When the late, great Warren Willing guided Kenny Roberts Junior to the 500 world title in 2000 few outsiders knew exactly how he had transformed Suzuki’s RGV500 from loser into winner.
Suzuki won its last premier-class championship in 2000, with Kenny Roberts Junior, son of King Kenny, riding an RGV500. It was the factory’s first title success since Kevin Schwantz won the 1993 crown and it came against the flow of Honda and Yamaha hegemony.
So what happened in 2000? Was it Roberts Junior’s talent that overcame Valentino Rossi on Honda’s NSR and Max Biaggi on Yamaha’s YZR, or was it something bigger than that?
At last it can be revealed that while Roberts Junior played a major part in that 2000 success, but much more happened on the other side of the pit wall.
When KRJR left his father’s Modenas Team Roberts squad at the end of 1998 he took with him racer-turned-engineer Warren Willing, whose brilliant understanding of motorcycle dynamics had helped the team achieve so much with Yamaha and its own KR3, the last two-stroke to score a MotoGP pole position.
Over the next two years the Australian genius transformed the RGV500 from habitual loser into world championship winner, thanks to his own knowhow plus vital and top-secret help from Team Roberts.
A few months before Willing lost his battle with cancer last September he revealed the full extent of the technical assistance he received from his former team, using its chassis-development facilities in Britain and its engine-tuning facilities in the USA to revitalise the RGV.
Willing’s work had the blessing of Suzuki race boss Tadeo Shigenoya and team manager Garry Taylor, but of course the factory didn’t what anyone else to know what went on. Now, however, it’s time the world knew that KRJR’s world championship was just as much Willing’s and Team Roberts’ first success since Wayne Rainey’s 1992 title as it was Suzuki’s first since 1993. In an interview conducted with Willing last year, here’s how he told the story…
“Kenny Junior went to Suzuki because he needed a factory behind him. The situation at Team Roberts was that the finance wasn’t there to produce the bike we wanted to produce. And Kenny Senior was much happier if I went to Suzuki with Junior because he was concerned he would end up getting injured on the Suzuki.
“Kevin Schwantz ended up with so many injuries because he overrode the Suzuki for so long. The bike had its shortfalls and he was like Wayne Rainey: I don’t care what the bike’s doing, I’m still going to try and win.
“If a circuit was all about hard braking and quite short corners, Kevin was very competitive on the Suzuki because of the way he rode it. Compared to the Yamaha the bike was too long and too low, so Kevin always suffered at tracks where the corners are longer, like Brno. He suffered year after year at Brno because the bike needed to keep turning in the middle of the corners, but the Suzuki never did that. When he opened throttle he started to run wide.
“At Team Roberts we had competed against Kevin for a long time, so we had observed the Suzuki’s strong points and weak points. The Yamaha was basically a very similar motorcycle and we had had a lot of success with it, so once we were able to look into the details and get some rider feedback from Junior we knew very quickly the things we could try to improve the Suzuki.
“Our first test with Junior and the Suzuki at the end of 1998 confirmed a lot of the things we knew. We looked at the data which showed the shortcomings in the Showa suspension, particularly the forks. The Showa forks had a lot of stiction problems, which we proved to Suzuki by showing them slow-motion video footage. At Team Roberts we had been through a very good learning curve on chassis feedback and feeling with Yamaha and with Öhlins suspension. So we looked at the data and listened to Junior’s feedback and then we knew what to work on.
“At that first test at Jerez, Junior had no feeling for the front. We thought it was a chassis stiffness imbalance, so we asked Suzuki, do you have a softer chassis? Yes, they said, so they built up the bike with that chassis and Junior said the lack of feeling was twice as bad. So we asked Suzuki, have you got the stiffness figures for these chassis? No, they said.
“We figured out that their ‘softer’ chassis was in fact stiffer. But we knew we had to measure the stiffness of the chassis on a testing rig, so we tested the chassis at Team Roberts in England, which gave us the luxury of testing on the same equipment we had tested the Yamaha and Roberts frames. That confirmed exactly what we thought: the chassis which Suzuki thought was significantly softer was in fact significantly stiffer.
“The trigger at Suzuki that allowed us to do everything was ‘Shiggy’ Shigenoya. He had had great success with Suzuki in the US for many years and had been given the job of turning the race department around in two years or shutting it down.
“We were able to make progress quite quickly because we had a very good idea where to go with the chassis. We identified the areas we had to work on and we knew what we had to do.
“The number-one thing with a racing motorcycle is that the rider has to have total confidence in the feedback he’s getting from the bike and in the predictability of the bike. Once you have that it doesn’t matter if the bike is good or bad because if it’s consistently good in feedback and the rider can ride it to its limit whenever he goes out, then you know where you are. Whereas if you have a bike that’s unpredictable and inconsistent, the rider never knows where the limit is, so he’ll continually overstep the limit. That kept happening with Kevin. Then you start carrying injuries and it just compounds from there.
“There were some areas that never improved during the whole time we were with Suzuki. Some of the technology Suzuki used in engine development was very dated. One of the big steps forward with development of the two-stroke engine during that era had been the introduction of transient dynos [which also test engines via aggressive throttle movements and engine-speed changes] for exhaust-pipe development, because exhausts are 50 per cent of the power with a two-stroke. But Suzuki were still using static dyno testing. At Team Roberts we had been using dynamic testing for eight years, and so had Yamaha. It was a significant improvement over normal dyno testing.
