HEAVEN AND HELL
Kevin Schwantz’s world title success 25 years ago was a career highlight tainted by a tragic event. Here’s his blow-by-blow account of the 1993 season
Snow-topped highs, desperate lows – the 1993 500cc GP season, by Kevin Schwantz
The 1993 500cc world championship was a classic duel, like Agostini versus Hailwood or Sheene versus Roberts. And like all twoway fights the season ended with joy for the winner and disappointment for the loser... except in 1993 those emotions were different. Wayne Rainey’s Misano crash broke his back and ended his career. It also ended the career of title-winner Kevin Schwantz – it just took him a while to realise.
The two Americans had been battling for the 500 crown since 1988, Rainey taking a title hat-trick in ’90, ’91 and ’92, while Schwantz mostly crashed too much because Suzuki’s RGV500 wasn’t good enough.
The crucial moment of Schwantz’s 1993 season came in late ’91, when former Kawasaki and HRC technician Stuart Shenton joined Suzuki to run Schwantz’s side of the garage. The RGV was poorly engineered, so Shenton set about bringing it up to HRC standards, which took him all of ’92 and the next winter (see p48). Meanwhile Yamaha went backwards, building a 1993 chassis that caused Rainey so many problems he switched to a French-made Roc midseason. But enough commentary, here’s how Schwantz recalls 1993, in his own words...
All through ’92 I was never confident with the bike and that’s 90% of riding. Stuart kept telling me all we were doing was gathering information for next year.
After the last GP we went to Jerez, did three days of testing, then got on a plane and went to Japan, where we sat down in a room and told the Suzuki guys: “This is what we need and this is what we want”. Three months later we went back to Jerez with everything that Japan could throw at us. We went back through what we’d done at the previous test, just to confirm things.
I was like, just give me the new stuff! I want to see what it’s like! Stuart said: “No, we want you to ride the 1992 bike to see what was bad and then I want you to tell me the improvements with the 1993 bike”. Three days later we were pretty set on what we wanted. Almost everywhere we went in ’93 the bike was good, the best I rode. All credit to Stuart.
On Sunday mornings he would never throw the kitchen sink at the bike – it was click, click, click... we’ve made this much progress, maybe it’s not quite where we want to be, but we’re not going to try and reinvent the wheel on Sunday morning and lose track of where we are; which is what we had been doing because Simon Tonge [Schwantz’s previous crew chief] was as inexperienced as I was.
It was all looking good. Then on the way to the first race Stuart took a whole bike on the plane, in two or three bags. On the Tokyo subway a bag strap broke and our best chassis went crashing down this escalator. Somehow it wasn’t bent.
The ’93 engine was better because Suzuki had built a secondary exhaust power valve. It was a real complex system – it took the same time to build as it did to split the crankcases and put in a new crank, cylinder and pistons. That’s about all I know about the engine. I didn’t even know the vee angle changed – I was reading a book about that recently!
ROUND 1 EASTERN CREEK, AUSTRALIA
I was fastest in practice and qualifying. But the Suzuki still wasn’t great on starts. When you got it off the line it would go ‘cough, cough, cough’. It almost stalled this time – I’ve been stuck in the gates in motocross and never been that far behind! I finally got to the front and then it started raining. I’d already gapped Wayne and Doug [Chandler, Cagiva], so I slowed down and let them lead for a while. Then it dried up and I checked out again. The big thing with the new bike was that it turned and finished the corner, instead of getting in, turning… then finishing. Through the first turn I was friggin’ half a second faster than anybody!
ROUND 2 SHAH ALAM, MALAYSIA
We finished a distant third, 18 seconds behind Wayne. It was like, ‘Woah! Hold on, we’re not that good after all!’ The Suzuki was still that way a little bit – if you got the bike 97, 98 or 99% right, it was good enough to win on. But if you got it 95% right it wasn’t even a top-five bike. It might’ve been all the off-camber corner exits and lack of grip on the track, because tyres seemed to affect the Suzuki more than the other bikes.
