Steve English Suzuka 8 Hours Blog: The Best Team Won, But Was That The Right Result?

The 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours was the greatest race I’ve witnessed in the flesh. It was tremendous from start to finish...it was just the extra time that left a bitter aftertaste.

With only one lap remaining we had witnessed the greatest spectacle imaginable. Three teams - Kawasaki, Yamaha and Honda - had treated us to a feast of great racing. With the eight hour mark in sight we had seen twenty lead changes, and up until the final half hour all three teams were within 30 seconds of each other. Suzuka is always reckoned to be a series of sprint races wrapped up as an endurance outing but this race truly was just that.

It was unbelievable. Standing trackside I just wanted to get back inside to watch it on the TV and fully understand what was happening. If you believe that you’d believe anything. I was sweating so much in the heat that I was running dangerously low of bodily fluids but even in that state of reduced mental capacity I could see this was an all-time classic.

It truly was. Right until the final moment when the red flag came out following Jonathan Rea’s crash. The Number 10 Kawasaki crashed on oil that had been left in the final five minutes by the SERT machine’s expired engine. This most dramatic race had just gotten even more dramatic.

At that moment I was walking towards the Kawasaki pit garage to get ready to photograph the scenes as the Kawasaki WorldSBK team came to Endurance racing and won. It was a remarkable story. Until that crash.

Drama and mayhem

Suddenly Yamaha were leading the race but almost as quickly as Alex Lowes passed his stricken rival the red flags came out. The race was finished and in the mind of most people Rea had five minutes to return to the pits otherwise his win would be vacated. This was definitely my thought process too and I ran to Parc Ferme to wait for the winner...whoever it would be declared.

When Rea didn’t return Yamaha were declared the winner. I was standing beside Michael van der Mark when the word came through and he was in a state of disbelief. Eight hours and it all came down to the last moment. What a way to win this great race. What a way to lose this race. The highs and lows of world-class motorcycle racing.

It was incredibly unfortunate for Kawasaki, but in endurance racing there are 65 bikes on track and anything can happen. You have to adapt to the conditions, ride accordingly and make it to the end of the race. Rea and Kawasaki didn’t put a foot wrong all day and had been robbed of a win but, as with life, the luck of the draw can be a very fickle thing. One man’s bad fortune is usually another man’s good fortune in racing and so it was on Sunday.

Waiting for word

Or so it appeared on Sunday. With Yamaha decked out in Victory Number 5 t-shirts, spraying champagne on the podium and hoisting the massive trophy aloft on the podium they had conjured up the great escape and managed to win this race again. It was only minutes later that we realised something was amiss. The press conference was delayed. What was the hold up? Kawasaki had protested. The delay went on and on. I was walking past the holding room after an hour and asked what was happening only to be told by bemused riders, “we’ve no idea.” Sitting there in champagne doused leathers the Yamaha and Honda riders were forced to play the waiting game.

At this time I checked with Kawasaki when their riders would talk. Apparently this wasn’t possible and indeed Leon Haslam and Jonathan Rea were already at the hotel bar drowning their sorrows. Their drinks quickly turned into a celebration when news came through that the result had been overturned.

Kawasaki were suddenly the winners of the 42nd Suzuka 8 Hours. Their first success since 1993 was in the history books. After a two-hour delay to come to a verdict, it was a remarkable end to the day. The best team had won the 8 Hours but suddenly in my mind a more pertinent question arose; had the right team won the 8 Hours?

I’m writing this in an airport hotel in Nagoya almost 24 hours after the race has finished and I still can’t reconcile my feelings on the result. The #10 Kawasaki was the best team at the 8 Hours this year. Their pit stops were faster than Yamaha, they made no mistakes on track and Haslam and Rea were both faultless. Rea was the fastest and most consistent rider out on track. But endurance racing is not just about speed, there's always an element of luck, of unforeseen events. Misfortune had ruled Kawasaki out of the race but such is luck in racing.

Circumstances cause confusion

If the crash had happened twenty minutes earlier the race wouldn’t have been red flagged. A safety car would have been dispatched. Race Direction were clearly trying to ensure the race ran the distance and finished in normal racing conditions. This oversight left a crash possible. However, only one rider crashed.

