Building a winning Superbike: The search for the best bike

Last year, Yoshimura Suzuki riders Toni Elias and Roger Hayden pushed Graves Yamaha riders Cameron Beaubier and Josh Hayes right to the end of the MotoAmerica Superbike season, in spite of the fact that Toni and Roger were racing GSX-R1000 bikes that had changed little since 2009.

This year, they finally have an all-new Gixxer to work with — a bike that’s been radically improved in every imaginable way. That’s part of Yoshimura’s problem.

The other part of their problem is that MotoAmerica’s made good on its promise to adopt World Championship technical rules. That means a new Öhlins front fork, unobtainable swingarm, and a Magnetti-Marelli MLE computer.

Those are all good things, you’re thinking.

Yes, but.

But they present the tight-knit Yoshimura team with countless new variables to test in the very limited number of test days available before the first MotoAmerica race, at Austin on April 22.

Yoshimura Suzuki team

Suzuki Motor of America, Inc., pays Yoshimura Racing to run Suzuki's factory race team in the United States. Yosh Racing, in turn, is a subsidiary of Yoshimura Research and Development, a company founded by legendary tuner "Pops" Yoshimura in 1959. Engineers at its sister company, Yoshimura Japan, have been working closely with Suzuki Motor Corporation to develop Superbike parts for the new GSX-R1000R. However, the release of the new bike was delayed an entire year.

Last December, Yoshimura R&D finally sent a small team of engine technicians to Japan, where they took possession of a handful of stock motors. The motors were torn down and reassembled to race spec. Then in January, Yosh chassis technicians flew to Japan to build up the first couple of complete bikes. From there, they traveled to Malaysia with Yoshimura Japan's Superbike team for a joint test. Yosh Japan's big project is building a bike for the Suzuka 8 Hours race.

Although that initial shakedown was encouraging, the weather at Sepang didn’t really cooperate. That left a lot to accomplish in a two-day test at Thunderhill earlier this month. In spite of having a very busy schedule and a few trade secrets on display, Yoshimura’s Senior Vice President Don Sakakura and Race Department Coordinator Rich Doan allowed me to spend those two days with them as a fly on the wall.

Winning at the MotoAmerica level involves a lot more than just hiring an elite rider. Sure, those riders — and the mechanics who support them, who have equally competitive personalities — want the fastest possible bike. But to reach their potential, riders need a bike that inspires confidence, and confidence comes from predictability. Predictability, in turn, comes from painstaking experimentation.

Roger Hayden's GSX-R1000R

Chassis tuners at the MotoAmerica level make all the same adjustments that are familiar to ordinary sport bike riders; spring preload; high- and low-speed compression, and rebound damping. But they also change fork offset, swingarm length and pivot location, shock linkages, and — since the new motorcycle is significantly under the class minimum weight — ballast location, among other things.

On the engine side, the Magnetti Marelli MLE system captures more than 30 channels of data and provides for virtually limitless variability in engine mapping, including sector-by-sector customization of traction-control settings.

The resulting number of permutations is astronomical. Sorting through them is the job of crew chiefs: Daisuke Hashimoto in Toni’s case, and Davey Jones in Roger’s. Ultimately, it’s the chief’s responsibility to give his rider a bike that’s confidence-inspiring and optimized for whatever track they’re racing at. You can spot them because even in this day and age of data-logging, they’re never without a clipboard with a row of stopwatches across the top.

Early that first morning, Jones glanced over his shoulder and saw me with my camera standing behind him. He spun around and demanded, “You didn’t just photograph my setup sheet, did you?” I wasn’t invading anyone’s personal space or pestering anyone before that, but after that little exchange I gave them even more room, and asked even fewer questions.

Davey Jones

The search for the "best bike"

Rich Doan has been working on Superbikes at the national championship level for over 20 years. By the time the team’s at the track, Rich has delegated authority to others, so he was pretty available to a pesky journalist. When I asked him what the first step was in taking a new motorcycle to the grid, he told me, “You need to have your ‘best bike’.”

By that, he meant that you need a solid set of baseline settings. The tweaks you make for each track or race must be based on a logical assessment of what’s worked in the past. That’s what Yoshimura Suzuki did at Thunderhill while I watched: the team methodically searched for that "best bike."

