Suzuki’s Impending MotoGp Burnout

Motorcycling particularly benefits directly from advanced technologies initially developed for MotoGP, the premier motorcycle racing category. This is because a person is 10 times more likely to track his or her bike after buying a sports bike than after buying a Camaro or a Ford, and for good reason.

Sports bikes, percentage-wise, are nearer in horsepower and handling capabilities to their big brother race bikes.

The 2012 MV Agusta F4 has a 1000cc v4 engine putting out a claimed 201 horsepower while the Honda RC212V racebike Casey Stoner, 2012 MotoGP world Champion, rode to victory this past weekend at Philip Island, Australia, has an 800cc v4 engine with 207 horsepower. Across the manufacturing board this fun fact holds true, whether you look at a Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R 1000, or a BMW S1000RR. True race bikes are a mere 10k away from being in Joe Smo’s hands, so the opportunity to say my bike beat your bike this past weekend in MotoGP or AMA Superbike, is much closer to home than, say with NASCAR. In the Sprint Cup Series, the cars put out 850-900 horsepower, nowhere near what Chevy, Ford, or Dodge sell in their showrooms.    

Manufacturers of sports motorcycles historically have concentrated on winning races with bikes as close as possible to what can be sold on dealership floors. Suzuki has traditionally led the pack in this respect, pioneering the field in the late ’80s with its GSXR-750, the first fully faired “race bike with lights” that has become commonplace with other manufacturers since. But in recent years Suzuki has started pulling back from what it created, making sports bikes with the best blend between ergonomics and rider comfort, sacrificing some of the rider’s ability to rage around corners and down straightaways.

Following this trend, and the fact that the manufacturer did not import any bikes to the U.S. for 2011 due to the economic recession, there are fears that Suzuki will be pulling its support from Rizla Suzuki, its factory racing team in MotoGP.

While Ducati has had Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden testing the GP12, and Honda has had Stoner on the RC213V, Suzuki has reportedly not been working on a new bike for the 1000cc rule change next year. While has reported that negotiations within Suzuki are “positive” and that the company would like to remain in the series, there have been no promises.

The trend of manufacturers dropping out of MotoGP is not new. As recently as 2009, Kawasaki’s “Team Green” MotoGP team was pulled, leaving local San Diegan John “Hopper” Hopkins without a bike and temporarily ending his MotoGP career. Aprilia also dropped out in 2004 and Ilmor dropped in 2007 after only two years of competing. In every case, the manufacturer failed on the racetrack and followed with poor sales, forcing a re-budgeting program that wound up cutting the MotoGP branch of the company.

In the 2011 season Rizla Suzuki did not have a good year, beginning when their only team rider, Alvaro Bautista, broke his femur in a practice session in the opening race at Qatar. Following a string of poor 12th place finishes, Bautista did get his confidence back up to finish 5th at Silverstone. However, he crashed in two races in a row at Laguna Seca and Brno, then again at Motegi and in slippery conditions at Philip Island. This has left Alvaro and Rizla Suzuki in 12th place, the lowest factory team in the series.

These lackluster results certainly do not inspire a racing following, and the bigwigs at Suzuki may be thinking that with its team doing so poorly and sales doing relatively well in spite of this, they can cut their factory sponsorship and maintain sales. While it is true that their middleweight bikes, the GSX-R 600 and 750, have had great success thanks to their 2011 full redesign, the Suzuki’s flagship liter bike actually has the lowest sales of the big four Japanese manufacturers. With most new sports bikes sold as liter bikes — the reason why BMW has decided not to produce a middleweight as a step down from the barn-storming S1000RR — this does not bode well for Suzuki.

A new 1000cc MotoGP bike from Suzuki would excite fans and would help Suzuki catch back up with the competition’s standard ABS and with the stronger engines in the liter bike class. New technology from 1000cc MotoGP bikes (currently 800cc) would almost bolt on parts as per the new rules for 2012. Quitting MotoGP for Suzuki, in the coming year, would be a major step in the wrong direction.

With a lagging flagship, uninspired performance and sluggish steering reflected in its MotoGP race bike — the GSV-R — Suzuki needs to stay in MotoGP for 2012. Despite the relatively strong sales overall, the lack of a standout liter bike may spell disaster, although MotoGP is the perfect place to develop new parts for its next offering. If successes such as Yamaha’s R1 cross-plane technology, Honda’s V4 engines in the early nineties or Ducati’s traction control system are not evidence enough of technological revamping, Suzuki should look back to its own “race bike with lights” roots.

The bottom line is: the company that made the original superbike needs to stay in MotoGP to remain successful in the field they created over 20 years ago.