“The Suzuka 8 Hours is draining,” explains Alex Lowes. “The starting grid ceremony, the hour long stint on the bike, the conditions. Nothing about it is easy but almost everything about the weekend is special. It’s an amazing feeling to have one of the biggest manufacturers in the world supporting you. When you’re on the bike for the final hour and come across the line to win the race, it’s an amazing feeling.”
The 28 year old WorldSBK star sits third in the championship and heads to Japan as the three-time defending winner. With an enviable record at the 8 Hours - which included leading the opening hour of his 2015 debut aboard a Suzuki - the lap record holder is out to win again. He also knows that winning the race could have a huge impact on the next step of his career.
Without a contract confirmed for 2020, Japanese New Year comes at the perfect time. The 8 Hours is the turning point of the calendar for Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki. This is the race that they want to win more than any other. It’s easy to underestimate the great Japanese race and think that MotoGP titles have taken preference for the manufacturers, but make no mistake this is still the centrepiece of their season.
The 8 Hours marks the end of one season and the beginning of another. It comes bang in the middle of Superbike Silly Season, and if you can win this race it certainly does a lot to boost good feeling in the Far East. It can mean that you’re safe for another year. A defeat can be the opposite and the whole team wait anxiously for the mail coming through the letterbox. Waiting for "don't call us, we'll call you".
The pressure piled on the shoulders of riders and engineers is massive. Sometimes it can get too much. Last year, with Honda in podium contention, it was rumoured that Takumi Takahashi and Takaaki Nakagami refused to go out in the rain and that both were in tears during the race. The pressure had gotten the better of them and the physical and mental toll of Suzuka is huge.
“On the starting grid you’re out there really early and you’re standing in all of your leathers in 30°C and high humidity,” remembered Lowes from starting for Suzuki in 2015. “I’ve not started the last few years on the Yamaha but I remember the sweat dripping off your back and down your leathers. It's the worst moment of the entire season! Everyone on the grid is feeling it. You're drained and tired and you haven't even started yet! When the grid clears and you get ready for the start you forget all those feelings. The first time you come around to the start finish and see all the fans is amazing.”
Once the stint gets underway the race immediately falls into a normal pattern and rhythm. Attack and defend. Adapt and survive. Your lungs will be burning, the sweat is burning through your eyes but this is endurance racing. Keep your focus, keep your rhythm. Keep the bike in the fight. This a series of sprint races and you can’t make a mistake. Over the last few years we’ve seen leading teams, such as Yoshimura Suzuki last year, suffer early crashes that rule them out of contention. Twelve months ago Jonathan Rea put Kawasaki on pole position only to see their hopes dashed by crashes.
Avoiding errors and maintaining the pace are the keys. In practice and qualifying you’re trying to beat the clock. Throughout weeks of testing the goal is to be as fast as possible. Can you dip into the 2'05s in the Superpole session? Can you lap in the 2'06s on a race tyre? These are the keys to everything before the race starts and then they become completely irrelevant!
“We all spend so much time trying to go fast in testing,” continued Lowes. “But once we start racing it’s really a case of being consistent. The goal is usually to be in the 07s all the way through. Yamaha do a very good job of managing the race. We’re good in the pits, have good pace through the race but it’s the team that makes the difference. They know what to do and the three riders are all able to work together really well.”
Team work makes the dream work. Usually it’s a catchy line for an Instagram post. At Suzuka, it’s the only way to success.
Kawasaki call in the big guns
Yamaha have dominated the 8 Hours over the last four years. Since bringing their Tech3 team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith to the race in 2015, they’ve set out their stall by leaving no stone unturned. That year was the first of the newer model R1 and with that bike now at the end of its shelf life, the Iwata clan are looking for their fifth consecutive win. This year could see their biggest challenger yet and in comes in the form of a familiar foe; Kawasaki Racing Team.
For 2019 Provec Racing will be leading the Suzuka 8 Hours programme for the first time. The Spanish squad, who have won the last four WorldSBK titles with Jonathan Rea, replaces Team Green as the factory squad and they’re out to prove themselves. With Rea, Leon Haslam and Toprak Razgatlioglu on the ZX10-RR they have an almost ideal blend of speed and experience. With the Turkish rider the upcoming star of WorldSBK alongside two former Suzuka winners, Kawasaki have been looked on as one of the favourites.
Last year’s pole sitters had an error-strewn outing with their challenge ended by a highside on slick tyres in the wet. Having got the bike back to the pits and losing a lap they had to settle for third at the flag but this year they’re gunning for success.
With a technical team led by Pere Riba and Marcel Duinker, their WorldSBK title winning crew chiefs, there is little doubt that Kawasaki has the chance to finally win again at the 8 Hours. Their last success came 26 years ago with Aaron Slight and Scott Russell at the helm and since then they’ve had few reasons to look back at the 8 Hours with anything other than regret.
There’s no home advantage for Honda
Honda might own the Suzuka circuit but it’s been five long years since they’ve owned the 8 Hours. This year their testing form has been incredible. In the past, fuel economy has been the key for the Fireblade in the race but if testing is any indication, they’ve made a massive step forward with the bike for 2019. They needed to because last year it was only safety cars and fuelling that gave them a prayer.
Takumi Takahashi has been scintillating in testing. The Japanese Superbike championship leader has been able to lap consistently 2'07s and to do this while maintaining the pit window required for the Fireblade to stand a chance. The 29 year old first won at Suzuka in 2010, and having racked up another two successes he certainly knows how to get it done at this event. With a smooth riding style that was honed in the All-Japan 250GP championship, he has been regarded as one of the most talented riders in Japan for a long time, but one that has struggled to adapt to racing outside his homeland.
This year he will be teamed with three-time BSB champion Ryuichi Kiyonari and HRC test rider Stefan Bradl. It’s a strong rider line-up but the rumours are that there’s a big drop off in performance once Takahashi isn’t on the bike.
British duo to lead Suzuki challenge
What price for Suzuki springing a Suzuka surprise? The odds got longer when the Yoshimura squad announced their line-up with Yukio Kagayama surprisingly replacing Takuya Tsuda. Former WorldSBK champion Sylvain Guintoli will be left with plenty of water to carry for the Number 12 machine with Kazuki Watanabe their third rider.
After finishing fourth last year the privateer S-Pule squad will start the weekend as the most likely Suzuki to feature in podium contention. With BSB stars Tommy Bridewell and Bradley Ray on the GSXR-1000 alongside Hideyuki Ogata it will be interesting to see how much track time the 42-year-old Japanese rider is offered.
Last year Ray made an immediate impression at the 8 Hours, but since then he’s struggled to readapt to the Pirelli tyres used in BSB. With the Bridgestone front tyre he’ll once again be filled with confidence. Bridewell is a rider full of confidence at present, with the 30 year old in the form of his life in BSB. This team has all the hall marks of a dark horse contender for the podium and to put up a fight for the race victory.
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