During the years the series was managed by the Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) and in the first two years of MotoAmerica, Yosh basically raced the same bike. By the 2016 season it was old, but they knew it inside-out. This year, all that’s changed. The guys (and yes, they’re all guys) got the bike they wanted, but finding that "best bike" was, I could tell, a complex and occasionally frustrating assignment.

Under each crew chief, there’s a dedicated engine builder, two chassis mechanics, and a data technician (the team is considering adding even more nerds). A dedicated suspension technician is seconded to Yosh from Öhlins. And this year, two engineers from Suzuki Motor Corporation in Japan are also helping the team come to grips with the new motorcycle.

temperature testingCrews arrived at Thunderhill around 7 a.m. Riders showed up around nine, but even at that they had nothing much to do. Daisuke told me that no useful data can be accumulated until the asphalt temperature hits 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, Roger took Toni for a lap in a rental car. “Don’t flip it,” Rich Doan half-joked — but only half — as they prepared to leave.

The team works in a bilaterally symmetrical pit area, split by a long desk and computer server. Although there are still rolling tool boxes at each pit, a lot of the work’s done while sitting at a laptop.

divided pits

The two sides of the pit have access to each others’ data, but as far as I saw, each chief and his crew work independently; there were moments when one side had their machine stripped down while engineers and techs wrestled with some problem; meanwhile on the other side, mechanics basically whistled and gave a spotless windscreen one more polish.

Off to one side, there were coolers of food and drinks, snacks, and a make-your-own sandwich bar. The team set up enough tables and chairs for everyone, but I never saw more than a handful of chairs in use at a time. Usually, some technician quickly made a sandwich or poured hot water over noodles and ate while standing.

Right now, Yosh only has two complete race bikes, one for Toni and one for Roger. So when their riders are out on track, crews have less to do; a few guys wander out to the pit lane wall to watch, listen, and hand-time their rider. By the time the first race rolls around, the team should have four complete bikes, a dozen motors, and a dozen sets of crash spares, which should get them through the season. Motors are torn down after every race or test.

I have to admit that, while en route to Thunderhill, I thought this was just another assignment. But while we waited for 20 degrees C, I had a good chance to study the new machine, and it’s pretty fucking cool. The Öhlins RVP25 fork legs are the same ones used in World Superbike (they sell for the €10,000 price cap.) The swingarm and fuel tank are once again visibly different. And then there’s the thousand and one details. Even the way the rear stand grabs the swingarm is a thing of beauty.

tools

While the morning sun was slanting in under the canopy, I watched one crew member after another take a moment to slip out their smartphones and snap a few pictures. The pros in the paddock are pumped by MotoAmerica’s adoption of SBK World Championship technical rules. Everyone I spoke to expressed some variation of, “They’ve put the ‘super’ back in ‘Superbike’.” (One of the only remaining differences is that World Championship teams can nominate different ratios in the gearbox, while U.S. teams must use the stock ones.)

The new GSX-R1000R

Most of the buzz around the new Gixxer is focused on the Variable Valve Timing, finger-follower valve train, and 200-horsepower output, but the riders were struck most by the new motorcycle’s light weight and small size. Roger Hayden told me that, last year, when he was chasing Beaubier and Hayes, he lost ground in side-to-side transitions. The very first time he rode the 2017 production bike (shooting a marketing video at Buttonwillow) it was lighter and more maneuverable. The race bike has a carbon monocoque rear subframe that reduces weight and improves mass centralization even more.

Thunderhill isn’t a track where MotoAmerica (or AMA Pro Racing before that) raced. But, it’s a regular test venue that Yosh knows well. The team’s best lap with the old bike was Roger’s 1:47 flat. The new Gixxer’s a night-and-day improvement, and the new rules allow the team much more latitude. So you might think that it would be faster right off the truck. But, you’d be wrong. Toni’d never ridden the track at all; even Roger spent almost the whole first day struggling to get into the low-1:48 range and to find suspension settings that allowed him to feel what was happening at the front contact patch.

