Once upon a time, the Suzuka 8 Hour race was a big deal. A very big deal. It was the race the Japanese factories sent their very best riders to compete in, the event often being written into the contracts of the top Grand Prix and World Superbike riders as part of their factory deals. The list of big names to win the race is impressive. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner, Daryl Beattie, Aaron Slight, Doug Polen, Scott Russell, Noriyuki Haga, Colin Edwards, Daijiro Kato, Alex Barros, Shinichi Itoh, Tohru Ukawa, Taddy Okada. And of course Valentino Rossi. There, they faced the very best of the Japanese Superbike riders, as well as the regulars from the World Endurance Championship, of which it forms a part.
It may have been an honor to have been asked to do the race, but the GP riders were far from keen. Held in July, the race fell right in the middle of the Grand Prix season. Racing in the event meant multiple flights to Japan for testing and practice, then the grueling race itself in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. It meant doing the equivalent of four Grand Prix in the space of eight hours, then rushing home to get ready for the next race. The best case scenario meant they started the next Grand Prix event tired and aching from Suzuka. The worst case was a crash and an injury that either kept them off the bike or left them riding hurt. The only benefit was that it kept the factories happy, and marginally increased a rider's chances of extending his contract with the manufacturer for a following season.
Gradually, the race fell out of favor, and more and more riders had clauses added to their contract specifically excluding them from being forced to race at Suzuka. Mick Doohan was one of the early absentees. Valentino Rossi did it twice, won it the second time around, and swore never to race at the event again. It was simply too demanding for a rider chancing a championship. In the early years of this century, the race languished in relative obscurity. The name of the event still echoed in the collective memory of race fans, but it passed without much comment. Except in Japan, where it remained the pinnacle of the JSB season, and the battleground for the Japanese manufacturers.
That started to change in recent years. The Japanese factories, and especially Honda, started calling on World Superbike riders once again. Carlos Checa went in 2008 with Ten Kate Honda teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari, and won the race. A few years later, Jonathan Rea did the same, and this triggered a revival of the tradition. Leon Haslam and Michael van der Mark followed in Rea's footsteps, and like him, secured victory for the official HRC team. The addition of Kevin Schwantz to the grid spiced the race up even further.
2015 took things up a notch again. Casey Stoner kicked off proceedings, by announcing that he would finally take part in the race that had been on his bucket list for a very long time. Freed of any MotoGP obligations since his retirement – despite his offer to replace the injured Dani Pedrosa earlier this season – Stoner had the time and the inclination to race, and very little to lose.
With Stoner on the grid, Yamaha then upped the stakes even further. With a new R1 to market and sell, they had set their sights on victory at the Suzuka 8 Hour as a keystone in their campaign. Honda had dominated the event for the previous 18 years, the factory team taking victory at Honda's own circuit. Only a couple of wins by Suzuki broke HRC's stranglehold. It was time for Yamaha to go into the lion's den, and show what they were capable of, as a manufacturer and as a racing department.
At the start of the year, they put a lot of pressure on both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi to lead the Suzuka assault. The two Movistar Yamaha riders politely declined, though as it became evident that the MotoGP championship would likely be settled between the pair of them, their protestations became a little less polite and a good deal more adamant. Yamaha Racing turned their attentions to the Tech 3 team, where Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith were in less of a situation to refuse. It took a little bit of persuading, but both men had much to gain from pulling off what Yamaha asked of them.
Stoner, Espargaro, Smith, Alex Lowes, Dominique Aegerter, Michael van der Mark. WEC regulars such as SERT and YART, with riders like Broc Parkes, Kyle Smith, Erwan Nigon, David Checa, Tommy Bridewell, Sheridan Morais. Japanese stars such as Katsuyuki Nakasuga, Yukio Kagayama, Nori Haga (still racing!) Ryuichi Kiyonari and more. The race was once again the big deal that it used to be. Suzuka was back on the map.
So much so that many international motorcycle racing outlets gave it prominent coverage. I considered covering the race on MotoMatters.com, but in the end, I decided against it. The rule I try follow with the site is to concentrate on what we know, and try to do that well. That is why there is no coverage of BSB, or MotoAmerica. Great series, but without the resources and knowledge to give them the coverage they deserve, I believe I would be doing them an injustice by covering them half-heartedly.
So it was with Suzuka. Naturally, I had an interest, for several reasons, but I did not want to waste the time and energy of my readers and myself by writing about things of which I know just enough to get it all horribly wrong. Instead, I watched the last couple of hours, following the race via Twitter and watching the coverage on my local Eurosport.
What did I think of the race? Endurance racing remains a very peculiar and specific discipline. Though riders go all out for each of their stints, they know they need to keep something in reserve. Once they hand the bike over to their teammates, they have an hour and a half, two hours to recover, before having to do it all again. It is a fine balance between pushing hard enough to try to pass and put some time on your rivals, while ensuring that you don't crash and lose time, and conserve enough energy for the moment you have to do it all again. Crashing is costly, not just for yourself, but for your teammates. After all, you are not just racing for yourself, you are racing for a team, and if you crash out, then it is not just the end of your race, but the race of your two teammates. That creates a different kind of pressure, and a different kind of atmosphere within the team.
