At the start of the 2022 MotoGP season, things were looking very good for Suzuki, with two fast riders and a revitalized bike that promised to be as competitive as its title-winning 2020 year.
And things were right on track, too, until last May when the breaking news broke that Suzuki would be retiring from the series at the end of the season. The shocked team collapsed for months afterwards.
It was at a relatively high level with Alex Rins’ two wins in the last three races of the year, but even with that late rise Suzuki was only fifth of six in the manufacturers’ standings and sixth in the teams’ standings. His last campaign was largely a tale of unfulfilled potential, at least compared to the pre-season optimism.
There may be an even bigger question hanging that we will never know the answer to now: what would have been possible for Rins and teammate Joan Mir in 2023 as MotoGP prepares for the enactment of what appears to be a small but significant rule change.
The issue of minimum tire pressure was first raised midway through the 2022 season when a post-race chart appeared leaked to journalist Mat Oxley shows how many on the starting grid did not comply with the values specified by the control tire manufacturer Michelin.
Introduced primarily as a safety consideration, to ensure dangerously low pressure (something that provides a performance benefit, at least in the short term) doesn’t lead to tire failure, it may be a rule, but it’s one that hasn’t been enforced since manufacturers were given one year to complete a working tire pressure monitoring system.
The wide range of the displayed values was mainly due to the tires themselves, which the teams deliberately did wrong. Supercharged by a huge advance in the forces generated by a modern MotoGP machine with ground clearance devices and extensive aerodynamics, the tires have become exceptionally sensitive to pressure fluctuations, something that crews building a bike must take into account.
This involves an inherent gamble that must be taken before a race even begins. Expect to be in the middle of the field and ease your starting pressure, knowing that the heat generated by other bikes following you will increase it – but at the risk of finding yourself out in the open and not reach the minimum pressure.
Alternatively, if you start at the front of the grid and aim for a clean breakaway (standard Yamaha and Suzuki tactics thanks to the high corner speed of their inline-four engine) but are stuck in a Ducatis battle, you’re going to be in trouble as the pressure gets too high and you effectively drive on ice.
While the responsibility lay with teams to ensure drivers did not start races at dangerously low pressures, a check monitoring system was never mandatory prior to 2023, so the rule could never be properly implemented.
Because there were different sensors and different ways the field processed the collected data, a system could instead display pressure that was too low for one driver and too high for another, while both were within legal limits.
However, that will change for the coming season as a new tire pressure monitoring system is launched. Specific details are yet to be finalized by series bosses, but it appears that under the new rule any single lap in practice or qualifying with too low a temperature will be scrapped – and drivers who cover more than half of the total race distance under the limit will be disqualified .
How would that have affected Suzuki for 2023? Well, it seems that of all the manufacturers caught at various points in 2022 by being outside Michelin’s quoted values, Rins and Mir were the two most consistently within the range.
On several occasions this was detrimental to the performance of both drivers as the rivals got away with lower pressure and a lap time advantage.
Some well-placed sources in the paddock are suggesting that other factories that have consistently been out of bounds could lose up to a second per lap in 2023, now that they will be forced to play by the rules rather than themselves to stick to last year’s gentlemen’s agreement, which meant no one was penalized.
That could have potentially opened a door for Suzuki in particular to be successful again.
Of course, this will always remain a hypothesis after Suzuki exits the championship.
But with the new rules yet to come into effect when the season kicks off in March, there will at least be an opportunity to appreciate just how much lap time is hampering the others now.