“Before the start of the 1999 season we went to Japan and Mr Shigenoya called a meeting with the whole race department, which was very small, which was part of the problem. Shigenoya allowed us to do everything we did by telling the race department that they had to give us 100 per cent co-operation and do whatever we requested. He was at every test and every race in the early stages.
“During preseason testing we had the usual meetings with the engineers in the team truck. At the end of these meetings Shigenoya made sure our instructions went direct to the race department in Japan: do exactly what they tell you to do, don’t reinterpret what they say, just do what they ask. Suzuki’s problem had been that they were understaffed, so the engineers would write up their reports at the track, which were then sent to Japan, where they would sit on the engineers’ desks until they got back to the factory, or otherwise the few people that were there would re-interpret the reports.
“My position was to have an overview of how everything interrelated and then prioritise. The number-one priority was to give Junior a bike he could ride confidently, because until you have that you can’t move forward.
“So we worked on the chassis first. We went to the geometry we were comfortable with and got the stiffness in the ballpark area we knew had been successful in the past.
“The engine was very, very similar to the Yamaha in layout. It wasn’t bad on top-end horsepower, though it was very difficult to get maximum performance out of it consistently, which was mainly related to the exhaust problem, plus it was very sensitive to the slightest change in ignition timing.
“In the midrange – around 10,000rpm – it was more than 20 horsepower down on the Yamaha engine and in four years it didn’t gain one horsepower in that range. Suzuki never got a transient dyno, so we did the work on their behalf with Team Roberts and Bud Aksland [Team Roberts’ California-based engine tuner], so were able to make some progress there.
“It was a frustrating time. We got Suzuki to modify a set of exhaust pipes according to what we had worked out. They made the modifications, then they tested the exhausts on their dyno and told us the modifications made no more horsepower. We said we know that, now try testing the exhausts on the racetrack. They found the engine had picked up 9mph on top speed. They went, oh, maybe there is something in this.
“Junior rode extremely well. In 1999 he won four races and finished the year second overall. We worked hard to try and make the next season even better. Junior was a very good technical rider and very precise. On the second lap of our first test with the 2000 bike he was hitting the brakes within one metre of where he had at the previous test. He had a very different personality to his dad. He knew how to race because he had grown up riding with the best riders in the world and his concept behind riding was that it’s all repetition and precision. He knew the limit of the bike, he knew what he could do and he could ride to that. That’s what he did in 2000 and it was enough to win the title, though by the end of that season we were running into trouble with tyres.
“During 1999 everyone used Michelin’s 17-inch rear slick. With this tyre the bike turned very well and worked well on the first touch of throttle, so Junior could start to accelerate early in the corner and build speed earlier than opposition, and any speed you grab there you carry all the way down the next straight. With that tyre we had an advantage.
“Our problem came when more people started using Michelin’s new 16.5-inch rear slick. By early 2000 Garry McCoy had made good progress with the 16.5 and by one-third distance in the championship a lot of the other guys got going really good with the 16.5. Once they got that tyre to work we really struggled.
“The 16.5 had a lot more grip at the point where you pick up the bike, where the Yamaha could use its extra midrange horsepower. The Suzuki didn’t have the midrange, so if Junior tried to pick up the bike and gas it the engine would bog and the others would take two bike lengths out of him.
“We built up a good lead in the championship in the early part of 2000, then we changed to the 16.5 and just defended our lead in the last part of season. By 2001 everyone was ahead of us with the 16.5 and Suzuki still hadn’t made any progress on midrange. Junior was losing several bike lengths out of every corner and you just can’t make up for that kind of deficit. That’s why he never won another race after October 2000.
“We won the title in 2000 despite Suzuki, not because of them. Halfway through 1999 Shigenoya stopped coming to races because his bosses said, okay, the race department is fixed now and we’re back in charge. Shigenoya was an honourable man so he resigned. From that point on anything we requested from Japan would get second-guessed. We would ask for something but someone would say, no, what they really need is this…
“During 2001 Suzuki were already working on their new MotoGP four-stroke but they were still considering racing the 500 in 2002. It was Junior and Garry Taylor who pushed the four-stroke forward. Junior told Suzuki he would rather race the four-stroke in 2002 than do another season on the 500, which was already done with.
“Junior, Garry and I went to Japan for some fairly high-level meetings about the MotoGP bike. I asked Suzuki a couple of questions about four-stroke development: are you doing this or that? They said, no, it’s not necessary. So I said, well, Honda are doing this and that. No, no, they said, our four-stroke technology is more advanced than Honda’s. I said, really, how come? And they said because our GSX-R1000 streetbike outsells Honda’s CBR1000. So I turned to Garry and said, sorry, I’m out of here.”
In subsequent years Willing again worked for Team Roberts and also for Ducati, KTM, MZ and others. Since 2002 Honda has won well over 100 MotoGP races, while Suzuki has scored just a single MotoGP victory, in the rain-soaked 2007 French GP.
WORDS: MAT OXLEY PHOTOGRAPHY GOLD & GOOSE, AMCN ARCHIVES