The positives and negatives of the start of the MotoAmerica season for the Yoshimura Suzuki team and the new GSX-R1000 Superbike it is developing are as clear as the numbers on the championship standings or a Superpole results sheet.
There’s plenty to be positive about. Three rounds, six races into the season, Yoshimura Suzuki riders Toni Elias and Roger Hayden left Virginia International Raceway in first and third, respectively, in the championship points. And the situation could have been even better. Hayden was in third place, just behind Elias, in the second race at VIR and attempted a last-lap pass. Had he pulled it off, he’d be leading the championship. Instead, he ran off the track and finished sixth. Still, he’s just one point behind defending champion Cameron Beaubier, who is second.
MotoAmerica Motul Superbike/
Bazzazz Superstock 1000 standings
Beneath the surface, though, there is the constant struggle of coming into each and every race weekend with less setup information and more variables to consider than their competitors. It’s great to have a new GSX-R1000, but it means the past is no longer a very useful guide. The results of starting out behind everyone else could be seen clearly in Superpole at VIR, where Elias qualified ninth, the slowest Superbike on the combined Motul Superbike and Bazzazz Superstock 1000 grid.
As Elias described it later, “Yamaha is not our problem. Our problem is inside. The enemy is starting from zero every weekend.”
But Elias also saw the positive side: “My team, every time we are fighting hard.”
The promise and challenge of a new GSX-R1000
The MotoAmerica series resumes racing this weekend at Road America, the longest track on the circuit and one with a long straight that rewards horsepower. Of course one question everyone can't help but think about is how Hayden will be affected by the tragedy that hit his family just days after his last race, when Nicky Hayden was hit by a car while bicycling and later died. Will the loss motivate him or distract him?
That's on top of the challenges Yoshimura Suzuki has faced this year with a new motorcycle to develop. When we checked in with the team during preseason testing, it was Race Department Coordinator Rich Doan who described their task as finding the “best bike.” To some degree, that task starts anew every race weekend, because while the other teams show up with experience and setup notes from past years, everything Yoshimura Suzuki did last year is now out of date. The new GSX-R1000 is too different.
The weekend at VIR was a classic example of the challenges the team faces and the up-and-down nature of professional racing. First, the weather made everyone’s job more difficult. Friday was unusually cool and wet, with a high temperature near 60 degrees. Saturday started out damp but turned sunny and pleasant by the time the first Superbike race began. Sunday was warmer and sunny.
That meant that the first time the Superbikes went out on a completely dry track was the Superpole qualifying session. That makes it hard for all the teams to guess the right setup, but it’s even worse for Yoshimura or Team Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda, racing the new Honda CBR1000RR, which have no prior experience with their bike on this track.
That challenge showed in the qualifying results. While Yamaha riders took advantage of their special qualifying tires and locked down the first four spots on the grid, Hayden and Elias were unable to go any faster on the yellow-stripe qualifiers than they did on race tires, leaving them to start fifth and ninth. It was a result Doan described as “dismal.”
Room for improvement
Not surprisingly, given the secrecy in the paddock, Doan was reluctant to reveal where the race bike could be improved to make it even stronger.
“It’s the whole package, not just one thing,” he said. The new MotoAmerica rules for 2017 give the Superbike teams more flexibility, but that also introduces more variables. They have new forks and swingarms to test, new electronics to tune, and all on a brand-new motorcycle.
While Doan didn’t want to identify a single area, others have said that for Elias the biggest challenge has been finding confidence in the front end. Hayden, meanwhile, mentioned turn-in.
“To me, I’m still struggling a little bit to get the bike to fall into the corners the way I like,” Hayden said (in an interview conducted before his brother's injury and death). “I really ride on top of the front end and that’s what I work on. We’ve got some ideas and we’re waiting on some stuff to try to make that happen.”
“We’ve still got a lot of development to do,” Hayden added. “I don’t know if people realize that. We’re still waiting on a lot of stuff.”
Doan said that not only are new parts expected from Japan, but that Yoshimura could benefit from information from the Suzuki team in the All Japan Road Race Championship, which is also testing parts. Elias said he is eager to see what improvements are coming.
“I am waiting for some solutions,” Elias said. “Maybe the solution will arrive, maybe not.”
Again, flipping from the negatives to the positives, the team has to consider this: If Elias is first in the points (despite a DNF at VIR when Josh Herrin crashed into him) and Hayden is third and would be leading the points except for one small last-lap mistake, then imagine what is possible if Elias does gain the front-end confidence he needs and Hayden gets the bike to steer the way he wants. Isn’t that reason for confidence?
“Oh, hell yeah,” Doan said. “We’re learning stuff all the time.”
First report card
So where does the team stand now, compared to where they thought they would be three rounds into the season?
“Do I want to sound confident? I don’t want to jinx myself,” Doan said, hesitating a moment.
“We knew that we had a very good base motorcycle, platform, to start with, and it’s just how are we going to take it from there. So far, we’ve been headed in the right direction.”
Hayden was even more positive.
“I don’t think we expected to be this fast this soon,” Hayden said. “Of course, you always want to be better. If you would have told us we would have won five of the first seven races, I think we would have been pretty excited about that.”
“I said in the beginning of the year that we were just going to get stronger as the season went on and I still feel like that,” Hayden added. “Every session we’re learning more and more.”
Doan pointed out one stat most fans might overlook. He noted that Elias’ win in the Sunday race at Circuit of the Americas this year was six seconds faster than last year’s Sunday race.
“Same track, same rider won, same tires from the year before,” Doan noted. “We are making a faster motorcycle.”
And that's a big part of the job of building the best one.