All downhill from here?

Neil offers a view on the Suzuki 'blues'

It all started so well. At Valencia last year, Andrea Iannone and Suzuki seemed made for one another. A factory on the up, placing its total faith in his ability and feedback. With Italians occupying several positions in the team, and the factory prepared to employ Marco Rigamonti, his crew chief from Ducati, Iannone would feel at home, energised by his new position as factory figurehead.

Suzuki could also offer him the GSX-RR – a machine with undoubted limitations, yes, but one with a shed-load of positives too. Just look at the form of both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro in the autumn of 2016, and it was clear there was potential within. ‘That turning issue you’ve had to overcome on the Ducati for four years, Andrea? You won’t find that here,’ team boss Davide Brivio no doubt told him. ‘No, our bike handles like a dream.’

And in Iannone there was a rider that could stick it to the best of them. Colourful, flamboyant, and, at times, comically self-centred, perhaps his direct, curt means of communicating could keep Suzuki on its largely upward trajectory. After all, his quoting of Nietzsche on social media hinted at a more thoughtful, considered figure than the happy-go-lucky loon seen smashing the rear window of his own car a year ago. Right?

Wrong. Even for the Italian’s biggest detractors, the rate at which the whole relationship has unravelled has been shocking. Aside from a spirited ten laps in Qatar, there has been little else to show for Iannone’s first half-season at Suzuki, his weekend at the Sachsenring another sorry showing.

There can be no doubting that Iannone has badly lost his way, the fruits of his labours earning him just 16th place in the championship, eleven lower than Viñales at this point a year ago, and 55 points worse off. His meagre sum is 29 lower than his predecessor’s total after this race in ’15 – when both rider and bike were rookies – too. Numbers that must make Brivio shudder.

So where has it all gone so spectacularly wrong for a factory that won a premier class race just nine months ago? Well, the fact Iannone has had to effectively go alone for several races, as rookie team-mate Alex Rins recovered from a wrist injury didn’t help. Then there is the way the GSX-RR demands to be ridden. Braking all the way into the corner – as Iannone tries – is a no-go, with Viñales’ straight-line braking technique (before rapidly flicking into the corner) more effective. As Jorge Lorenzo has shown, radically changing one’s style does not happen overnight.

But at Montmeló and the Sachsenring, there was no sign of progress. No sign of anything, in fact, from Iannone’s corner. If finishing 16th in the searing Barcelona heat was the season’s nadir, what then could we label the German Grand Prix, where he placed a diabolical 24th in both of Friday’s sessions before crashing out of an underwhelming twelfth? Viñales is a special talent, but even Espargaro was able to dot a crash strewn opening half of 2016 with the occasional good result (Austin, Jerez). What’s more, Espargaro showed signs of toil. “I cried a lot after the warm-up at the Qatar GP. I was desperate because I wasn’t enjoying it. I was suffering a lot,” he revealed at the start of this year. Yes, he was crashing. But he cared. And engineers recognise that. In contrast, Iannone often wears the listless expression of a man who wishes to be elsewhere.

Known for its togetherness – remember, Viñales’ ’16 crew refused his offer to follow him to Yamaha – even Suzuki team morale is at a low, something that surely can’t be helped by rumours of their rider partying in Ibiza just days after Assen. Leading a factory is so much more than riding ability. It’s motivating those around you, by what you do, how you work and how you communicate. On each of these fronts, Iannone is falling well short.

It came as little surprise to hear that Suzuki ambassador Kevin Schwantz had a few choice words for the Italian on Saturday evening. The highlights included: “I don’t understand Italian. But his body language is as bad as it can be.” Or, “[If he doesn’t want to risk a lot] he should go and race go-karts.” Then: “I would love to tell him what I and all of us see, but he wouldn’t like to hear that.”

And the frustration surrounding the situation is clear; Iannone remains one of the class’ leading talents, his fairly unique ability to feather the throttle while braking all the way into the corner a clear indicator of that. Cal Crutchlow remembers times during ‘14, when, as a member of Ducati’s factory team, he would cast an eye over the then Pramac satellite rider’s data with mild disbelief. “I know how he rides,” said the Englishman. “When I was in Ducati, he was the best Ducati rider at the time. He can overlay the throttle and the brake at the same time. He does some fantastic things. But he’s wasting his talent. He’s just not bothered.”

As Schwantz mentioned, the GSX-RR can’t be that bad a bike. Neither Yamaha nor Honda has taken huge steps this year. Ducati is more consistent. Brivio recently said the only changes to this year’s machine (improved electronics, more horsepower) have been “good changes”. All the more reason for Iannone to be, at the very least, fighting regularly for the top six.

Recent performances make you wonder how long it can go on like this. Suzuki has to decide on a course of action over the summer break to try and breathe fresh life into its project. And, aside from continuing to understand the bike, Iannone needs to knuckle down, and recognise that the number of likes on his Instagram account counts for little when the visor goes down. As it stands, Suzuki’s two years of admirable progress is slowly being undone.

Photos by CormacGP

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