Suzuka 8 Hours Preview: the heat of competition makes Suzuka unique

Steve English - journalist
By Steve English
SteveEnglishGP WorldSBK's official commentator since 2016 and formally MCN's MotoGP reporter. A firm believer that if you can't do it you might as well write about it!
Yamaha R1M and Honda Fireblade race at dusk in the Suzuka 8 hour endurance race

 

With the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race taking place this weekend, BikeSocial brings you the second instalment to our three part guide to one of the world's most prestigious endurance races. If you want to follow the action, Eurosport 2 will broadcast full live coverage of the race from 3.15am to 11.45am on Sunday 30th July.

The 40th Suzuka 8 Hours has all the ingredients to be a classic

“In the heat of the night they'll be comin' around, they'll be lookin' for answers, they'll be chasin' you down…” Clearly, Bryan Adams had the Suzuka 8 Hours in mind when he was penning this late 80's classic.

 

With 1300km over 220 laps in extreme heat and humidity, the task facing riders at Suzuka is a challenge unlike any other in motorcycle racing. There are some longer endurance races - like the 24 Hours of Le Mans - but with temperatures soaring and humidity at 90% at Suzuka, this is a true test of endurance for both man and machine.

 

Michael van der Mark, a two-time winner of the race, has said that after each outing in Japan he thinks “I'll never do that again,” but the Dutchman will line up on the grid once again this year. The Yamaha WorldSBK star will start on the crew that is the clear favourite for this year's race.

 

Teamed with Alex Lowes and Katsuyuki Nakasuga, van der Mark is joining the Factory Yamaha squad that has been victorious the last two years, and last year the Yamaha YZF-R1 had a distinct advantage with fuel economy. That, combined with a mammoth effort from the factory, has created an almost unbeatable combination.

 

Despite no major developments and upgrades to the bike for this year's race, it’s clear that it will still be the package to beat. Despite not setting many headline times in pre-event testing, their consistency was something to behold and their riders exuded quiet confidence. Despite Yamaha also adding some success to the R1 in WorldSBK trim on Pirelli tyres - Lowes has twice stood on the rostrum and van der Mark has been a threat in numerous races – the Endurance specification bike uses Bridgestones. They offer a very different feel for the rider and are a proven package in endurance racing.

 

With the major boxes ticked by Yamaha - riders, machinery and tyres - it really is a case of seeing who can compete with the reigning champions. Honda will be a key challenger, bringing a strong squad to Suzuka once again with Grand Prix winners Jack Miller, Dominque Aegerter, Takaaki Nakagami and Randy de Puniet all riding the Fireblade.

 

The bike has struggled in various guises this year - road racing, WorldSBK and domestic championships - but with HRC input for the Suzuka 8 Hours they promise to be much improved. In testing, Bradl has also spoken positively about the Suzuka machine in comparison to his regular mount. With a different electronics package the bike is much more sorted and the throttle connection, a constant bugbear throughout the season, is much more consistent.

 

the Bradl, Aegerter and de Puniet squad can get the most from their package, Honda could spring a surprise. Aegerter has consistently impressed in Japan and, backed up by the experienced duo, they could be a dark horse. Then regular Endurance World Championship team will also be in action, with the 111 crew led by Julian de Costa and Sebastian Gimbert joined by Freddy Foray in one of the most experienced lineups on the grid.

 

A Kawasaki races at dusk in the Suzuka 8 hour endurance race

 

Experience is in short supply for the Miller led entry. The MotoGP race winner will make his endurance debut this weekend and while the MuSASHi Honda squad would benefit from some extra experience, they won't lack for talent and speed. The lineup of Miller, Nakagami and official HRC test rider Takumi Takahashi is an exceptional trio of riders.

 

“I’m excited to be racing for the first time at the Suzuka 8 hours race with a highly competitive Honda team,” said Miller. “Endurance races are different to other races and this will be a great opportunity for me. I’ll be aiming for the top of the podium in a tough race.

 

"The conditions are demanding but it's just like Townsville! It'll be alright and I'm really looking forward to it. There's no better way to hit the second half of the season than with plenty of bike time and these conditions. It's going to be great."

 

While Honda are looking to prove the competitiveness of their machine, Suzuki are focused on winning the Endurance World Championship. In a somewhat unique situation, the championship contenders are almost the underdogs for the heavyweight Superbike race of the year. Suzuki lead the EWC, with Vincent Phillipe and Etienne Masson holding a slender one point advantage over Yamaha's David Checa and Nicola Canepa. The number 1 Suzuki squad have been able to prove the competitiveness of their machine this year but at Suzuka it will be the Yoshimura squad that will arguably be the bigger draw, despite a world championship on the line. With former WorldSBK champion Sylvain Guintoli riding alongside Josh Brookes and Takuya Tsuda in the Yoshimura effort, the Hamamatsu factory could have a very successful weekend.

 

It's difficult to say what a successful weekend will be for Kawasaki. The reigning WorldSBK champions do not put the same level of factory-supported effort into their Suzuka programme, but the Team Green entry featuring two time winner Leon Haslam will be a strong outfit if they can run reliably. Haslam and Kazuma Watanabe will need to be ultra consistent during their stints to be able to get the most from the package, and they will be partnered with Malaysia’s Azlan Shah.

 

With three riders to a team, finding a compromise with the settings to suit everyone is a big challenge. Weight and height differences, never mind riding style differences, mean that the best endurance teams aren't necessarily the fastest group of individual riders but the best group of riders who can work together.

 

"The riding position had to be adjusted because of me, so I was worried whether the other two would be able to ride well or not,” van der Mark said in the aftermath of the recent tests. “But they both said they had no issues with it, so I'm relieved."

 

That relief could be what makes the biggest difference this weekend, as the two-time winner settles into the team who are going for three in a row in the heat of the night.

 

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