An exclusive interview with Suzuki MotoGP team manager Davide Brivio.
Suzuki signed two new riders – Ducati race winner Andrea Iannone and rookie Alex Rins – for 2017, in place of departing race winner Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro, who had formed the team’s line-up since the factory’s 2015 MotoGP return.
Iannone would finish a disappointing 13th in the world championship, with a best finish of fourth at the wet Japanese MotoGP. Rins, whose winter testing and early season were dogged by injury, saved his best for last with fourth place at the Valencia finale.
Due to Vinales’ four rostrums, Suzuki lost technical concessions last season but will regain the testing, engine change and engine freeze perks in 2018…
Davide, what would you say were the key moments that shaped the 2017 season for Suzuki?
To be very honest with you, we made a mistake on some technical choice for this season. We chose an engine specification which… In 2016 we wanted to solve a problem with the traction. In 2016 traction was one of our weak points coming out of the corners.
So we developed one engine, a smoother engine, some characteristic that was supposed to help the rider in that area. We brought this engine to Jerez in November . We tested and Andrea liked it.
Then we re-confirmed in Sepang in February  and again he liked it. It seemed to help on a traction side, but then going through the season we realised that this engine was creating problems in other areas, like entering the corners.
So this ‘reset’ the benefit and created some problems at some tracks, where maybe braking and entering into the corner are very important. This was one of the problems we had this year.
Also we changed both riders for this season. So we had a difficult start to the season because with two new riders normally you have additional work and on top of that Alex Rins, who of course is a rookie, got injured and missed November testing. Then he came back in February, but got injured in training before the second race and then was injured in Austin and missed five races [with a broken wrist].
So we left also Andrea alone with not so much experience of this bike, with the commitment to develop the bike. And so it was very, very difficult – to be honest – for these different reasons.
We tried to keep going. We tried to remain strong, motivated, going through many difficult races and many difficult situations. Now we will try to use all this experience for next year.
Also there is no doubt that the expectation was much higher compared to what we did.
Because we took Andrea as Maverick’s replacement and Andrea is a rider that won a race last year , went onto the podium [four times]. But also our bike, in only its second season, won a race, got podiums and finished fourth in the championship.
So Iannone and Suzuki both expected more from each other and this is not the potential we have, I think.
Okay, this season is over, in the meantime Alex is back, he is learning, growing up and we can see some good potential. So we will try to capitalise and use all this experience and work for the future.
Next year Alex will have more experience, Andrea will know the bike and we will try to make a better machine and package.
Also, overall the riders’ motivation, the riders’ confidence will be important and this is something we are also trying to build up for next year.
Speaking of that, Kevin Schwantz had some strong words about Andrea’s motivation in the middle of the season, suggesting he wasn’t pushing hard enough. Was that fair? Did Andrea grow into the role of team leader?
Andrea went through a few races in the season where he had a big frustration. For the reasons I’ve just said; the expectation from Andrea and from Suzuki were different.
So we were in a situation where we were all frustrated, all disappointed about the results. Everybody has his own reactions! But we just tried to keep working, understand and as I say I hope that now this time is over and we keep improving.
I can see Andrea – okay we are not yet where we want to be, but it looks like he now sees the whole project with more confidence.
You spoke about maybe the wrong engine selection for this year, for 2018 will you return to something similar to the 2016 engine philosophy?
We will have a kind of, I don’t know if we can call it a ‘new engine’, but a new evolution engine let’s say. We will not use the 2017spec in some areas where we think it created a problem.
So the engine of 2018 is another engine – hopefully with a better performance, more power. It will be similar to 2016 in terms of concept, but not the full 2016 engine. I would be very worried!
It will be a 2018 engine using the experience that we have gathered.
We cannot forget that we are only in our third season and also we had some additional difficulties, if you want to put it in that way, in that we had only two seasons and then we lost concessions.
That’s good from one point of view, because it means we got good results, but on the other hand it put us in a situation where suddenly we had to freeze the engine design, do less testing and this was another complication.
