At Circuit of The Americas earlier this month, I had the privilege of two fascinating conversations with Livio Suppo, whose current business card says he is Team Principal of the Repsol Honda Team, as well as Communication and Marketing Director. Previously, Suppo was at Ducati for 11 years, and he has a unique perspective on riders, machines and teams. This comes from experience.
MotoGP outsiders hear a constant stream of riders’ complaints about their machines. Because the riders are the heroes of the sport, it is tempting to accept their comments without inspection. When we heard of the summary dismissal of Loris Capirossi or Troy Bayliss from Ducati’s MotoGP team, for example, we instantly felt wrong had been done, but Suppo was there and can testify to how much was paid and when. “These men now have plenty to live on,” he said.
Suppo says two riders are essential to suppress the “oscillation” of the rider’s opinion of the bike. Capirossi, he said, tested a certain machine and said, “It is dangerous.”
“So, we put it away,” said Suppo. “But later, another rider did laps on this same machine and said, ‘I can’t tell any difference [between it and my own bike].”
Suppo declares that the system in force in racing today “is completely wrong.” The big teams have the power to hire the top riders and also attract the biggest sponsors. So, the powerful teams become more powerful. Yet just changing the rider can make a machine appear quite different. Capirossi went from Ducati to Suzuki, where he spent two years complaining about the bike. But when another rider later rode the Suzuki a few times, it looked much more competitive.
This is supported by a remark made in 2003 by Honda engineer Shogo Kanaumi (“Kanaumi” has four syllables) when Honda was winning everything and Yamaha had no results. “Although from a journalist’s point of view, the Honda appears far above the Yamaha,” he said, “in engineer’s terms, they are much more close.”
A rider is under great pressure, noted Suppo, and when success escapes him, it is naturally unattractive for the rider to blame himself. So, he blames the machine. A mental situation is created from which the rider cannot break out. Herein lies the value of a teammate: It is much more difficult to fall into blaming the machine if your teammate is regularly putting it on the podium. A manager needs this leverage to prevent rider “lockup.”
Suppo told me of Capirossi’s insistence that the 990cc Ducati needed chassis struts to reinforce the swingarm pivot, normally carried only in a large lug on the gearbox. “The bike is coming up in two motions,” said Capirossi. Yet when another rider tested the machine, he felt nothing. At the time, Suppo backed providing the struts, which I was later shown in the Ducati Corse race shop in Italy by Corrado Checchinelli, but later in the season, Capirossi no longer made an issue of their use.
For Suppo, the opposite of a rider who is locked into a cycle of blame is the rider who is “open” and able to accept alternatives. This reminded me of the story of Freddie Spencer at the 1982 Brazil test. Honda had brought several chassis and swingarms of various weights and stiffnesses. His crew chief, Erv Kanemoto, had brought not only timing equipment but also a speed gun, as a means of measuring corner speeds. But Spencer did the same lap times on all the parts! How to choose? Kanemoto hit upon checking the sweat in his helmet: The less sweat there was, the longer Spencer would be able to run those lap times. The stiffer, heavier parts were the choice.
Suppo was a font of statistics on rider results, in particular on how many different riders had been able to win on various machines. He noted that seven different riders have won races on the Honda, while only Valentino Rossi (and more recently, Jorge Lorenzo) could win on the Yamaha YZR-M1.
Suppo also said that the first 800 in 2007 was really built just for Dani Pedrosa. “It was small and hard,” he said. “[HRC Executive VP Shuhei] Nakamoto put an end to building bikes for riders.”
Recall that while Pedrosa preferred the metal valve-spring engine, 2006 MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden wanted the pneumatic one. So, Honda split up its development to please everyone. In effect, they divided and conquered—themselves. Nakamoto had the team moving forward again in 2010.
Then, Suppo dropped his bombshell: his revolutionary proposal for increasing the interest in MotoGP racing by moving the riders from team to team for each race. The team with the overall most rideable bike would have an advantage, as would also those riders who were most adaptable. In addition, the tendency of strong teams to get stronger and weaker ones to become weaker would be countered. Suppo said he has proposed this to Nakamoto at Honda and Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna, but both naturally strongly rejected it for its potentially destructive effect on branding. But it is great fun to contemplate!
It was stimulating to look at the racing world through Suppo’s very different telescope and abandon purely technical explanations to consider his equally consistent rider-centered view.