Suzuki had its most successful MotoGP season yet in 2007. The new XRG-0 variant of its pneumatic-valve, 75-degree, V-four-engined GSV-R became an established front-runner in the 800cc formula's debut year, and it combined performance with reliability-Suzuki was the only manufacturer that didn't suffer a single mechanical breakdown in a race all season. At Le Mans in May, Chris Vermeulen scored the Japanese marque's first victory in five years of four-stroke Grand Prix racing and, like teammate John Hopkins, became a four-time visitor to the MotoGP podium in 2007. The Suzuki duo wound up sixth and fourth, respectively, in the final points table, and the Rizla Suzuki GP squad failed by just one point to tie with Repsol Honda as runners-up in the Teams championship. The chance to ride both riders' Bridgestone-shod Suzukis at Valencia the day after the final GP of the season underlined the big step forward that Suzuki had taken with the new GSV-R800-a bike that was competitive straight out of the box.
Like many of the current MotoGP bikes on the grid the Suzuki allows the clutch to be an afterthought once you've started the race. While Hopkins still prefers to use the clutch out of habit, Vermeulen doesn't use it at all after punching the launch-control button on the Suzuki's left handlebar just before starting. The Suzuki's gearbox was easily the best of any of the five bikes I rode at Valencia, with a light yet totally positive engagement. There were no issues shifting up or down through the transmission without the clutch, and everything worked faultlessly no matter what situation I encountered. That includes the back-torque-limiting systems, with the Mitsubishi ECU's variable-idle-speed setup ensuring that the GSV-R remained stable and planted under the most aggressive braking situations (in spite of ongoing tests with a Magneti Marelli package like that used by its Ducati, Yamaha and Kawasaki rivals, Suzuki still employs a Mitsubishi ECU governing the GSV-R's engine management systems). As with the other MotoGP bikes that permit you to forget about the clutch, the additional freedom allowed by this system pays major dividends when your control inputs are being forced to deal with the additional harsh G-loads imposed by the carbon brakes.
The GSV-R800 feels incredibly similar to its 990cc predecessor I rode a year ago, both in chassis architecture and, surprisingly, in terms of engine performance, too. Despite the decreased engine displacement there's the same muscular pull from as low as 8000 rpm out of slower turns. The V-four engine picks up revs very fast, however, and you need to be on your toes with regard to rpm, as it seems that in the blink of an eye the bright-orange shift lights atop the 2D dash begin flashing brightly at 16,800 rpm. There's quite a way to go before the rev limiter cuts in at 18,000 rpm-slightly lower than I expected given the 75-degree V-four's pneumatic valve operation. However, in the MotoGP world of pushing engines to the limit it's quite possible that in actual race trim the rev limit is higher.
It's easy to find yourself making friends with the Suzuki's rev limiter, because not only does it rev very quickly, its fluid and linear power delivery masks any sense of where you are in the powerband. Up top the GSV-R's powerplant is as smooth as an electric motor, much more so in 800cc form than any of its rivals. That said, the ride-by-wire throttle response was pretty abrupt on Vermeulen's bike, so I had to exercise care where and how I opened it. By contrast Hopkins' bike felt more controlled from a closed throttle, although both bikes exhibited identically monstrous acceleration anywhere from 10,000 rpm upward.
It's pretty obvious that Suzuki's engineering team has focused on power delivery rather than outright numbers. Peak power is only really important in delivering top-end speed down the straights anyway; around the rest of the track what really matters is torque and power delivery, and in that area the Suzuki excels. Sure, the Suzukis may have been the slowest of the five manufacturers down the ultralong Shanghai front straight at the beginning of the season, with Hopkins on level pegging with Rossi's Yamaha at 202 mph, trailing the Hondas and Kawasakis by as much as 4 mph and a massive 7 mph down on the flying Stoner's Ducati. Yet look at the end-of-season points table and it's easy to see the top-speed deficit wasn't that big a problem. Of course you can bet that Suzuki's engineers haven't exactly been ignoring peak power during development of the '08 machine.
Both bikes still liked to wheelie quite a bit but not as much as the old 990 did. It was pretty apparent that neither Suzuki had the antiwheelie control switched on. (When I asked Hopkins about his usage of the system his reply was, "This is the kind of wheelie prevention I go for," as he tapped his toe on the rear brake pedal. "The electronic kind just holds you back.") Both Suzukis felt stable and secure on the brakes, though, while acceptably planted in turns in the same way their 990 predecessors were. It's uncanny how similar the 880 is to the 990, and it's pretty obvious that Suzuki treated the final season of the 990cc MotoGP as a development exercise for the 800; the way the GSV-R800 proved competitive from the very start was the payoff.
Another area where the Suzuki follows its former 990cc guise is in corner speed. A combination of the weight transfer delivered under braking by a bike that's quite a bit taller than the Ducati but not as stilt-like as the Rossi Yamaha-plus Bridgestone's great front tire and the GSV-R's sweet-steering chassis package-all together encourage you to brake later and keep up momentum in Valencia's more sweeping turns. But just as a year ago on the 990, the Brembo radial carbon brakes on the GSV-R800 felt a little soft compared with the other two bikes I'd been riding that day fitted with the outwardly similar hardware. "It's just the same as last year-we both have the brakes set up like that deliberately," Vermeulen confirms. "My style is to do a lot of trail-braking into turns, and I don't like the brakes to be too fierce because I like to brake while I'm already leaned over in turns quite a bit. If it's too snappy then it's too easy to lose the front. That's why I have it set up that way." And in Hopper's case, as a reformed AMA Formula Xtreme unlimited literbike star he likes to use more engine braking than other riders, so he also eschews ultraresponsive front brakes in keeping the bike balanced in turns.
Balance. That's the key word for the GSV-R800 Suzuki. It's a balanced package that feels completely predictable in the way it responds to rider input, both in terms of handling and engine performance. OK, it's not the fastest bike out there in a straight line, but it's certainly one of the most manageable and effective-without the sense of excessive use of electronics. For me the Suzuki was the most enjoyable to ride without significantly lacking performance to achieve it. It's just that final step the bike needs to become a regular contender for top honors, and Rizla Suzuki team manager Paul Denning believes Suzuki's engineers are quite capable of bridging that ever-decreasing gap. "As the smallest of the major race departments, Suzuki needs to build momentum to compete with Honda and Yamaha and beat them," Denning says. "Because of their resources it tends to go in cycles, and Suzuki is very much on the upswing right now. The engineers have come up with a significant new technical ingredient for 2008 which they believe will make the difference between fourth place and first, in both races and championship. Nobby [Aoki, Suzuki MotoGP's test rider] rode next year's bike at Sepang and lapped faster on it than our two regular riders on the current machine, so it seems to be a definite step forward. We're very excited about what's coming next, and we believe this year's bike provides an exceptional basis to move forward from."