Alstare Suzuki – a WorldSBK success story
In the 1999 season, the team led by Belgian bon vivant Francis Batta competed in the Superbike World Championship for the first time as the official Suzuki works team. Last year, of all places, Sugo won the first run at Sugo with the Japanese Keiichi Kitagawa. So the people in charge at Suzuki from Hamamatsu, a good seven and a half hours away (south-east of the city of Nagoya) were apparently sufficiently convinced to finally try it with full commitment in the near-series World Cup. So far, despite its GSX-R750, which had been introduced in 1985 and which had rocked the motorsport world for a long time, the factory had only been half-heartedly involved. In principle, it was a shame because this bike went down in history as an icon. It was the first motorcycle from Japan designed specifically for purely sporting use. Anyone could go to the racetrack without modifications and emulate the idols of the time such as Eddie Lawson, Toni Mang and Freddie Spencer.
The missed opportunity with a huge talent
The Japanese had already let a huge chance slip by. When they hadn’t made a serious start after Doug Poland’s victory, the first second in the Superbike World Championship for Suzuki. The American from Detroit, Michigan, competed two years later for the US team “Fast by Ferracci” on a Ducati 888 in the WSBK and won the first title immediately. This was followed by a repetition for the Reds works team, which he had embarrassed in his first season. This defeat was so embarrassing for the plant in Borgo Panigale near Bologna that later, with the help of questionable scribes, they tried to rewrite history and publicly sell the US boy and his private team as a works’ driver. But the programs available to us from back then do not lie, and the official factory team was then called “Ducati Corse” and in 1990 had absolutely nothing to do with the talented US tuner Ferracci. On the contrary, they were on the track with their reigning world champion Raymond Roche and Poland’s toughest competitors.
The many overpowering opponents
When Suzuki and Alstare made its debut as a works team in the WSBK in 1999, Ducati drivers had won 7 of the eleven titles they had previously won. One of them in 1990 even the private team Fast by Ferracci with Sonny boy Doug Poland, who won the 1997 World Endurance Championship for Suzuki. The big dominator when Suzuki entered the factory with Frankie Chili and Katsuaki Fujiwara was Carl Fogarty. The defending champion had clinched his third world title in the second year of his return to Ducati in 1998 and was in absolutely top form. With 250 cm³ displacement of his Ducati 996 RS 2-cylinder V-engine over the Japanese four-cylinder in-line engines, the character from England benefited from the better torque of his engine, especially in terms of acceleration. With Troy Corser “Foggy” found a strong team-mate and in Colin Edwards a stubborn opponent. In addition to the American and the new Suzuki team, the Kawasaki works team with Akira Yanagawa and the Spaniard Gregorio Lavilla, as well as “Nitro Nori” Haga, were among the strongest drivers of the season.
Edwards’ problems with the four-cylinder Honda
The fast Texan and the Kiwi Aaron Slight formed an extremely powerful team on the Castrol Honda RC45, but the 750 cc V4 engine was already showing its age. That is why the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer decided in the course of the year for a completely new development. The Honda VTR-1000 SP was designed primarily to inflict defeat on Ducati with its own concept. The “Texas Tornado” and his teammate were able to get their heads out of their bodies with the RVF750 RC45, but against Fogarty on the Ducati 996 RS on many tracks there was simply no herb. Honda therefore prepared its V2 model as a sports tourer for the street version, and this bike should find a respectable number of fans. But especially on the racetrack, the new VTR-1000 SP1 developed into a true “Ducati killer” from the year 2000.
The tough first Alstare years in the 3rd millennium
While Foggy had safely brought home his fourth title for Ducati, a real drama followed for the Englishman and his team after 2 wins in the first 3 races in the second race. When he tried to drive past an Austrian straggler on the left after the start-finish, he ran into the barrier and flew off terribly. In the crash, he suffered such a serious shoulder injury that a comeback on the racetrack was out of the question. With BSB hero Troy Bayliss, however, the Reds found a more than worthy replacement for the Englishman. Troy Corser on Aprilia and Yamaha ace Nori Haga became the strongest challengers to the new dominator Colin Edwards in the 2000 season. Bayliss only started collecting points from lap 6 in Monza. Behind Yanagawa and Alstare Suzuki Pilot Chili in fourth place in the World Championship, it was still enough for the Australian to finish 6th in the World Championship.
