The Suzuka 8 Hours is the biggest single race on the motorcycle racing calendar. The final Sunday of July is circled on the calendars of racing presidents of the Japanese manufacturers because it's the day that careers are made or lost. It's the day that legends are born, and it's the day that the pressure is ramped right up on the racing bosses at Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki.
If you want to ensure your future, you need to prove your worth at Suzuka. The only way to guarantee good graces is with success. Honda has been chasing it in recent years, and after being on the receiving end of a Yamaha trouncing in recent years the pressure is higher than ever to win again.
That pressure manifests itself up and down the pit lane. Riders come off their bikes and look into the expectant faces of engineers who know their career aspirations are linked to Suzuka. Win here and you could get the chance to develop the next MotoGP machine. Lose and you could well be looking at the job ads on Monday.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Working with your team is crucial. Riders have to adapt to thinking about what their teammate wants, a huge departure from their normal rivalries, and suddenly encouraging each other and getting the most from each other is key. Working with the engineers to ensure three riders have a good bike is something that takes some adjustment.
“The 8 Hours is different because it's not about going fast, it's about working as a team,” said double winner Alex Lowes. “You are a part of the team in WorldSBK, but at Suzuka there's three riders and all the engineers and teams. You need to work as a team and have a good plan and everyone needs to do a good job. There are so many elements that go into having a successful 8 Hours and it's very different to a normal Superbike race.
“There's a rivalry between Michael [van der Mark] and myself but there's a lot of respect there too. When we're racing in WorldSBK we want to beat each other as much as anyone, but when we get to Japan the goal changes and we want to work toward winning the 8 Hours. I get on with Michael really well and that's a big advantage for us, and we both get on very well with Nakasuga-san so the three of us are a strong team together for the race.”
Yamaha has certainly formed a strong team in recent years. Three wins in a row with multiple riders - only Nakasuga has been ever present - shows the strength of the team and the package. At Suzuka the package is more important than the parts. It's a complete test of man, machine, and the people around them.
Yamaha placed a huge emphasis on the 8 Hours in 2015 when the current R1 was released. Taking MotoGP riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, they lay their cards on the table and said this was a huge event for them again. The other manufacturers have rolled into line with Kawasaki pumping more resources into Suzuka than ever before.
The Team Green project is headlined by triple WorldSBK champion, and 2012 Suzuka winner, Jonathan Rea but it's behind the scenes that the biggest influences are found. Pere Riba has been heavily involved in the project since the spring. The Spaniard, crew chief for Rea in WorldSBK, has been over and back to Japan for months to make sure testing has been on point and as many boxes are ticked as possible. With Rea teamed with Leon Haslam, his likely teammate in WorldSBK next year, the Kawasaki outfit are poised to spring a surprise.
In at the deep end
“I'm so excited to be back at Suzuka,” said Rea. “Every year after I've done my first stint I think, ‘What the **** have I agreed to do this for?' But when you finish it's one of the best feelings in the world. I won it in 2012, and it was the best race win of my career because it's such a team effort. I'm looking forward to racing with Leon too. We were on different Honda teams before, so to be team-mates now is really cool and we will really push each other. I feel some pressure because he has been testing and has been really fast.
“Pere has learned some things about the Suzuka bike because he's been there since March and working as part of the program. When I rode the 8 Hours for Honda I did a lot of testing and when I'd come back the WorldSBK bike was completely different, so I didn't want to focus on Suzuka until the summer break. Our WorldSBK bike is actually pretty close to the 8 Hours spec. It's a factory bike and the difference is just the tire, so maybe I can learn something from the tires. I think that for sure we are the underdogs but we have to go and try and see.”
The Kawasaki has long been the bike to beat in WorldSBK and with Haslam the man to beat in British Superbikes they shouldn't be discounted on Sunday.
While Kawasaki have some trump cards to play, the factory Honda squad has been left ruing their hand. Like a gambler betting early they had hoped that Leon Camier would be their ace in the sleeve. Gambling on the deal their hopes were hit on the turn when the Englishman was ruled out of action. If PJ Jacobsen can continue his strong form though, they may have been saved by the river card.
For Camier the disappointment at missing out on the action was compounded by Honda's strong showing in testing, third fastest, but his thoughts on the challenge of Suzuka will echo with the rest of the field.
“I don't know if it's tougher mentally or physically but I know it's not comparable to anywhere else,” was how Leon Camier summed up the Suzuka 8 Hours. “The conditions are so demanding. It's not even funny what we have to go through at Suzuka! You always know that you've got to get back on the bike so you try to get back to normal for the next stint but it's brutal. I lost three kilos in one hour from sweating but there's so many things that add to the challenge.”
The conditions at Suzuka are always a test of any rider but this year will be even more extreme than ever. With Japan in the grip of a heatwave that has seen temperatures 12C higher than average the physical demands placed on riders this year will be immense. The already demanding 8 Hours will be even worse and fitness, preparation and mental strength will be tested to their limits.
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