The crash came from contamination on the track rather than a rider error but it still happened. When Kawasaki was reinstated in the results it was because the clause for returning to the pits after a red flag hasn’t been added to the Endurance World Championship - expect that loophole to be closed this off-season - but if Kawasaki were reinstated to the results why wasn’t the SERT bike also included?

The unwritten rule is that the team or rider that causes a red flag shouldn’t be classified. It’s one that I agree with and SERT should be punished, but given that there had been another two laps completed following the engine failure, did they cause the red flag or did the reg flag happen following Rea’s crash? There’s no rule in the regulations about this. Personally I think that the SERT bike should be disqualified rather than not classified, such was the danger of their rider’s action.

If this crash happened just minutes earlier would a safety car have been deployed and the race finished in those conditions rather than in racing conditions? I’m inclined to think that would have been the case and as a result Kawasaki should count their blessings.

When is a rule not a rule?

Race Direction has come under a lot of criticism for this incident and rightly so. The length of the delay was unacceptable, having the Race Director confirm that they didn’t agree with the decision is very difficult to reconcile. They felt that the five minute rule, “which is valid in other FIM world championships”, should have been applied, but that in a court of law the rulebook left no chance of upholding their decision. The EWC and the FIM created this mess by not having a clearly red flag ruling in place and following the lead of other championships. This will surely change in the near future.

It’s a crying shame that this is the big talking point after the race because this was a fantastic race. We saw some of the best Superbike riders on the planet push themselves and their machinery to the limit. We saw that Suzuka has three different manufacturers pumping resources into their efforts and giving us real variety. We saw something amazing. We then saw something strange and disheartening; we saw a mess.

This was an incredibly complex series of events taking place in front of us. Race Direction didn't exactly cover themselves in glory, but the rulebook should have removed this ambiguity by following the guidelines of other FIM series. Kawasaki were right to protest. The correct decision was made on the basis of the regulations in place but I can’t help but feel that the right decision wasn’t made.


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Total votes: 27
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Comments

I have to agree 100% with Steve. The letter of the law was followed to resolve this weird scenario, but it seems counterintuitive to declare a rider who ended up in the dirt as the winner...

Total votes: 0

Learning of the (eventual) multiple iterations of the race results was definitely a weird emotional rollercoaster.  I feel you did well to really consider allll of the factors pertinent to the sequence of events that occurred; kudos, and thank you.

One question: the "must return to pit lane within 5 minutes" rule RE: red flags -- do we know what that was birthed from?  Because, I kinda hate it.  And we've had two occurrences (three if you count Suzuka) within the past year or so where this stipulation really put a very strange damper on proceedings.

Total votes: 10

... of the 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours was Race Direction’s ignorance of their own rulebook. They failed the teams and fans with this blunder. 

Total votes: 0

Does sound like a cluster. So did SERT ride for 2 laps spilling oil? Poor form, don’t these bikes have diapers/oil containment belly pans. Seems events threaded a needle to benefit Kawasaki. Back in the early 90’s in a vintage superbike club race, while in a 3 way battle for the win, I crashed out of the lead on my Guzzi when it started raining. The Swede on his big 4 then passed Dietz on the bevel drive Duc and then promptly crashed. Race Direction threw the red flag. Scoring backed up a lap, I won and Dietz protested. RD says the rain caused the red flag and upheld my “win”. Sometimes shite happens for you, sometimes against.

Total votes: 4

No, Etienne Masson continued for about three or four corners knowingly with a heavily smoking bike, with crucially smoke coming from the fairing, not just the exhaust. So obviously there was a big leak of some kind. I assume Masson was just so shocked with disbelief that the engine would expire with just five minutes to go, that he wanted to think that bike to the finish. He must have shouted some very loud and vile things inside his helmet. Still, it was a very unprofessional and dangerous action from such an experienced rider. I'm amazed nobody else crashed in those two laps after that. It must have been just a slight oil mist, no pouring leakage.

