When Joan Mir crossed the finish line at last Sunday’s Valencian Grand Prix and clinched Suzuki’s first title in two decades, there were wild celebrations both at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo and back at headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan – but there was a very happy man by the beach in Texas’ Gulf Coast too: former Suzuki world champion Kevin Schwantz.
Schwantz is not only one of Suzuki’s most storied riders but also someone who remains to this day deeply invested in Suzuki and its racing programme – and the 1993 world title winner has watched all season long as Mir set himself up as an unexpected championship challenge.
But while Mir might have been the underdog to take the 2020 crown, it’s no real surprise to Schwantz that Suzuki was able to put together all the pieces that Mir needed – in a crazy season heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, with Marc Marquez missing after sustaining injuries in the first round of the season at Jerez.
And for Schwantz, the 2020 MotoGP season has marked a changing of the guard, allowing up and coming stars like Mir time in the spotlight.
“Seeing nine different winners with a race still to go at a circuit where no one has ever raced a MotoGP bike will be interesting. We could easily see 10 different winners in a season of 14 races [next year],” Schwantz tells The Race from his fishing boat the day after Mir won Suzuki’s first title since 2000
“Nearly a different winner every weekend is incredible.
“Marc is going to find it a different place than the one he left. There are so many guys who found more pace this year, and consistently finding it. After having not ridden or raced a MotoGP bike for a year, it’s going to take him some time to find his pace again too. You always have it in the back of your head that the last time you did, it put you on the ground and it really hurt.
“I hope that’s not the case and physically and mentally he comes back just as tough as he was, because that’ll be the great benchmark of how the class has evolved since he was gone.”
Schwantz is no stranger to injuries and time off himself. After a career riding 500cc two-strokes to the limit every weekend and none of the advanced medical care available to modern riders, he’s convinced that there’s still a tough road ahead for Honda’s eight-time world champion, once he regains his fitness.
“I was always convinced that after the time I took off, it took me twice as long to come back again, and I never missed an entire season,” Schwantz says.
“If I was off for a month, I knew I needed to come back as soon as I could even if I wasn’t 100% physically, because I would need to get my head back to speed.
“The worst-case scenario is that you get back on that fucker, you’re 100% fit, you’re thinking ‘I’ve crashed my mountain bike, I’ve crashed my first bike, I am ready!’ – then you get back on it and you’re halfway through a day of testing asking yourself ‘why am I two fucking seconds off?’ Your brain isn’t acclimated to 220mph, and it takes time to get your depth perception and your sense of speed working; you almost have to relearn it all.”
Having won the riders’ and teams’ title in 2020 (and with the manufacturers’ crown potentially to follow at Portimao), Suzuki is still recognisable as the same factory that Schwantz rode for at the height of his career.
He is still a regular visitor to their garage in a normal, non-COVID season, and says that the DNA of the squad has never changed.
“I know how good the guys at the factory are, I know how good the riders are, but these days everything has to be perfect,” says Shwantz.
“Man, to be able to build a bike that’s capable of winning a world championship and to have the right guys on it at the right time is really difficult. A tip of the hat to everyone in Hamamatsu, to everyone at ECSTAR Suzuki from [team principal Davide] Brivio down.
“Joan is the one who has to race the thing every weekend, he’s the one who scored more points than everyone else, and he’s the one who won – end of discussion.
“The coolest thing about it was the performance both Suzukis had the weekend before. They got to Valencia, they qualified up front, started there, led from the front, and [Alex] Rins made one mistake and it cost him the race.”
Much has been written about the nature of the team since Suzuki’s title charge commenced, with its roots in Japan but it being largely run by Italians and featuring two Spanish riders. Managing to blend those disparate cultures together into a squad that somehow retains the feeling of a family-run squad in the lower categories, rather than a factory MotoGP outfit, has been a huge part of their success.
But that’s no surprise at all to Schwantz. It’s something he attributes to a unique culture within the Japanese race programme, and he’s adamant that it’s felt that way since he first joined them in 1986 – and that it’s something Suzuki needs to protect at all costs.
“It’s so much more of a family. Sure, it’s not actually a family, but it’s so much smaller than other factories that it’s easy for it to feel like family. You see them, you know them – they’re not just ‘the guys back in Japan,’ because most of them come to the races.
“Davide has put together a good group of guys and they keep that presence about them, the feeling of ‘hey, we should sit down and have dinner together tonight, we should connect, because the more we talk, the better we’re going to be’. A team like Suzuki can do that, because the engineers are so hands-on.
“The thing you have to remember, that was hard for me as a rider, is that they’re always saying ‘we’re such a small factory, it’s hard for us to make changes quick.’ You’ve just got to understand that and make do with what you’ve got, until the time comes that they can get you something that you think you need the most.”
A keen spectator of the smaller classes, much like Suzuki’s team boss, Schwantz’s also insistent that having an eye to spot the right talent in Moto2 has paid dividends for Suzuki. Plucking both Rins and Mir out of the middleweight class after only a season and sticking them directly into a factory MotoGP team is a gamble that has paid off dramatically, with Mir’s title coming in only his second season.
And Schwantz says that it’s obvious now – especially with Ducati’s 2021 signings of Enea Bastianini, Luca Marini and Jorge Martin – that it’s a model that others are out to copy, and rightly so.
“Putting younger kids on these things is great – Miller is a great example, even though he isn’t that young any more. The kids they’re putting into the Esponsorama [Ducati] team… it might not be next year, but in two or three years’ time they’re going to be hot property – every team is going to be thinking ‘fuck, why didn’t we do that?’.
“It’s funny how you can look at a kid developing as they come through Moto2 and Moto3, and you can kind of predict what he’s going to end up being like when you get him on a big bike and let him get used to it.
“If we back up and look at Moto2 when [Franco] Morbidelli was there, when Rins was there, when Mir and [Fabio] Quartararo were there – Quartararo was the one who one weekend would disappear and leave you thinking ‘where did that come from?’ He can find it on the MotoGP bike, but we know exactly what his downfall was in Moto2 – one weekend he couldn’t figure it out at all and the next he would send it to the frigging moon!”