The following is an interview which leading Japanese MotoGP journalist and friend of MotoMatters.com Akira Nishimura conducted with the heads of Suzuki's MotoGP program, Shinichi Sahara and Ken Kawauchi. Nishimura conducted the interviews in Japanese, and translated them into impeccable English. I then edited them in English for style. Any inaccuracies or errors are therefore mine. - David Emmett
Team SUZUKI ECSTAR had a tough season in 2017. From the beginning, Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins faced severe difficulties and finished the year without getting a single podium. As a result, Suzuki will be granted concessions again for the 2018 season. On the other hand, Iannone and Rins showed their competitiveness at the final four races, which indicated Suzuki had found the light at the end of what proved to be a very long tunnel. Suzuki’s MotoGP project leader Shinichi Sahara and technical manager Ken Kawauchi talked frankly about their hard effort in the challenging year and expectations for the forthcoming 2018 season.
Q: Everything looked smooth in the preseason. At the season opener, Iannone took the second row of the grid in qualifying, and Rins started the race from 18th position and fought his way through to reach the checkered flag in 9th place. The opening round of the 2017 season was good for Suzuki. When did you come to think “something is wrong…”?
Kawauchi: It was very early. In Argentina, Alex complained, “I cannot stop the bike as I wanted and it’s difficult to hold the line.” Andrea had been saying something similar, and then Alex, who didn’t have enough experience in MotoGP, told us the same thing as Andrea. So, we had a suspicion that something should have been different from last year.
Q: From that time onwards, what did you do to improve the situation?
Kawauchi: After Argentina, we sorted out the to-do list to figure out where the problems lay and started the schedule to solve them. In Mugello, Michelin introduced the stiffer construction for the front tire, and we expected it would improve our problem. Actually, it got a bit better, but not enough, as we had hoped. Then at the post-race test after the Catalan GP, we brought the 2016 engine and made a comparison. It gave us a good hint. We designed the 2017 engine to improve the traction area, which was our issue in 2016. However, it unexpectedly affected the steering of the bike. As you know, we cannot change the engine design during the season, so we hurried to produce parts to make up for this deficit. We tested them at the Brno test, and finally, they started working after the Aragon test. This is how it went.
Q: Sahara-san, you came back to MotoGP project right in the middle of this tough situation.
Sahara: Like Kawauchi said, I came back to MotoGP at Catalunya when we tried the 2016 engine. I had to find out what we could do to compensate for our weakness as soon as possible. At the same time, I also had to develop the scheme for the next year, and it was that time when we decided the direction for the 2018 season.
Q: Was the engine characteristics of the 2017 engine quite different from that of the 2016?
Kawauchi: Although I didn’t think we have changed it drastically, there were many more negative effects here and there than we had expected.
Q: So, the characteristics of the 2018 engine will be similar to the 2016’s?
Kawauchi: In terms of the direction, I think so. For sure, it doesn’t mean it will be the same though.
Q: Did the problem you had in 2017 come from the engine characteristics? Or was it a combination between engine and chassis?
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