Rumors have been circulating for weeks, but now the news is official: Suzuki has signed 20-year-old Joan Mir to race in the MotoGP world championship for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The 2017 Moto3 world champion will join 22-year-old Álex Rins on the factory team, making it the youngest squad in the premier class. It’s an interesting decision, and one not without risk. To learn more about Suzuki’s unique approach and future plans, I sat down with team manager Davide Brivio for a chat. As you will see, he clearly explains the strategy behind passing on the possibility of signing seasoned riders in favor of what he called “young kids.” Only time will tell if that was a mistake, but Brivio’s decision supports Suzuki’s philosophy of wanting to do things its own way.
It’s finally official: Joan Mir will join your team next season. Was this a long negotiation?
No, the negotiation itself was not so long. In reality, Joan was very quick with it. What took long was talking with the different managers who came to ask about our team situation and if we were interested in one of their riders. With Joan, we started talking following the winter tests and we narrowed our target after the first three races. In this sense, yes, it has been quite a long time but it was more talking than negotiating.
Álex Rins was your clear choice from the beginning, correct?
With Álex, we had an option to renew for 2019 and 2020. Based on this option, we could have waited and enforced it, but what we did was talk to each other. Reaching an agreement with Álex was very simple. He was happy to continue with us, and we were happy to continue with him. In the end, he has been and is an investment for us. We think Álex is a really great talent; I believe he can become one of the top riders in the future. So we were very happy to continue our cooperation with him.
How did you assess that Rins has the talent you attribute to him? Did you compare his race data with that of other riders?
That’s one way. In the case of Álex, we analyze how he’s riding and compare it with the data we have from Maverick Viñales, Aleix Espargaró, or Andrea Iannone.
Have you seen that he has something special?
Yes, you can see where he’s stronger, where maybe he is weaker. Overall, Álex is very good. You can see he’s riding very well. He has some points where maybe he needs to improve, but you can see he has talent and he can go fast with the bike. There is also other significant “data.” As you know, last year was very difficult for Álex due his accidents and injuries. He came back in Assen, and by the end of the year he finished top six at Motegi and Philip Island and fourth in Valencia. So his learning curve was very quick. His performance showed that he could have been that fast in the middle of the season. These are things that have to be analyzed and considered.
Let’s go back to the second rider. Why did you give up Andrea Iannone?
It’s always a difficult decision when you have to talk about the riders. One of the problems is that nowadays the rider market starts so early. If, like it has happened, it starts at the first race of the year, you can only judge the performance looking at the previous season. This isn’t good for the riders and it’s also negative for the teams. This market doesn’t allow the riders to show their progress; the same happens with the bikes and/or the teams. If you start the season struggling with the bike and then after three, four, or five races you improve it, it’s too late. The riders looking for a ride for the following season have already made their choices or made up their minds.
You based your decision with Iannone on the 2017 season?
Yes, mainly. I have to say that our bike wasn’t perfect in 2017. We made some mistakes with our technical specifications; the engine clearly could have been better. Last year, when we realized that we needed a different engine, we were tied due to the engine freeze regulation. We made a lot of effort to improve the rest of the bike—the clutch, the chassis. In fact, that’s why our bike has improved this year; we put everything together. We added the right engine to last year’s improvements and we have a good package.
Last year, Iannone struggled to adapt to the Suzuki.
It seems like he was never happy or comfortable on the bike. We started to think that probably this was not his bike. When we talked to Andrea during the winter testing, we said, “We need to understand if Suzuki is a good bike for Andrea Iannone, if Iannone is a good rider for this Suzuki. If they can fit together.” But then the rider market started quickly, and it was too early for Andrea to show if it was yes or no. That’s the crazy situation we have with this market. Unfortunately, we are in the game. We have to play by the rules of the game.
Would you have taken a different route if the decision were to be made now?
Let’s say that’s another discussion. When the decision time arrived, it looked like a Suzuki and Iannone marriage would be difficult, so we started to think of some alternatives. When we understood there was the possibility to get Mir, we thought this would be our golden opportunity that we could not let go.
What about the Jorge Lorenzo option? Was it a real option or just fireworks?