All day, the riders would go out and turn a few laps, then come in for a debrief. Then the riders sat for anything from a few minutes to half an hour, while minor or major changes were made to the bike (and, usually, new tires were mounted; Dunlop brought about 20 prototypes to try.)

Roger Hayden awaits adjustments

Once in a while, Toni or Roger were visibly frustrated with a change, but as Roger explained, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to try something that makes the bike worse. That, at least, suggests going the opposite direction. It’s a bigger problem if the team makes a change but the rider can’t tell, or the lap times don’t change. At one point, I heard Daisuke say, “Try some big change, that he can feel.”

In general, Toni is more demonstrative. He comes in with a lot to communicate, using both words and body language. He’s picky and has a lot of ideas about what they should try in testing, although as one senior Yosh guy told me, “What worked in Moto2 won’t necessarily work on a Superbike.” They find a lot to laugh about, on his side of the garage. Roger is quieter. He and his crew chief put their heads together for minute or two after each session, but I got the feeling Roger was happy to let the data do most of his talking.

Don Sakakura“Roger’s more inclined to ride around problems," said Sakakura, whose Superbike experience goes all the way back to tuning for Wes Cooley. "We tell him, ‘Roger we like it when you complain about our bike’.”

I usually saw Toni’s guys working at the back of his bike, changing shocks or linkages. Roger’s guys usually seemed focused on the front. Judging from the lines visible on the fork legs above the top clamp, Roger runs significantly less ride height.

The techs work swiftly but rarely look hurried. The one time I saw someone run was a guy carrying Roger’s pit board out to the wall with one word on it — "IN."

IN Roger

Meanwhile, the Öhlins tech trotted out to the hot pit lane with a wrench, and the moment Roger pulled in, the tech spun a bunch of preload into his front fork. It was the only time I saw an adjustment made in the hot pit lane instead of at the truck. It was pretty clear that while Roger was on the track, someone realized he was on a setting that was very different from what he'd expected. As soon as that sunk in, the crew wanted him back in, like right fuckin’ now. It was a reminder that even testing is dangerous work.

The lack of spare bikes was worrisome; any crash would really set the program back. And recent, heavy rains in central California meant the ground at the edge of the track was saturated. Everyone knew that if a rider got onto the grass, he was going down.

Officially it was a Yoshimura test, since Yosh booked the track — but they were not the only team there. After Rich Doan booked his test dates, he made them available to several other teams in order to share the expense. Most notably, the Graves Yamaha team, which has won the title the last seven years, was also there. Beaubier and Hayes, on their YZF-R1s, winners of six of those seven titles, are the obvious rivals.

Lap times in testing don't matter, and why they do

Rich told me over and over that testing was not racing, and that what really mattered was gathering useful data, not logging one fast lap. No one minded me hand-timing a few laps on my own, but the team never volunteered to share times from their data-loggers with me, either.

At one point, towards the end of the first day, Rich and I watched Josh Hayes cut a few laps and we wondered if he was sandbagging. A veteran like Hayes might purposely hold back on a couple of different corners each lap. By doing so, his team could calculate a hypothetical fast lap, but competitors would think he was actually a couple of tenths slower.

We balanced the possibility that Hayes was being cagey like that against this simple truth: Racers race.

Even on a test day, guys like Toni, Roger, Cam, and Josh desperately want to be the fastest. And the guy each of them most desperately wants to beat is his teammate — the only guy on theoretically identical machinery.

The next morning, I ran into Toni at the Starbucks in Willows. I caught his eye and casually asked him about yesterday’s best lap. He looked off into the distance for a second and then reeled off the six fastest riders’ times, in order. Toni’s best lap was second-fastest, after Beaubier’s best, a 1:47.2.

So lap times aren’t important, eh?

But the scale of the development challenge — new bike, new rules — was also clear. Even with a massively improved base motorcycle and less-restrictive rules, the new bike was not immediately faster than the old one.

Honestly, I felt pretty jaded going into the test. But now I’m ready to believe that 2017 may be the season when MotoAmerica turns a corner. Adopting SBK World Championship technical rules means the bikes are cooler. Honda’s dipped a toe back in the Superbike class (with a bike for Jake Gagne in the Roadracing Factory team.)

