On first glance the field looks to be close ahead of this weekend's Suzuka 8 Hours. Yamaha led the opening session, Honda topped the second, and there are four manufacturers inside the top five and all within a second of the pace.
It seems to be setting up for a great weekend of racing, but when you delve into the times it's clear that, while Honda has made progress, they are still playing catch up with their CBR1000RR SP2. Despite a crash for Jack Miller the 634 machine led the way in the afternoon session but with Yamaha electing to use only one set of tires in the session their true one lap pace is still unknown. Miller's crash came on what would have been his fastest lap of the day but having rolled off on his previous lap may have been caught out by a slightly cold tire. There were plenty of positives on the opening day for Honda and while they probably need to make a small step to compete with Yamaha they are in the ballpark.
“I'm happy with our day,” said Yamaha's Alex Lowes. “We're starting our defense of the 8 Hours and we're all focused on winning it again. We spent the day working on being consistent and we used one set of tires in the afternoon. The bike is working well and we were also able to spend time working on our pit-stops. It was a positive first day for us.”
It was also a positive day for Suzuki. Despite the track conditions being far from ideal with a cloudy Japanese sky offering a near constant threat of rain. For Josh Brookes, riding the Number 12 Yoshimura Suzuki, today was important to understand the tires.
“Basically the conditions today were at the bottom end of the operating window for the Bridgestone tires. I thought that the track temperature wasn't too bad and that there'd be good grip, but when I was talking with my team they explained that with the Bridgestone tire this was outside it's window. The track was about 37°C, but because of the design of the tire it needs to be used in slightly warmer conditions. When it's outside that window, whether above it or below it, you have grip issues.”
Overall for Brookes and his team, though, third fastest was a solid start to proceedings. The Japanese squad elected to use a new engine for the weekend with a slightly different specification. With a small increase in torque Brookes commented that the engine is better, but that it wasn't a massive change.
The fourth manufacturer in the top five was Kawasaki. Leon Haslam's Team Green machine was nine tenths of a second off the pace but the Englishman, a two time winner at Suzuka, is looking confident.
“We had a good day today,” said the British Superbike star. “Both of our bikes are working well and all three of us riders have been able to set times close to one another so that'll help in the race. Friday is a key day here at Suzuka because there's qualifying and night practice so we're looking forward to tomorrow and seeing how we get on.”
While it's easy to focus on the leading times of the day there is also a very important battle being fought further down the order this weekend; the Endurance World Championship. Coming into this round the Number 1 Suzuki and Number 94 Yamaha are separated by just one point in the championship standings. The Yamaha crew were comfortably faster today by over 1.5s but with the crews 14th and 23rd fastest respectively it's been far from a fast start to the weekend.
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