With MotoGP on its summer break, friend of MotoMatters.com and fellow Paddock Pass Podcaster Steve English is at the Suzuka 8 Hours race. We will be featuring some of Steve's coverage of the race here over the coming days.
When Glenn Frey released one of the biggest hits of the 80s the Suzuka 8 Hours was on the verge of its glory days. Those days are now being repeated
In 1984 the Suzuka 8 Hours was on the cusp of being the biggest race of the season for the Japanese manufacturers, and that year's edition was won by double WorldSBK champion Fred Merkel and 500GP rostrum finisher Mike Baldwin. The win was Baldwin's third and final victory but started a run of success by the world's biggest names in racing. The following six years saw riders such as Wayne Gardner, Kevin Magee, Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson all have their name etched on the winners’ trophym and in 1991 the first “Suzuka Super-team” emerged victorious.
With Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner winning, the all-Australian team was a 500GP dream team taking on the rest of the field. With Doohan sidelined by his horrific Assen crash the following year, Gardner nevertheless claimed his third win in Japan with Daryl Beattie as his teammate. The run of Grand Prix winners then came to an abrupt end in 1993 with Superbike stars Scott Russell and Aaron Slight delivering Kawasaki’s only victory in the race. It was an era of exotica with the Japanese manufacturers using incredible machinery to try to win the race; an era of big budgets and no holds barred racing - a true golden era of motorcycle racing.
In the following years the fortunes of the race ebbed, though some Superbike riders remained. Colin Edwards would put his name on the trophy on three occasions, winning for two different manufacturers, Yamaha and Honda. His 2001 win alongside Valentino Rossi, when the Italian was en route to his first premier class title, was another invigorating moment for the 8 Hours that saw interest in the race spike once again - but for much of this century the race was an afterthought of the racing calendar.
That changed in 2015 when Yamaha upped the ante and brought their MotoGP riders to the event. With Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith riding alongside Katsuyuki Nakasuga on a “Suzuka Special”, the race was relevant once again. Casey Stoner made a one-off racing return in that year's edition, and with Kevin Schwantz on the grid, the relevance and interest in Suzuka was huge. It became a spectacle again, and showed the power of having some of the biggest names in racing back at the event.
Last year Nicky Hayden's return carried with it a similar peak in interest, and while the American suffered a mechanical failure in the race, it showed again that Suzuka's return to prominence was real. This year Honda will have Jack Miller line up on the grid as MotoGP's sole representative - but with five Moto2 riders, four WorldSBK riders, a host of World Supersport riders, and the usual contingent of British Superbike riders, the grid is an all-star cast riding arguably the best Superbikes on the planet.
With a tire war in the Endurance World Championship, the level of technology on the grid is also something to behold. The Bridgestone tire has been the one to have in recent years but with Michelin and Pirelli also on the grid there really is nothing around quite like this weekend's race. That level of competition is what still makes Suzuka unique - and relevant.
What piques the fans interest is the riders and this year's 8 Hours will see all the major manufacturers field big name outfits. Yamaha are seeking a third win in a row and will have WorldSBK stars Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark line-up alongside Katsuyuki Nakasuga. Van der Mark is a two-time winner but was worried that his size could be an issue, the tall Dutchman having a very different stature to that of his teammates:
"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 after the recent tests. “But they both said they had no issues with it, so I'm relieved."
Finding the right compromise of setup is key in endurance racing and sometimes being the fastest outfit isn't as important as the consistency that comes from all riders being comfortable on the bike.
Whereas in a normal, 35-minute WorldSBK race the bike is tailored to being on the limit at all times, in endurance racing the key is finding a balance. Being the fastest lap in and lap out isn't as crucial as reliability, consistency and – even more importantly - fuel economy. That was one of the biggest advantages for Yamaha last year, but with Honda fielding an all-new Fireblade it will be interesting to see how that bike compares.
The Endurance World Championship is the only series where Honda has been competitive this year. The 'Blade is still not the sharpest tool on the grid but it is in the mix. While Stefan Bradl has struggled all year in WorldSBK, he is already more comfortable on the Suzuka machine. The throttle connection from running a different specification of electronics is much better and the German has called for Ten Kate to incorporate the system in WorldSBK.
With former Moto2 world champion Bradl, MotoGP race winner Jack Miller, and a host of other Grand Prix winners on the Honda at Suzuka, the rider line-up won't be a concern for Honda. If the input from Japan pays off, the Fireblade could well spring a surprise.
The 8 Hours will also see Suzuki field some all-star riders, with British Superbike racers Sylvain Guintoli and Josh Brookes making a formidable line-up with Takuya Tsuda, the factory test rider. With plenty of experience, the Yoshimura crew could be in podium contention throughout the race. It's difficult to see any of the other manufacturers also mounting a podium challenge but over the course of an 8 Hours race, anything can happen.
The heat is on, the pressure’s high – and the 8 Hours is more than back to its best.
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