Total votes: 8

As Lucas Black above, I wonder why that 5-minute rule was implemented at all. Instead of making EWC adapt it too, I think other race classes should strike it from the rule book. It makes no sense. I can only recall several cases where it was making me feel injustice was being done, like to Tom Sykes at Donington recently. When someone else's engine blows up and you crash because of that oil or whatever fluid on the track, it should not matter whether or not you can make it back in pit lane in 5 minutes. The one who causes the red flag situation should be out of the results (and also out of a possible restart) - which fortunately is the rule nowadays - but not the one that is the victim of that. Especially when the race is done with the waving of the red flag and the standings at the time of the red flag count as final result.

When there is a restart because the race is still in an earlier stage, then of course there needs to be some time limit on when you have your bike ready for that restart, simply for obvious practical reasons. But that is a different matter and was certainly not the issue at Suzuka.

Probably there is a reason or specific case why the 5-minute rule was ever conceived, but obviously they did not think about it enough to realise its implications and shortcomings. 

Total votes: 12

I'm not sure you can class Sykes' 'incident' at Donington as an injustice. The Red flags were out for a good few corners before he arrived, he hadn't backed off, he fell on the spilt oil. Tough, he either wasn't paying attention, or hadn't wound his neck in. 

Should count himself lucky his bike didn't collect any of the Marshals who were doing their bit, under Red flag conditions, not expecting riders to be approaching still at race speeds.

He would not have got off that lightly in any other series. 

Total votes: 6

What is the reason for the 5 minute rule? If it was applied, in this race, wouldn't that have penalized Team Kawa for something totally beyond their control? 

Total votes: 8

Can we even be confident that oil from the SERT bike caused Rea's crash?

I doubted it at the time and I'm still not totaly convinced. With so many bikes on track it seems odd that only one would go down, with oil you normally see two or three in quick sucession.

I agree that SERT should have been disqualified for unsafe riding, but the cause of the red flag and therefore the result seems debatable to me.

Total votes: 1

Regarding Steve English's report: "They felt that the five-minute rule, 'which is valid in other FIM world championships', should have been applied, but that in a court of law the rulebook left no chance of upholding their decision."

If that what the Race Director said, then he/she has no place adjudicating a World Championship event. 

Enough of this touchie feelie nonsense ("I feel") !

One of the most important tasks the Race Director must undertake it to uphold and enforce the FIM regulations.

In this case, it was a MASSIVE FAIL.

For Regulation 1.22.5 to have been invoked was the act of an idiot.  Where is that bloke from - England?

Regulation 1.22.5 pertains to races finishing under a CHEQUERED FLAG.

But the race ended under a RED FLAG, so regulation 1.23.1 kicks in.

It is about time so-called 'race reporters' acted more professionally.  Who was the idiot on international television who wittered on about a "five-minute rule" ?  What sort of a dope is he?  There is no "five-minute rule" for WEC races that end under a red flag.

Thank goodness the Provec Kawasaki team has professionals in there who KNOW the rules.  That they were forced to protest the result speaks volumes about the lack of competence of the Race Director.

And talking about race commentary on TV, who was the bloke who claimed the leading Honda team would be able to save one fuel stop ?  All these bikes have the same amount of fuel (24 litres) to work with.  They make about the same amount of power so will burn about the same amount of fuel.  The leading Honda ran a few minutes longer than the Yamaha and Kawasaki but to do the eight hours with just six fuel stops requires a motorcycle to be able to go one hour and nine minutes on a tank of fuel.

In the 750cc days, hardly any machine would run more than 1 hour on a tank of fuel.  As far as could be seen from the (excellent) TV coverage, none of the leading machines was able to save a fuel stop, and that was obvious by mid-race.

Question: how many of the top teams had their bikes geared so they only used five of the six gears in their transmissions?

And finally, in answer to the writer's question: WAS THAT THE RIGHT RESULT?

YES, it most certainly was.  Unless you live in snowflake-land where what you FEEL about a result should take priority over the regulations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total votes: 1

As usual, Mr. English give us the best, most thoughtful report of a superbike race. But please allow me to point out just two inaccuracies when he says "only one rider crashed" and "there had been another two laps completed following the engine failure", based on reviewing the TV footage.

7:54'15" SERT #2 bike's engine blew at the end of the pitlane and kept smoking from the first corner into the middle of the S curves section. At that point, leading KRT #10 bike had 215 completed laps and was already into his 216th lap.

