It’s not often that a Japanese manufacturer gets it wrong, and especially rare that it should withdraw a factory-developed road racer after just a single season of competition. But that’s what happened exactly 20 years ago with the problem child of World Superbike racing, the Suzuki TL1000R.
Indeed, the short shelf life of Suzuki’s first V-twin Superbike must set some kind of record for brevity in world-class four-stroke racing. Announced with a fanfare at the ‘97 Milan Show as the company’s double-up each-way bet for Superbike supremacy, just in case the new fuel-injected version of its four-cylinder GSX-R750 revealed alongside it didn’t do the business, the TL1000R was presented as the Superbike version of Suzuki’s year-old TL1000S 90º V-twin. No question about it: talking to Hidetoshi Tadokoro, the boss of Suzuki’s motorcycle division, it was clear he intended the voluptuous R-model to become a key player in Superbike racing around the world, starting in the USA, where the factory-backed Yoshimura team structured a two-man V-twin race squad for 1998, with riders Steve Crevier and Larry Pegram, that was entirely separate from their Mat Mladin/Aaron Yates GSX-R750 squad. The TL1000R was obviously aimed at being the first V-twin from another manufacturer, and especially a Japanese one, to challenge Ducati’s desmo dominance - complete with wind tunnel-developed aerodynamic bodywork, GP-derived aluminium twin-spar chassis offering greater stiffness than the half-faired TL1000S’s tubular alloy spaceframe, and a comprehensive race kit that in keeping with Suzuki’s praiseworthy established policy, allowed privateers full access to factory-level performance - albeit it at a steep price. World Superbike, here we come....
Not. Though Crevier’s gutsy 1998 season on the new bike in the world’s toughest National-level Superbike series back then saw him finish 8th first time out at Phoenix in February, going on to become a regular top10 points-scoring finisher, with a best result of fourth at Loudon and two fifth place en route to 7th in the final AMA points table, this was the sum total of the factory TL1000R’s worldwide balance sheet for its first - and only - race season. Pegram got shipwrecked on the other Yoshimura bike, with only a trio of tenth-place finishes to his credit. But, meanwhile, plans were laid for Suzuki’s new Belgium-based World Supersport partners Team Alstare to further the R-model’s R&D effort by running a third factory-developed bike alongside their two GSX-R750s. The idea was for their test rider Stéphane Mertens to race the V-twin in selected rounds of the German and British Superbike Championships, with an end-of-season World Superbike outing at Assen in September as a prelude to a full-on WSBK series in 1999. But it all came to naught - for two reasons. First was that the bike arrived late from the Suzuki factory race department, only in June, by which time Team Alstare Corona’s Fabrizio Pirovano was already en route to clinching the FIM Supersport title for Suzuki with the GSX-R600, as he did indeed eventually do. Hence, secondly, Alstare team owner Francis Batta quite correctly decided to focus on his, and Suzuki’s, No.1 priority, at the expense of the V-twin Superbike.
Instead, it was y urs truly who got to ride the Corona-sponsored factory TL1000R at Assen – though not in the World Superbike round (as if!) but the following day, in a private test session which provided a unique hands-on chance to assess this mystery works racer, as the only outsider ever to be allowed to sling a leg over it. Just as well they did so, too - because one month later Suzuki instructed Alstare, as well as Yoshimura in the USA, to discontinue using the TL1000R, as in - project terminated, return to sender. Both Belgian and American teams would henceforth focus on campaigning new fuel-injected GSX-R750 fours in the 1999 World Superbike and AMA series respectively, the latter once again with four riders, but this time all mounted on GSX-R750 machinery. End of story - mission aborted.
Viewed from outside, this seemed a surprisingly impatient decision by Suzuki management, putting a premature end to a project that by definition was still in its infancy, and must moreover have cost several bucketfuls of yen thus far. It seemed not so much a question of strangling the TL1000R racer at birth, more a case of disposing of an unwanted problem child by putting it up for adoption - perhaps by Suzuki’s privateer customers. Only, there weren’t many takers for the costly V-twin race kits that Suzuki had marketed, for apart from the bikes of Lex van Dijk and Jeroen Oudeman in Holland, and top lady racer Katja Poensgen’s rarely-seen kit-bike in Germany – supplied by dad Bert, who was Suzuki Deutschland’s head honcho - precious few TL1000R racers were ever clocked in action anywhere in the world outside of Japan. Indeed, Bakker Frames employee Oudeman’s bike only won a round of the Dutch Open series after his boss Nico Bakker replaced its contentious rotary rear damper with a conventional WP shock! Hmmm….
For in 1997 Suzuki and Honda had dead-heated in delivering one-liter V-twins to the marketplace in riposte to Ducati’s racetrack dominance and showroom success with the 916, having each decided the only way to compete with this was to build a better Ducati featuring their own ideas of how a 90º V-twin should be, but without desmo valve-gear. First came the VTR1000 and TL1000S volume production road bikes, followed a year later by the TL1000R Superbike (and a year later, Honda’s RC51/SP-01). Both companies’ designs were true V-twins with the cylinders rotated rearwards on the crankcase as opposed to the Italian L-twin, and in Suzuki’s case this seems to have caused some concern about extending the wheelbase unduly as a result. Consequently, when the TL1000S appeared in 1997 it featured a then-revolutionary rear suspension system featuring a standalone spring and a separate rotary rear damper unit, on the basis that by separating these the units could be made shorter, so as to keep the bike’s wheelbase down. But once the system that had been completely developed and tested in Japan reached customers in export markets, it soon became apparent that it didn’t work, with the ensuing significant handling problems leading to a worldwide recall to fit a steering damper. Sticking plaster rather than a fix – but when the TL1000R appeared one year later, it was launched complete with a steering damper as standard, and with lazier steering geometry aimed at stability.
Nevertheless, Suzuki persevered with its original intentions to develop the TL1000R into a Ducatibeating Superbike, although in riding Alstare’s factory Superbike at Assen I was confronted with what appeared to be a very strange motorcycle, full of compromise. The first hint of this arrived when I came to hop aboard - only to discover that, even in the case of a six-foot rider like myself, that was literally what you had to do! A step-ladder would have been handy, thanks to the extremely high rear ride height the team had employed in setting up the bike for Stéphane Mertens who was, after all, the same height and weight as me - in their first and only track test with it two weeks earlier, when Stéphane had covered 350km at Brno trying to dial it in. The riding stance was an extreme form of the bum-in-air GP mode once fashionable in the GP paddock, combined with what seemed to be low-set, steeply inclined clipons. This helped load up the front wheel with most of your body weight to make the front Dunlop stick in turns, but only at the expense of overloading your arms and shoulders, especially as they ended up being used even more than your legs in order to lever your body around from side to side. The seat was fitted with a thick rubber pad, which helped add to the sense of being perched atop the bike rather than forming a part of it. OK, the works Ducatis I’d been riding just one week beforehand were a little high-tailed, too - but not as much, and with the added bonus that they made full use of their engine’s V-twin architecture, to deliver a slim, agile and flickable bike that contrasted with their four-cylinder opposition and the boat-like TL1000R with its voluminous bodywork.
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