The bright spot of Donington and the long dry spell
The effort made by Suzuki for the WorldSBK was limited compared to the competition. Nonetheless, Pierfrancesco Chili won a race in the 2001 season as well. At Donington Park, after finishing 2nd in race one, the crowd favorite took his fifteenth career win and fourth for Alstare Suzuki in race two. It should be the last of the likeable Italian and because he never made it onto the podium except in England, it was also his end for the Belgian team. Unfortunately, Chambon could not live up to expectations either. The only driver in the WSBK was Gregorio Lavilla for 2002. The likeable and good-looking Spaniard must have felt like the fictional character Don Quixote with his new signing Noriyuki Haga against the overwhelming power of Honda, Ducati and Aprilia. After all, the Catalan finished half of the 26 races of his first season as a works’ driver for Suzuki in the top ten. In the end, it was enough for world championship rank, while Colin Edwards snatched the title, believed to be certain, from under the nose of his rival Troy Bayliss with a sensationally strong second half of the season.
The second year with Lavilla – a ray of hope before the break
Alstare Suzuki did not achieve any victories with Gregorio in the 2003 season, but the first podium was already in the third race of the season. This should be followed by 3 third and 3 second places, as well as 6 top five results, with which the Spaniard finished his best WorldSBK in 5th place. World champion was an outstanding Neil Hodgson on a Ducati 999 F03. The Englishman laid the foundation for this with an incredibly strong streak of 11 wins and a second place until the middle of the season, after which he remained unassailable for his pursuers. This was followed by a year to forget for the Alstare Suzuki, as far as the WSBK and its successes are concerned. With Katsuaki Fujiwara and Stéphane Chambon, Francis Batta’s team only competed in the WorldSSP 600. More than 8th place for the French and 10th for the Japanese were not there, while the premier class of the near-series World Cup was not even contested. At the time, nobody could have expected that the big breakthrough would follow after this break.
Salvation through the engagement of Troy Corser
Hardly anyone had expected the Australian veteran after his three lost years for the Foggy Petronas team. But the man from Down Under should soon deny his critics. With the Alstare Suzuki Team, he found everything he needed to get back to the front of the pack. It was the third year in which the Japanese four-cylinder in-line engines with 1000 cc were allowed to participate. In the meantime, the GSX-R1000 model was a mature model for a suitable basis. With the two new works drivers Yukio Kagayama and Troy Corser they had obviously made a real stroke of luck. In Losail, the Australian won his twenty-fourth WSBK race with race 1. At the premiere in Qatar that afternoon, he finished third behind team-mates Kagayama and Laconi on the Ducati and traveled to his home country as second in the World Championship. There he won both races and with three more victories laid the foundation for his second world title, which he confidently secured against his compatriot Vermeulen until the end of the season.
Strong continuation with the successful duo
The season started again in Qatar and the reigning world champion won two of the first 3 races for his team. But Ducati rider and compatriot Troy Bayliss started an impressive winning streak from the second race at Phillip Island. The MotoGP returnees won no less than 8 world championship races, giving him a lead of almost 100 points over his closest rivals Haga, Barros, Toseland and Corser from Misano. Kagayama won 3 races on the Suzuki, with which he contributed significantly to the brand title for Suzuki. The drivers’ world championship, however, went to an outstanding Bayliss, who thus secured his second title and in the MotoGP final, replacing Sete Gibernau with a Grand Prix victory for Ducati. While Corser then switched to Yamaha, Alstare Suzuki found a worthy successor in Max Biaggi, who took up the position of Yukio Kagayama in 2007. The Roman won the first race of the season and even more victories on his favorite track in Brno and near his home in Vallelunga. At the end of the season, he topped Corser’s previous year’s result with third place in the World Championship by one position. Teammate Kagayama was only 13th after a year full of injuries.
