MotoGP squad has been firmly in the spotlight in recent months, due in no small part to the sensational end-of-season performance by newly-crowned World Champion Joan Mir.
Add to that the dramatic and unexpected news of Team Manager and MotoGP stalwart Davide Brivio’s switch from two-wheels to four, taking up the position of Racing Director at the rejuvenated and rebranded Alpine F1 Team - formally Renault - and there has been a lot going on for the Hamamatsu squad.
Having raced with the Japanese marque since his debut Superbike season back in 1985, ‘Grand Prix Legend’ and ’93 World Champ, Kevin Schwantz, was the perfect person to discuss the recent news and reflect on MotoGP’s stellar 2020 year.
“It was a very interesting season, with nine different winners, a couple of rookies winning, Miguel Oliveira winning two,” Schwantz told bikesportnews.com.
“The competition was really close. Suzuki winning the world championship was awesome. KTM winning a bunch of races, Honda having some struggles, Yamaha having some struggles, I think all-in-all the competition was great.
“Suzuki’s performance was outstanding. I thought Rins was the guy to look at, at the start of the season but then he gets hurt in the first weekend at Jerez, and he’s getting over a hurt shoulder for the rest of the season which definitely effected his performance but Joan Mir, just steady, consistent.
“Once the bike got better and once they got the bike where he wanted it, he started running at the front. Had an opportunity to win the race in Austria but didn’t quite get it done but then finally wins a Grand Prix just before the end of the season.
“I think Joan did a great job, as did Suzuki. You know, Yamaha had a bunch of mechanicals, Suzuki was really on their game this year and I’m glad the boys made the most of it.”
In a typical year Schwantz remains a regular visitor to the GP paddock, checking in with the Suzuki team and continuing to harness their 36-year relationship, 2020 prevented much of the norm from occurring so did that dampen any of the significance of the brands success?
“Any time Suzuki wins it’s special, no doubt. Not having any real involvement with the team and not getting to see them at any of the GPs this year, it seemed a bit distant for me but it definitely made me proud when Suzukis were winning Grand Prix, and when it came down to the championship at the end of the year and Joan Mir got 2020 World Champion.”
News of Brivio’s departure from MotoGP, after an incredibly successful 20-year history, came as a shock to most in the paddock, none more so, it seems, than the team he had captained for the past eight seasons, so what does Schwantz make of the Italian’s switch to F1?
“I see Brivio’s point of view, ‘there’s a new challenge out there, it is going to be a different world, I really want to get in it, figure out how to succeed in it’ and there’s no doubt that he will.
Absolutely Suzuki’s going to miss Davide and Roberto [Suzuki Team Co-ordinator and part-time rally driver] both, they did a great job assembling that team, a great group of guys, hopefully most of the staff will stay intact and it will just be the Brivio brothers that are missing.
Congratulations to them, it’s a team championship, I know Joan gets to be the World Champion but those guys are the team that put it all together. Best of luck to wherever you guys end up and I hope for some quick success in Formula 1!”
The question on everyone’s lips now is who should replace Brivio at the helm of the Ecstar-fronted outfit, so does Schwantz have any suggestions or is the time maybe right to throw his own hat into the ring?
I’ve always said I’d help Suzuki any way I could if the opportunity arose. I don’t think that that opportunity is there right now, I think it sounds like Sahara-san is convinced they can take the helm and accomplish what they achieved this year without Brivio and without anyone else really being there.
“It’s not going to be easy but Sahara-san’s been a lot of places and done a lot of stuff in Suzuki, from production bikes and GSXR-1000 we worked together, tons of different things that he’s done, so I think that he’s got the where-with-all about him to be able to keep that team confident and continuing to produce a great motorcycle for racing and continue to develop, so best of luck. I’ve offered to help but I don’t want to be full-time, that’s for sure.”
With the Suzuki question out of the way the conversation quickly turns to home-talent, and with both Joe Roberts and five-time MotoAmerica SBK Champion, Cameron Beaubier, running in Moto2 for the coming year, there’s a battle brewing for ‘top American racer’ honours on the world stage.
Roberts had a solid season last-time-out, with the 23-year-old claiming his debut podium alongside three pole-starts, and was even offered an unexpected promotion to the premier class in the form of the much-discussed second Aprilia seat before opting to stick with the Italtrans team and a shot at the Moto2 title. A decision Schwantz doesn’t seem to agree with.
“Well I don’t think you get many opportunities to get a seat in MotoGP and to turn one down might have been, in my opinion, a bit silly. If that’s where you want to be, get there as quick as you can.
“I think Joe did a great job with American Racing in 2020, he’s looking to go to a different team, where Moto2 world champions have come from, and now the pressure is on.
“You’re going to be on one of the best performing bikes out there, you’re going to have to run at the front or people are going to start to question you again.
“I think Joe has got the ability, he had John Hopkins working with him which, I think a coach makes a big difference these days, having someone there watching you that’s done it, that’s been there, being able to help you when you get in those positions like ‘why can’t I go any faster?’.
“Joe should do well, it’s a different team, some new staff he’s going have to learn. He was getting a bunch of confidence where he was and I thought staying where he’s at would have been the better thing to do if he wasn’t going to take that MotoGP ride.
“Beaubier’s getting on a bike that Joe just got off of, so he’s got a bike and a team that works really well together, I think Cameron should do well. He’s got some world championship experience, mind you it was on 125cc two-strokes, a long, long time ago but Cameron has grown up a lot since then, he’s many, many, many time AMA Superbike Champ and I think he’s going to do just fine.
“I think everybody is going to be pleasantly surprised by the effort and the results that Cameron Beaubier puts in”
So who does he see winning the race to be the next American MotoGP star?
“Well of course you’ve got to look at the two guys who are there right now, and that’s Cameron and Joe. Joe has more recently had some great performances in Moto2 and looks to be that next person.
“This next season is going to tell us a lot about Joe Roberts and his character. Cameron could very easily be that person. Cameron’s a bit older. he’s been around a bit longer, he’s going to have to get on and get going quick if he’s going to be the next American world champ.
“I don’t keep up with what’s going on in America enough, I’m not closely enough involved with MotoAmerica to know much about what’s coming through the Junior Cup there and what’s coming through the OHVAL classes, the new super small class that they’ve got - I think that’s great for American kids! - but I don’t have a name to throw at you right now.
“I think Wayne and all the guys at MotoAmerica are doing a great job. Without any factory involvement it’s just hard to get as much excitement around racing.
There’s still great competition, there’s still as much talent in America as there’s always been but without direct factory involvement here, there’s no real way for kids to get from the United States to the world championship - whether it be World Superbikes or MotoGP, Moto3, Moto2, whatever - there’s not that opportunity for them.
“I wish we were selling 60 or 70 thousand GSXRs a year, with that then there’s factory involvement in Superbike racing and with that then there’s a direct avenue for kids to come, do well in America and then to be sent on to do world championship competition.
“The only real fix is big numbers of motorcycle sales and that’s not happening right now, at least not with sports bikes anyhow.”
So with the start of the new MotoGP season now only a couple months away, what is Schwantz expecting from 2021?
“I’m just looking forward watching some good competitive racing again. 2020’s championship was, like I said, one of the most exciting as far as competition, with different winners and different manufacturers at the front and I hope to see the same thing.
“Knock on wood maybe that Suzuki still being a really good bike and Suzuki getting that second world championship, or at least back-to-back, that would be pretty special.”