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Suzuki – 50 years of racing

Submitted by on June 25, 2010

Suzuki RGA500 XR22 ridden by Pat Hennen for Team Heron SuzukiPerched on a car bonnet, in freezing weather and while operating a cine camera, might sound a strange way to begin an international race program. But that was what entertained Isle of Man residents for several days in February 1960 — when Suzuki came to recce the world’s most famous race circuit.

Race boss Yoshichika Maruyama was the man filming. Urban Shell company employee Jimmy Matsumiya drove the rental car. Their mission was to acquaint the race department with the realities of classic racing, after company president Shunzo Suzuki had decided his company would take on the world. Their first shock was to discover the entire 61km circuit was tarmac.

Suzuki’s three-man team of Toshio Matsumoto, Michio Ichino and England’s Ray Fay finished 15th, 16th and 18th in the 1960 125 TT on their two-stroke RT60 singles. But they learned plenty and, crucially, saw the best ‘strokers of the day, the East German MZs.

Suzuki embarked on a full GP season in 1961, with rotary disc-valve induction 125s and 250s. Results were again disappointing, but that changed thanks to two significant moves at the Isle of Man.

First, Shell competition manager Lew Ellis dominated a modest but determined New Zealander named Hugh Anderson for a Suzuki ride.

Second, Jimmy Matsimuya discovered he shared an interest in jazz with Ernst Degner, MZ’s lead rider and championship rival of Australia’s works Honda rider Tom Phillis.

Degner wanted to defect to the West and knew the secrets of Walter Kaaden’s two-stroke racers. Suzuki was prepared to assist, in return for a technical leg-up.

The actual defection happened immediately after the Swedish GP in September 1961. Degner brought with him some parts and his knowledge. The price was said to be 10,000 pounds – a bargain.

Degner went to Japan and helped guide development of the next generation Suzuki racers. In 1962 he won the newly instituted 50cc world championship and recorded Suzuki’s first IoM TT victory.

In 1963 history was made when Mitsuo Ito became the only Japanese rider to win a TT aboard the Suzuki RM63.

Anderson won four championships in the next three seasons, including a 50/125 double in 1964. Germany’s Hans Georg Anscheidt won three successive 50cc crowns in 1966-68.

Suzuki officially withdrew from GP racing after 1968, but success continued with ex-works machines. In 1971 a young Barry Sheene finished an impressive second to Spanish super star Angel Nieto in the world 125 championship, riding a 1967-model works bike.

Australia’s Jack Findlay became the first rider to win a 500 GP on a two-stroke machine when he won the 1971 Ulster GP at Dundrod – using a converted Suzuki T500 road-bike engine.

The factory tackled 500 racing in 1974 with a full team and a new rotary disc-valve “square four” racer. Sheene and Findlay were the factory riders. In June 1975 Sheene won the Dutch TT, the factory 500 team’s first victory.

Yamaha’s Giacomo Agostini became the first rider to win the premier-class crown on a two-stroke machine in 1975. But Sheene dominated the 1976 and ‘77 seasons for Suzuki – largely against a field of private Suzukis!

The company had launched the RG500 Mk I in 1976. A replica of the 1975 works machines, it sold initially at a subsidised price and overnight it became the mainstay of the 500 GP grid.

Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini recaptured the riders’ 500 championship for Suzuki in 1981-82, riding for Roberto Gallina’s team.

However, the next Suzuki hero was a skinny Texan. Kevin Schwantz won the championship in 1993. Australia’s Daryl Beattie was runner-up to Honda’s Michael Doohan in 1995.

Victories again proved elusive until Suzuki made a key double signing for 1999, hiring Kenny Roberts Jnr and Australian race engineer Warren Willing. Roberts was runner-up in 1999 and won the crown in 2000.

Suzuki switched to four-stroke machines with the birth of MotoGP in 2002. Chris Vermeulen recorded the company’s first four-stroke GP victory and its 90th win in the premier class at Le Mans in 2007.

Don Cox

Images via Suzukicycles.org , Suzuki50years.com and DaiFh / Wikimedia Commons under the GNU Free Documentation Licence

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