I mean, it was very good that we had such a great season in 2016, but it meant that very early we found ourselves in a situation that other manufacturers had been in after many, many years of experience.
But I prefer it to have been like that than to have not won a race!
Marco Rigamonti came across with Iannone from Ducati, meaning that both the rider and crew chief were new to the Suzuki this year…
When a rider comes to a team, it depends on the situation but quite often the rider wants to bring his own crew or some of the people that he works with. In this case with Andrea we negotiated for him to bring Marco as a crew chief.
When you bring a rider you have a kind of dilemma: You keep the guy you have that knows very well the bike, or you take the guy that knows very well the [new] rider.
Both sides are important and it depends on the situation and also on a team’s style, different things.
Andrea really wanted to have Marco with him because they had worked together for four years and Marco knows what he needs, what he wants. We felt that would be a benefit.
But it is true and there is no doubt that Marco had to go through a learning process to know the bike and also our working system, which is quite different from his previous working system [at Ducati].
But we’ve spent one year together and I think now he is getting better and better.
We’ve seen Tom O’Kane, who had been crew chief for Aleix Espargaro at Suzuki, in the paddock a few times this year. Is it possible he will have a more involved role in the race team again next season?
Marco took what was Tom’s position, but we really wanted Tom to stay with us and so he is still working for Suzuki. He is taking care of some special project. I really hope to get him back, but I think that also he is studying something that can be very useful for us in the future.
The performance of the Suzuki has been much better in the wet, Iannone and Rins were fourth and fifth at Motegi, did the wet Misano test help?
It’s not progress that was made suddenly, in one test. We improved our electronics from last year to this year and the bike, the chassis, is quite good. The riders like the chassis so in wet conditions it was good. I think it was down to small improvements.
Maybe we made the last small step at the Aragon test, just before Motegi, where we found a better general feeling for the riders. Because one of the problems Andrea had was a lack of feeling with the bike. He never felt very confident.
But when you can find this feeling it is very easy to make a big step in terms of lap time. It can be half-a-second, seven tenths. A big step. But not because you brought a miracle chassis or miracle engine, but just because you put the last piece in the puzzle and the rider now can push.
What is the feeling that Andrea has been searching for, for much of this year?
He was struggling basically braking and entering the corner. So when you have to enter the corner with the brakes, turning with the brakes, that was the feeling he was missing.
Then the bike is very good on handling and very good on cornering speed. Engine performance overall in terms of power on the straight is not too bad, not the best, but competitive I would say.
So this was the biggest problem and at many tracks you have to brake a lot and enter with the brakes, which is where he was suffering. That’s why I say once you find the feeling you can gain a lot of lap time very quickly. Let’s see. It’s work in progress!
Changing the subject, what have you made of Maverick’s first season on the Yamaha, are you surprised he stopped winning after Le Mans?
My opinion is only from the outside, because I don’t know what is happening in that garage. I can only read what you write!
I was surprised because at the beginning, winter testing and first race of the season, it looked like the championship was almost finished, no? And then it looks like something from a technical point of view, I mean he lost some confidence in riding somewhere.
But if I’m Maverick I would not be too worried.
This was his first serious attempt for the world championship. He is only 22 and he has plenty of time to try again. And for sure this year will be, I think, a very important experience for him.
He will put this experience in his basket and move on, I think.
Alongside Maverick is Valentino, you were team manager for Rossi when he broke his leg in 2010, what did you make of his early comeback?
Valentino has always surprised me, but on this occasion what surprised me most was the motivation he had to come back early.
I mean, you would think after such a long career, winning everything that he has won, missing one more race shouldn’t make a big difference, no?
But instead he worked very hard and made a big effort to come back one race early.
I always say Valentino is a model that should be studied and I hope that the younger generation of riders look at what he did and try to get some motivation.
They should take example from the passion and motivation he has in wanting to ride a bike.
I was happy for that. I hope many other riders will look at it and follow!
Interview by Peter McLaren and Neil Morrison.