In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to the two Japanese leaders of Suzuki Ecstar's championship winning team. In the interview, Team Director Shinichi Sahara and Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi gave their view of what Suzuki did to win the 2020 MotoGP title with Joan Mir, and the MotoGP team title for the Suzuki Ecstar team.
Interviewing Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san in their native language means they are more open and able to express themselves a little more freely than they would when speaking English, a second language for both of them. Thanks to Akira-san's excellent English, he is able to convey much more of what they have to say.
Though the interview was recorded before the shock announcement that Davide Brivio would be leaving Suzuki, Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san lay out how they saw the 2020 season, where the Suzuki GSX-RR was strongest and its rather glaring weakness, and what they will be working on for the 2021 season. And they set out their objectives for the coming season, and how they hope to achieve them.
Q: In the 2020 season, many things were different from the ‘normal’ seasons, including the race calendar, hygiene protocols, and so on. What was the toughest thing for you?
Kawauchi: In terms of performance, both Alex [Rins] and Joan [Mir] seemed very good at the pre-season tests. However, when the season started, Alex crashed on Saturday of the Spanish GP weekend and fractured his shoulder, and Joan crashed and retired in the race. As a result, we did not score any championship points. Although I told my team crew that “it was just the opening round. We can fight back from the next race,” deep down, I thought such results for the start of the season would be very tough, to be honest.
Also, we had to manage PCR testing, safe travel, and many things to keep our staff safe from Covid-19 that we haven’t had to worry about before. As the season proceeded, some people in the paddock tested positive, so did some riders. We always had to race with the concern that “what if our riders test positive…?” In that sense, I have to say the 2020 season was an unprecedentedly difficult season.
Q: Did this pandemic affect your logistics for supplying the latest parts?
Kawauchi: Fortunately, we were not affected so that we didn’t have any problems with that. On the other hand, there were some restrictions on the personnel side. Usually, we have extra engineers from Japan at some races and exchange information, but it was impossible in the 2020 season.
Q: Sahara-san, how many races did you go to the paddock in 2020?
Sahara: Only Portimao. After the Qatar testing, I was ready to go there for the season opener, and it was when the race was canceled, so I have been in Japan until the Portuguese GP.
Q: Were you able to manage the race from Japan as usual?
Sahara: After the season resumed in July, Kawauchi managed the team on-site while I did what I had to do in Japan, then we communicated remotely and exchanged information. In that sense, it was quite different from the past years. Finally, I could go to the racetrack for Portimao to take care of what I could do there.
Q: As you said, you didn’t get any championship points at Jerez 1. Which was the race where you felt the confidence that “maybe we can do it…”? Was it Red Bull Ring?
Sahara: Watching the race from Japan, I gradually became aware of it little by little around those races. I thought it wasn’t a good idea for us to start talking about the championship so I didn't say anything about it myself, but everyone in the company and the media encouraged me, saying, "it’s getting closer to us winning the title," almost every time they saw me! So, I started calculating the championship points and to be aware of the possibility more or less from Aragon.
Kawauchi: When we took a podium in Red Bull Ring 1, I felt things were coming into a better position. But, honestly speaking, it was Valencia that I thought about winning the championship. When Joan won the race at Valencia 1 and the "possibility" could become the "reality" the next weekend, I started to be conscious of it. Before that, my priority was doing a good race just ahead of us, so I was concentrating on getting good results as much as we could.
Q: I am sorry to say this, but you haven’t experienced fighting for the championship for almost twenty years. Did you feel pressure to be in that situation?
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