While it will cost more to build a competitive Superbike this year than it did last year, bringing the rules into line with the World Championship makes it easier for Kawasaki, Ducati, and even Aprilia to come back to MotoAmerica. After all, they’re already building bikes for the World Championship.

One challenge returning teams will face is that while there are some fast riders available (or at least, underemployed) it’s an expensive proposition to reconstitute an entire factory-level Superbike team. Yoshimura stuck it out during the lean, frustrating DMG years. Just as AMA Pro Racing changed hands, the economy crashed, and production-oriented rules hampered Yosh. Rich Doan laughed as he referred the bike they raced last year as “our vintage bike.”

In the sport bike world, a lot of companies claim that racing is their lifeblood. But Yoshimura doesn’t just talk that talk, they walk it. Out of about 140 employees, 30 work full-time for the racing subsidiary. The fact that Yosh kept their Superbike team intact all those years is the only reason they’re able to get a completely new motorcycle dialed in, in a handful of test days. If you added a bunch of new employees into the equation, there’d be too many variables.

On the second morning, while we again waited for suitable track temperatures, I spotted Wayne Rainey and Chuck Aksland — two of MotoAmerica’s senior partners — checking out the new bikes. Everyone’s cautiously optimistic about the new season, in particular about the Superbike class although it’s still going to be pretty sparse. Gonda, who has promoted many races over the years, was unambiguous about what’s left on MotoAmerica’s to-do list: “They need to convince Honda and Nicky (Hayden) to get back here.”

Once track sessions were underway, the second day was much like the first. Teams worked through changes; sometimes they took a few minutes, other times they took the entire front end off. Often the bikes went untouched while techs pored over computer screens and tweaked the Marelli ECU via the long umbilical cords that connected each machine to the server.

Toni Elias waits for techs to prep his bike

The riders hoped to get in some longer runs on the second day; six or seven good laps in a row that would allow them to build a rhythm. Between sessions, they spent a little more time stretching the first day’s kinks out of their bodies.

As the track-mandated lunch break approached, Toni put up a nice fast sequence. Meanwhile Roger’s team worked on his bike for what felt like ages. I knew he wasn’t going to get out before the checkered flag was shown, but Roger left his helmet on. He stood staring out at the track, with his arms crossed.

I speak pretty fluent body language, and what I saw was, “He’s out there, getting faster, and I’m stuck here.”

Toni Elias

I suppose he was, too. Because according to Roadracing World, at the end of the test, Elias had turned in a best lap of 1:46.1 — a tenth or two quicker than Beaubier’s best. Doan told me Toni was confident he could have gone 1:45.8 but he made a few small mistakes on that lap. Roger was third-fastest; he ended up going faster on the new bike than he ever did on the familiar old one, and faster than Hayes (although again, if anyone was gonna be sandbagging, it’d be Hayes.)

So… Did Yosh find that elusive "best bike?" Probably not yet. But they obviously found a better bike. After every test or race, the crew chiefs debrief together with Rich Doan, and the team prepares a report that goes back to Suzuki in Japan.

Yoshimura Suzuki’s next outing will take place at Dunlop’s Alabama test facility. That track’s equipped with sprinklers, and they’ll work on wet settings for rain tires. From there the team will go straight Austin, where they’ll participate in the official MotoAmerica/Dunlop preseason "tire test."

Conclusion: A bold prediction

For most of the time that I’ve been around racing, Yoshimura Suzuki has been dominant in U.S. Superbike racing. From 1999 through 2009, the team won 10 of 11 championships, interrupted only by one title for Nicky Hayden. Mat Mladin won seven and Ben Spies won three before leaving for World Superbike. Yoshimura basically owned the Superbike title, but for the last seven years they've loaned it to Yamaha. I think they’re about to take it back. Personality-wise, Elias couldn’t be more different than Mladin, and that’s a good thing. But I would not be surprised to see Elias begin a Mladin-like run of dominant championships.

That said, teething troubles are a real thing in racing; ironically, if Yosh doesn’t win it all in MotoAmerica this year, it may be because the new GSX-R100R-based Superbike is too much of an improvement.

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