7:55'??" although TV stream missed it, bike #10 closed lap 216 and started lap 217. All bikes passed slowly over the S curves, warned by the red/yellow stripe flags about the oil spilled over that sector.

7:56'44" TV shows the yellow flag waved because bike #25 (then running 18th place) crashed on the S curves sector.

7:57'59" bike #10 completes lap 217 and starts the 218th lap.

7:58'25" in the S curves sector, bike #10 crashed at turn 5 to the left, exactly where 3'35" before, smoking bike #2 crossed to the right to stop on the gravel. Red flag was raised immediately.

During the 4'10" since #2 blowout to #10 crash, race direction kept the red/yellow stripe flags on the first sector. In that period, all bikes ran 1 entire lap without incidents, but on the 2nd pass over the first sector, first bike #25 slipped and then bike #10 also slipped, that's when race direction raised the red flag.

Checking EWC's provisional and the final ammended ranking, bikes #10, #2 and #25 were initially listed at DNF, then finally #10 and #25 were reinstated with their latest lap positions before the red flag. Bike #2 remained as DNF, as it crashed 2 laps before the red flag.

Total votes: 0

Nice article, and sums up well the awesomeness of the race and also the uneasy ending.  I watched basically the whole race, the first hour or so live, then gradually in chaseplay (at times x2 or x6) throughout the afternoon and evening as I did other things.  I've heard endurance racing described as 'buying a ticket for the last half an hour' or something similar.  All the work goes into being in place, and having the capacity to deliver your best speed (or at least more than the opposition) in that last half hour.  That is where KRT excelled and Honda miserably failed.  Rea put 18 seconds on the Yamaha and over a minute on the Honda, right when it mattered.  Awesome.

I was conflicted, because I really wanted Kawasaki to win again at last, and the effort of the team and both riders was flawless.  But with apologies to the collateral damage of Haslam, also I've come to somewhat dislike Rea as a rider so was hoping for some twist that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  The muffler thing a few laps from the end was oh so close, but he survived that and I figured he was cruising (indeed he should have been).  Then with less than 2 minutes remaining, he tosses it!  I couldn't believe it.  The karmic payback for the takedown of Lowes and apalling display of play acting afterward was brutal.

For those who didn't see it, the actions of the SERT Suzuki rider Etienne Masson were about the worst I've ever seen in a few decades of race watching.  He actually left the track at turn 1 after the blow up and was riding along the grass outside turn 2 looking behind and under him at the smoke and carnage but then REJOINED the track and rode through to turn 5 on or crossing over the racing line.  The bike had clearly exploded and he'd looked behind more than once, there were flames out of the exhaust and so on, it was still running but only just, there's no way he didn't know.

Where it gets interesting for me, and why I agree that KRT should have been excluded from the results in spite of their flawless performance up to then, is that the Suzuki blow up happened a good 4 minutes before Rea crashed.  Rea must have passed the oil spill site at least once and probably twice.  Meanwhile it had also started to rain more heavily.  Rea crashed at 7:58:30 or so, so he had one lap or at most two to go and was holding an 18 second lead.  He crashed, while Lowes and Takahashi didn't.  As good as their performance was for 7hrs, 58 and a half minutes, it's an 8 hour race and you should cross the finish line to win.  Sure you can crash on the last corner, and push your bike over the line, but you should cross the finish line.  The other thing about endurance racing is that the bikes are highly refined to be crash resistant, and as long as the rider still has two arms and legs the bike should ALWAYS make it back to the pits!  Why on earth did Rea not get the bike back to the pits?  Was it totally unrideable?  It was a slow enough crash, the bike should have been rideable in some way, he gave up.

Take a look at this great photo and article by Julian Ryder, that's the essence of endurance racing and was absent in KRT in the most important minute and a half of the race.

https://www.superbikeplanet.com/ryder-notes-best-picture-ever-took/

 

Total votes: 18

I think he just fell off too as alluded to in other comments. Rain, brain fade or over confidence I don't know, but watched almost the entire race. Missed first 45 mins. Haslam/Rea were brilliant, but until Hondas double ride for Takahashi at the end were always trailing. He was sooo fast. Tasteless ending for a specially great race.

C'est la vie.

Total votes: 5