With Espargaro and Smith, two riders I know relatively well (insofar as journalists every know riders well, separated as they are by being on different sides of the media), I had paid a little more attention to this race. It was interesting seeing the vibe between the two change after they returned from testing, between Assen and the Sachsenring. The two men have been fierce rivals for most of their racing lives, having faced each other in the Spanish championship, in 125s and in Moto2. Race against someone for long enough, especially someone who is as fast as you, more or less, and rivalry turns to dislike. The fact that they both were the same shirt on race weekends meant nothing: if anything, it merely amplified the rivalry. They were both nothing but cordial with each other, and completely professional in their role as teammate, but being teammates really just meant that they viewed each other as the first person they had to beat.
Such ferocity had been hard to maintain, as both Smith and Espargaro are likable young men. Both have a good sense of humor, and are positive and fun to be around, though in different ways. There was not enough difference to sustain a genuine hatred, and over the past eighteen months, the relationship appeared to be growing more cordial.
It formed a good basis for the Suzuka 8 Hour race. Suddenly, the two men stopped being MotoGP teammates – basically, an annoyance on the other side of the garage, and your first target for the weekend – and were forced to work together. We saw the relationship change, and respect grow between the two when they came back from Japan after testing. The dynamic changed, and I got the impression that made it easier inside the team as well.
Both Smith and Espargaro heaped praise on Kats Nakasuga. The multiple JSB champion and official Yamaha test rider had prepared Yamaha's new R1 well, and gave them a base set up far beyond their expectations. Working together, they had much less to do, helping to refine the bike which Nakasuga had given them. It was praise Nakasuga deserved. One of my favorite memories of recent years was seeing Nakasuga take the podium at Valencia in 2012. The Japanese rider had been brought in to replace the injured Ben Spies, and put in a solid performance in treacherous conditions to put the Yamaha M1 on the box. It was typical of the man: quiet, unassuming, utterly reliable, and not to be underestimated. His delight at getting on the podium was a joy to behold, made even greater by the fact that his son had been born that very same weekend.
His son was present at Nakasuga's second great triumph, watching from the pits as the Japanese rider helped Espargaro and Smith do what Yamaha had asked of them. The three men went to the home of Honda, and came away with the trophy – and what a trophy it is, a behemoth to rival the Stanley Cup. Espargaro and Smith used their speed to open up a gap, Nakasuga used his experience and intelligence to manage the race and ensure they achieved their objective. Smith had a few hairy moments at the very end of the race, as he found himself caught up in a yellow flag situation, uncertain of where the FCC TSR Honda was, the only rival standing between them and victory. Some emergency pit board instructions from Pol Espargaro finally laid his concerns to rest, and wrapped up the title.
Making the task that little bit easier for the Yamaha men was the early exit of the factory MuSASHi HARC-PRO Honda team. Just a few laps into his first stint, Casey Stoner crashed heavily on the way into Turn 10, his bike ending up in the middle of the track at The Hairpin. Honda were at first cagey about the crash, but after Stoner tweeted a picture of himself with plaster on his leg and his arm in a sling (he broke both his shoulder and his ankle) giving the cause as a stuck throttle, HRC were forced to own up. An initial press release was issued and then withdrawn, a follow up stating only that it was a mechanical problem. Eventually, they came clean: the throttle had been stuck open at 26 degrees when Stoner crashed, which on a short racing throttle is a little less than half throttle. Footage confirmed it: the video clearly showed Stoner losing the front and grabbing the clutch, before running wide and onto the grass. With no grip, down he went, tumbling badly and fracturing his bones along the way.
Stoner's crash reinforced what Espargaro and Smith had been saying: Suzuka is a fantastic circuit, one of the very best in the world – the two ranked it with Mugello and Phillip Island in terms of level of challenge – but it is also dangerous. The walls are close and cannot be moved, and a mistake can easily end in very severe consequences. It is tragic that Suzuka is not on the MotoGP calendar. But if it was, even greater tragedy might follow.
Does this crash finally spell the end of Casey Stoner's career as an active racer? It's hard to say, but you have to suspect it does. The Australian may feel he wants one more shot at actually finishing the race – he was robbed of any real chance of a result by mechanical mishap, rather than anything else – but he may also decide to just call it a day. We will probably only find out ahead of the Sepang tests next year, if he is spotted testing the Fireblade once again.
The Yamaha victory in 2015 makes next year an even more interesting prospect. Victory for the R1 came under exceptional circumstances, with a lot of support and two of the best riders in the world on the bike. It is hard to imagine Honda taking this lying down, which raises the question of what they will do next year. What they really need is something to replace the aging CBR1000RR (the RC213V-RS will never be homologated, and is meant as a rich man's toy, rather than a Superbike in the WSBK sense of the word), but that is not on the cards for 2016, despite the endless rumors of a new and competitive bike.
Will HRC instead bring in its big guns? Will the loss of face Honda suffered at Suzuka cause HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto to have a quiet word in the ears of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez? And if it does, will they be able to resist, claiming they have MotoGP titles to chase? And what of Yamaha? If Márquez and Pedrosa are roped in, will Yamaha be forced to pressure Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo into taking up the challenge?
Probably not, but with Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, you can never quite be sure. There is honor at stake. And that honor means that Suzuka is once again a big deal. I think that's a good thing.
Motorcycle News did an excellent series of video blogs with Bradley Smith on Suzuka. Well worth watching how Smith works his way through the weekend, and the ups and downs they face. A great initiative.
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