The continuation with fresh blood
When Biaggi left for Ducati after just one season, Francis Batta found two new Kagayama teammates in Max Neukirchner and Fonsi Nieto for the 2008 season. The Spaniard won his second race on the Suzuki straight away in Losail and had a solid year with rank 6 in the final bill. The German was even better, who was on top of the podium twice and had his best season in WorldSBK as fifth. In the end he was only two points short of fourth place on Carlos Checa (Ducati) and Nori Haga, third in the World Championship, was only 16 points ahead of the fast Saxon. Kagayama remained in 11th place in the world championship and with three fourth places he had not reached a podium this time. He stayed with the team in 2009 and Nieto was supposed to change during the season after the Spaniard had missed the first third of the season and was not able to achieve a single top ten result in 3 rounds. Neukirchner, who was in the form of his life, was completely different. After three laps, despite a crash in race 1 in Losail, he was third. In Assen things didn’t go according to plan, but for Monza he traveled very confidently with Haga after his overall win last year. But then a drama happened in the first race, which dramatically demonstrated the dangerousness of this route in the royal park near the northern Italian city.
No victory without the injured Neukirchner in 2009
After Kagayama finished fourth after his only podium in Losail in the first run of Monza, one can imagine how good Max Neukirchner would have looked there without his unspeakable bad luck. Due to his injury, the Saxon was no longer seen at the racetrack for the rest of the season. Nieto scored only four points in 3 rounds and the Japanese only finished twelfth at the end of the season. Four years after the drivers’ title and only three years after winning the brand world championship, this was literally a crash for the successful Suzuki Alstare team. With the signing of Leon Haslam, however, the 2010 season saw the turnaround. Together with the other newcomer Silvain Guintoli, he formed a promising duo, which should provide the last highlight in the twelfth season.
The last climax before the sad end
With the unexpected runner-up title for Leon Haslam, the 2010 season came to a final high point for the Alstare Suzuki Team. In the second round of the third lap, his famous father’s son was off the podium for the first time in six races when he finished fourth. Before that, he had two wins and three second places and left Spain as World Cup leader. From the middle of the season, however, Max Biaggi proved to be too strong on the factory Aprilia RSV4 1000 and the Roman won the first of two world championship titles with a clear lead over the Englishman. With Sylvain Guintoli in seventh place in the World Championship, ahead of drivers like Troy Corser (BMW), Michel Fabrizio (Ducati), Leon Camier (Aprilia) and Shane “Shakey” Byrne (Ducati) and James Toseland (Yamaha), the Frenchman set a glorious season the icing on the cake for Alstare Suzuki.
The last season of the former top team
After Haslam and Guintoli left, the air was outside. With only one pilot in the person of Michel Fabrizio, there was a lot of work for the mechanics in the pits after his numerous falls. A podium in his home race in Monza was the only highlight and then came the end for the successful group around Francis Batta. The Italian had one more season at BMW, but in 2012, finishing eleventh in the World Championship, was just one place better than in his only season as a Suzuki works driver. After numerous attempts at persuasion for over 10 years, the plant finally decided in 2011 to withdraw from the WorldSBK. With that the chapter Alstare came to an end and many of the team members, like the last victorious driver Leon Haslam, then switched to BMW. Francis Batta was to give his name again briefly in the 2021 season for a project that was not very promising. However, this liaison was short-lived, and the final farewell to the WSBK paddock came before the end of the season.
The impressive record of Alstare Suzuki in the WSBK
Many teams such as BMW after its return to the Superbike World Championship for the 2019 season have been dreaming of a first victory for years. For Corona Alstare, on the other hand, it went into its new existence as a works team with a triple triumph in its first year. Despite only half-hearted support from Japan, the team survived the difficult years 2002 to 2004 in order to receive the reward for their strong perseverance in the following season. Only a few of the teams represented in the WSBK paddock were able to prove themselves to be similarly successful over such a long period of time. The proud number of 28 victories, as well as a driver and a brand title, was the result of hard and tireless work.
The Suzuki balance sheet in the WSBK
In the following, the victories of the Alstare Suzuki team are colored yellow, which shows how valuable their contribution was to the Hamamatsu plant. Only just 4 victories came about without the work of Francis Batta and his people. The first three of them at the home race of the Japanese in Sugo and the last by Eugene Laverty. The veteran of WorldSBK will compete for the German Bonovo Action Team with BMW factory support in 2022 and not only his fans keep their fingers crossed for the Northern Irishman. The last wins for Alstare went to another long-serving WSBK hero, Leon Haslam, who is, like Tom Sykes, expected to be absent in Laverty’s tenth full season due to a lack of a reasonable offer.
> For more about the earlier years of WorldSBK see “History”
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