ROUND 3 SUZUKA, JAPAN
The race came down to four of us at the end – and I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Hondas had so much speed down the front and back straightaways, but I finally got clear of them on the last lap. I cleared off from [Shinichi] Itoh, then ran down Daryl [Beattie] and Wayne. I managed to get past Daryl, but came up a tenth short of Wayne. After the race I remember Daryl saying to me: “Man, I didn’t think there was any way you were going to make that turn!”
ROUND 5 SALZBURGRING, AUSTRIA
The speed of the 1993 bike wasn’t horrible, but on big, long straightaways, like up the hill in Austria, the Honda definitely had the legs up top. If I got off a corner well, I could just about stay there in the draught. This time I managed to use some backmarkers and held off Mick [Doohan] by half a second.
ROUND 6 HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY
I think we got a stiffer frame here. Whenever we went stiffer with the
‘WE RODE AWAY FROM WAYNE LIKE HE WAS TIED TO A POST’
chassis it was really good, so long as the grip was great, because it gave better feel. But when the grip went away the bike lost grip quicker, so you needed some flex to help that. The Hondas had speed on us again, but Mick chunked a tyre, so it was Daryl who beat me. That second place was probably the biggest deal of the season. I remember crossing the line, looking back and being really excited, because Itoh was behind me, then [Alex] Crivillé, which meant Wayne was fifth. That was a big motivation!
ROUND 7 ASSEN, NETHERLANDS
A lot of the places we went in ’93 we were already testing race tyres by Saturday morning because we were that comfortable with our set- up. We had never done that before! Assen was another race where Barros got in front, then crashed. He was a help to us at a couple of tracks. We could overlay our data: OK, he’s four miles an hour faster through that corner; so I’ve just got to go faster! After Barros crashed out, I beat Mick by a second. That was the last race I won all year.
ROUND 8 CATALUNYA, EUROPE
This was the first place since Malaysia where we’d had a problem. We got to Catalunya and the front wasn’t right; I didn’t seem to have the bike underneath me. The Suzuki still didn’t really like turning back on itself. So long as the corner was 45° or 90° you could drive through it, but if it was 180° you still had to use the throttle to finish the corner, so you’d lose corner speed and burn the rear tyre. Plus Wayne’s team used Catalunya as their test track, so I knew we were going to struggle with him at that place.
ROUND 9 MUGELLO, SAN MARINO
Mugello was the first place we raced with Michelin’s new 16.5inch front. That was a big thing for us because it gave a bigger footprint, which helped override some of our front problems. We also used a new system on the warm-up lap, to help clean up the engine for the start – I’d hang back so I wasn’t sat on the grid so long. On the last lap I was right with Mick, going for the win, when the carcass in the rear tyre tore. Luckily for me, I had a big enough gap on Wayne to get second. Afterwards [Kenny] Roberts walked over to have a look at the tyre. I said: “What the hell are you looking at?
Get out of here!” He sure could be an annoying little prick!
ROUND 11 BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC
I got my ass handed to me at Brno. If either the front tyre or the chassis settings were off, I could compensate to get around the problem, but not when both weren’t right. Plus my hands weren’t perfect after the Donington crash. I had a few broken bones at the top of my right hand. In the race it was hard to watch the other guys go away from me – I would’ve crashed in the old days.
I forget who I was racing with. It may’ve been [John] Kocinski. I’d had a little confrontation with him in practice. I was on a slowdown lap, so I was right by the side of the track, but he nudged me off the track. I went storming into his garage and almost killed him. I was the one that told Suzuki that they ought to give him a try on the RGV250. When he blew up the 250 at Assen, and Suzuki had evidence of it, I lost all respect for him. I wouldn’t have p*ssed on him if he was on fire.
ROUND 12 MISANO, ITALY
I’d gone from plus 23 points before Donington to plus three before Brno to minus 11 going into Misano. It was like my whole world had fallen apart. I’d planned to go home after Brno, but instead I went straight to Italy and spent all week riding bicycles, trying to convince myself things weren’t over.