It was very real. When we were thinking about not keeping Andrea, we asked ourselves about the available alternatives. I have to say that this situation was quite interesting because I felt a real interest from a few riders. Let’s say that most of the top riders who didn’t already have an agreement showed interest in Suzuki. I was very happy to hear that.
Were there more names than the three we have mentioned?
Yes, more than those names. We had a discussion in the company regarding what to do. Our president, Toshihiro Suzuki, and Suzuki in general have always been in favor of, let’s say, a “young rider” strategy. Suzuki likes the idea of taking a young rider, developing him, and hopefully winning with him. This was the project we started with Maverick. As you know, unfortunately, we had to stop it. But this would have been almost our perfect project, taking Maverick from Moto2, bringing him into MotoGP, teaching him the MotoGP bike, giving him experience, and going on to win. In fact, we won a race in 2016. Then we started a similar project with Álex Rins. Now, with Mir, we can repeat the same concept. We like this type of project. We like this challenge. It’s another way to approach this championship.
When we faced the discussion which way to go with our second rider, there were some names on the table. But I have to say that, more than evaluating the names, the evaluation was about what we wanted to do, which way we wanted to go. Did we want to take on a top rider ready to win or try again developing a new rider, which is much more in our blood? And if this was the path we wanted to follow, Joan was a perfect opportunity. I think he’s a very talented rider. I really see him with a great future. We decided that it would definitely be a golden opportunity for Suzuki to try again with the type of project the company spirit likes to follow.
With this policy aren’t you sending the message that you are giving up fighting for the championship for the next two years? Or is the message that you are betting on young, relatively inexperienced riders?
No, of course we aren’t resigning from fighting for the championship. That’s why we are here! Our message is that Suzuki wants to win with our riders. Of course, it’s a very challenging bet but we aspire to win races—to win the championship one day—with a Suzuki rider rather than go out and buy other riders.
Kind of like repeating the Kevin Schwantz story?
Exactly. Kevin Schwantz is probably a perfect story for Suzuki. A rider who has always been a Suzuki rider. The fans love him very much. He was successful and won many races. That is the perfect story. I think Suzuki wants to try to repeat it with Rins and Mir.
The decision you have taken has a thin line between becoming a hero or finishing with phrases like, “It was clear this wasn’t going to work”…
Of course, we are aware that we are making a risky decision. But, I don’t know how to say it in a nice way, at least we have the balls to do it. I think that if we can keep Álex Rins and Joan Mir together for many years, we will end up having a very strong team that can fight with both riders regularly in the top five positions of the championship. That’s the target. We want to win, of course, but we also realize that winning is a long process for a new team and we want to achieve it in our way, in our style. We are not like Honda or Yamaha. They are winning, and they have to keep winning. We still have to get there. Of course, it’s a very difficult path, but that is our target and our ambition.
Is Suzuki fully behind you?
Yes, the company is fully behind this way of thinking. It has not been my decision; it’s a company decision.
How will you avoid repeating the situation you had with Viñales, meaning that after two years other manufacturers profit from this learning period at Suzuki and hire your riders?
The contract with Joan is “safer” than Maverick’s. We learned from that. In reality, Mir’s contract is more than two years; I will call it two plus two.
Is Álex’s contract written similarly?
Final question: How are you going to handle bike development with two riders as inexperienced as Rins and Mir? Does this worry your engineers?
Next season, Álex will already have two years of experience. And I have to say that we already can appreciate his input. This winter, he developed his own bike. We had different chassis, different engine configurations, and a very good testing plan. Álex made his own selection, choosing his own chassis, his own engine, his own swingarm, and all the rest of the parts. He had a very good beginning of the season, which shows us he put together a good bike for himself.
The engineers also appreciate his input; he understands the bike. So we think we can do development with Álex. We didn’t decide yet, but we also have a mind to continue and make the activity of the test team stronger. We have Sylvain Guintoli. He’s a very good test rider, gives very good feedback, and is very precise on the bike. We think that with Álex’s experience and Sylvain’s support, we can do a very good development job.
We think we are covered on development and we are covered on talented and fast riders. That’s how we are building our future.