2019 was a vindication of a lot of things for Team Suzuki Ecstar. Alex Rins' two victories on the GSX-RR proved Suzuki had made the right decision to come back to MotoGP™ in 2015, the right decision to switch to an inline four engine layout, the right decision in signing Rins as a rookie.
It was also a vindication of the concession rules for MotoGP™: in 2017, Suzuki had taken a wrong turn, and chosen a crankshaft which was too heavy. A season without podiums meant the Hamamatsu factory wasn't constrained by the engine development freeze for 2018, and could bring updates throughout the season. That allowed to get the project back on the right path, and be competitive again. In 2018, Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone racked up nine podiums between them. In 2019, Suzuki managed just three podiums, but two of those were wins, at Austin and Silverstone, and Rins scored a total of 205 points, 36 more than the year before, finishing fourth overall, one better than 2018.
There is no doubt that the Suzuki GSX-RR was an outstanding motorcycle. Jack Miller put it most colourfully, after he had Alex Rins dive up the inside of him at Mugello. "That Suzuki can turn on a dime piece, because the first time Rins passed me, I had not even a metre between myself and the kerb, and he was able to make it fit and scared the crap out of me as he went past," the Australian said, shaking his head. "And he did the same thing to Dovi."
The agility was a consequence of two factors. The first, Suzuki's chassis, which was virtually unchanged for 2019, as the 2018 frame was pretty hard to improve upon. The second, a decision to dial back the power of the engine a fraction to make it a little smoother. That allowed Alex Rins and Joan Mir to squeeze the GSX-RR into gaps where others couldn't fit, or ride around the outside of Hondas, Ducatis, even Yamahas, making them look as if they were parked.
At the post-season tests, Suzuki were looking to make up the power deficit a little, while at the same time improving the smoothness of the power delivery. They succeeded in that area, and improved the turning of the bike with some more tweaks to the chassis. "We tried some things on the bike that improved the turning," Joan Mir said. Turning had been the strong point of the bike, but not everywhere, he explained. "In slow corners we struggled a little bit. Looks like we made a little improvement."
Coming off a successful season, the big question is whether the Suzuki Ecstar team can do much better next year. 2020 marks a couple of major milestones in Suzuki's history: it is the sixtieth anniversary of Suzuki's entry into Grand Prix racing, having made their debut at the 1960 Isle of Man TT in the 125cc class; and it is the centenary of the incorporation of Suzuki as a company. In 1920, Suzuki were making textile looms. It is tempting to say that legacy still continues, in the way the GSX-RR can weave its way past its rivals.
Making the next step will depend a lot on Suzuki's riders. Alex Rins finally won his first Grand Prix in the premier class this year, backing up victory in Austin with another win at Silverstone. Marc Márquez gave him a helping hand in Texas, by crashing out of the lead and leaving the field open for Rins. But at Silverstone, Rins beat Márquez in a straight fight, with a daring and brilliant pass on the drive to the line out of Woodcote. That win showcased both Rins' strength and the strength of the GSX-RR. Rins can ride the wheels off a bike during a race, and the Suzuki allows him to save enough of his rear tyre to give him a chance to win on the final lap.
Two wins clearly demonstrates Rins' strength as a rider. But he is not without his flaws: the Spaniard crashed out of the lead on just the third lap at Assen, then out of a podium place a week later at the Sachsenring. His qualifying was erratic: he may have had three podiums, but he only had one front row start, and qualified on the first two rows – a solid base from which to chase podiums - just four times in 2019.
Is this Rins, or is it the bike? Teammate Joan Mir struggled with the same issue, though he had the excuse of being a rookie. But go through the combined qualifying positions and places the two Suzuki riders finished, and a very clear pattern emerges: Alex Rins finished well ahead of his qualifying position in every race bar the two he crashed out of; Joan Mir lost places in just four of the seventeen races he started.
Given the ease with which the Suzuki can ride round other bikes, this should come as no surprise. But it does make you wonder just how many races Rins could have won in 2019 if he had started from further forward on the grid. And how many races Rins and Mir might dominate if they can both start from the first two rows in 2020.
Alex Rins may have set himself a high bar to clear for the coming season, but big things are also expected of Joan Mir. The Spanish rookie spent the first part of 2019 learning the ropes in MotoGP™, and just as it started to look like he was ready to make the next step, he had a massive crash in testing at Brno. Badly bruised lungs forced him to miss two races, but it also hampered him in hot and humid conditions. Mir had trouble breathing in Thailand and Sepang, and lost a lot of fitness because he couldn't do any prolonged aerobic exercise for a long time after the crash.
The latter part of 2019 gave cause for hope, however. In his last seven races, Mir was outside the top ten only once, when he ran into the back of Jorge Lorenzo on the opening laps and lost too many spots to make up. His best result came at Phillip Island, where he caught the group battling for the final podium place, and only just missed out, crossing the line in fifth.
The winter tests were good for Mir too. The Spaniard finished both the Valencia and Jerez tests in fifth place, ahead of teammate Rins at Valencia, behind him in Jerez. Rins ended the Jerez test as third overall, with only Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez ahead of him.
All in all, things are looking good for the Suzuki Ecstar team in 2020. They have a solid veteran in Alex Rins, who is improving as he matures, and is utterly fearless. They have an extremely promising rider in Joan Mir, heading into his second season in MotoGP™ (and only his fifth season fo Grand Prix racing), with experience under his belt and starting to show his potential. The Suzuki was outstanding in 2019, and the bike for this year looks to be even more refined, stronger in the places it was weak without having to sacrifice performance to make those gains.
Perhaps even more encouraging, they have two riders with little reason to want to leave. Both Mir and Rins are happy at Suzuki, and wanting to build a legacy with the Hamamatsu factory. Rins may become a target for a factory like Ducati, but for both Rins and Mir, the grass looks much greener where they are, rather than elsewhere.
So it should not be very hard for Suzuki to persuade both riders to stay on after their contracts are up at the end of the year. The only fly in the ointment is the fact that having two strong riders inevitably creates friction, and there are already early signs of niggles between Mir and Rins. Suzuki look fine for 2020, but this has the potential for trouble in the longer term.
That is no doubt a bridge which Suzuki, in the steady hands of team manager Davide Brivio, will cross when they get there. For the moment, their goal is more wins and more podiums in 2020, and to celebrate their 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing in style. There is every reason to believe they will be able to do just that.