My right hand was still bad, so by the time Wayne had crashed out of the race I was having to ride down the back straightaway crosshanded. I’d come out of that fast
‘I SHOULD HAVE BEEN BADLY HURT; IT COULD’VE BEEN THE END OF MY SEASON’
kink, shift gears, then reach over and hold the throttle with my left hand, so I could release the right hand and shake it for a couple of seconds, just enough to get some circulation back. Whenever I tell people that story they’re shocked!
I was really struggling and I was thinking: ‘I need all the points I can get because next we’re going to Laguna Seca, which is Wayne’s track’. On Sunday evening at Donington Mick had said to me: “Man, I apologise so much for doing that [at Donington]. If there’s anything I can do to help you get that championship lead back, I’ll help.” With a few laps to go at Misano he rides by and disappears. I’m like: “You friggin’ liar!”
So now I’ve got a five-point lead and we’re going to Laguna! It was all drama. Then an hour after the race somebody told me Wayne was never going ride again. I was like: “What?!” I thought it was a ploy to make me go home, relax for a week and lose my focus.
Then we knew it was true about Wayne. It was one of those times where you go: “How much bigger of a rollercoaster can this be?!” It will always be one of the big unknowns – if Wayne had finished the race I don’t know if I could have beaten him for the championship.
ROUND 13 LAGUNA SECA, USA
Without Wayne I had the measure of everybody for the first half of the race. Then my wrist started giving me problems – and there ain’t no place to go left-handed at Laguna. By the end of the race my right hand felt like a boxing glove. That night the team had a party, then Kenny came in and deflated everybody. It wasn’t like we were celebrating Wayne getting hurt, that’s for sure.
ROUND 14 JARAMA, SPAIN
By that point I was already thinking: ‘Let’s just be done with this and see how the off-season goes’. I told Suzuki I’d do everything I could to go racing next year, but until I tested and until I saw that first flag waved, I couldn’t guarantee anything.
I was definitely a changed person in ’94. Wayne’s injury changed my attitude to racing. I had a big crash in testing at Phillip Island. The bike landed right next to me. I thought: ‘If I’d not rolled that last revolution I’d probably be dead. That crash wouldn’t have bothered me in ’88.
I won at Suzuka and I was like: “See, I can still do it!” Then we got to Jerez and set a new lap record, only to have Doohan beat me. There was nothing we could do, no matter how good we had our bike. Unless Mick and Honda were a mile off, we weren’t in the hunt. Then I started overriding the thing and crashing.
The crash that finally did my right wrist was at Assen. I’m sliding along and the bike comes down on me, so I’m still sliding but the hand stops, which mumbo-jumbos the wrist. From then on, they had to reset the wrist on the Sunday night at every race. At Donington [where he took the last win of his career] I’m having the bones in the wrist reset and the Lucky Strike sponsorship director walks in. I’m going “Aaaagh!” – I’m so used to it, I told them not to deaden it, because I already knew how bad it’s going to hurt. He goes white as a sheet, turns around and walks out. I come out and he says: “I don’t know how much we pay you, but it’s not enough”.
Schwantz continued racing into 1995, announcing his retirement, with immediate effect, at Mugello in June. In his seven and a half years of full-time GP racing he won 25 races and one world title.
LEFT: Friends, countrymen, rivals... Schwantz (right) and Rainey at the first round of the season in Eastern Creek, AustraliaRIGHT: Schwantz at Laguna Seca, doing what he got used to doing during races: riding through the pain of broken bones
ABOVE: Schwantz was on the podium for 11 of the 14 racesRIGHT: Schwantz shows his colours celebrating victory at the Dutch GP
LEFT: Rainey vs Schwantz duel defined the season
ABOVE: Doohaninduced pile-up takes out Schwantz at Donington
LEFT: Despite finally winning the GP title, ’93 made Schwantz rethink his gung-ho attitude to racing
BELOW: Schwantz’s team-mate Alex Barros says it all at the US GP at Laguna Seca
BELOW: Schwantz had to over-ride the Suzuki to compete with Doohan in ’94. This crash in qualifying at Brno was one of many