A rich taste of the east

If “Italy felt like a whole other country” for Ian Rush imagine what the Liverpool legend would make of Japan! The Suzuka 8 Hours is an experience unlike another other. Even the esteemed editor of On Track Off Road has come undone by Suzuka after MotoGP races here with some of my fellow contributors but that’s a story best left for Adam to tell! [Slander?! – Ed]

Over the years my adventures have been well documented in the pages of On Track Off Road. I’ve flown into the wrong airport, I’ve missed flights, I’ve double booked hotels and I’ve arrived at rental car desks without an international drivers permit. To make it all worse I’ve lived in Japan when I was working as an engineer and really should know a lot more about what makes this country tick! 

Amongst all that chaos and mistakes I’ve made on my way to and from the 8 Hours I’ve always found a way to love this trip. This is a pilgrimage. It’s a race as spectacular in its own way as the Senior TT and one that has all the pomp and ceremony of the Daytona 500. What’s not to love about the 8 Hours? There’s a fantastic race track, exotic bikes and some of the best riders in the world.

This race is effectively one of the last great invitational events on the calendar. It might be the final round of the Endurance World Championship but that’s only a cover story. This is a hard-core, one night only party with last orders set firmly at 7.30pm. Lock the doors, lose your morals and do whatever it takes. That’s what makes the 8 Hours so special. 

Pic by Steve English

For the WorldSBK and MotoGP riders that make the trip to the Far East they don’t care about anything other than this one race. It can make or break a career. It can give you healthy bargaining chips at the table with the Japanese manufacturers. Show your commitment to Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki or Suzuka here and you’ll be rewarded. Win here and you’ll be a legend. 

The stands are packed with fans and employees. They’re cooling themselves down with fans handed out in their favourite manufacturers corporate colours. When the sun sets you can see all of them holding LED lights in their favourite colours. They want this win as badly as the riders and there’s no room for sentimentality out on track. You race with a Samurai spirit for your manufacturer. Say the right things and handle your business…and that nobility was certainly needed this year after one of the most dramatic events anyone can remember. The race will forever be recalled for the protest to the result in the aftermath but rather than rehash that issue lets look at the bigger picture. 

The stage for this year’s edition was set as an all-time classic. Yamaha came to Suzuka on the back of four wins in a row, Kawasaki brought their full WorldSBK arsenal and Honda’s Fireblade had a badly needed makeover. All three were fast, all three were confident, all three were left wondering what might have been. 

Pic by Kawasaki

Yamaha struggled in the pits but were fastest on track. Honda were fastest at their changeovers but a shade off the pace. Kawasaki? They were solid and dependable in all areas and blisteringly fast with Rea on board their ZX100-RR. 

Strategy would win or lose this 8 Hours. Honda and Kawasaki gambled on two riders while Yamaha used the traditional trio. Honda felt that the drop off to their third rider, Ryuichi Kiyonari, was too great but afterwards the Japanese rider said that he withdrew due to illness. Kawsaaki was a more interesting dynamic with Toprak Razgatliougu sitting out the race. The Turkish rider has been a star turn of late in WorldSBK but hasn’t felt appreciated in Japan. The decision to have him sit out the race is sure to be one that won’t be well received and could have a big impact on his decision on where to ride for 2020.

Pic by Kawasaki

In the past Honda have tried to eek out their fuel. The Fireblade sipping on fuel like a connoisseur in a bid to save themselves a pitstop. Given that the pit time and outlap cost 90 seconds this can be a sound strategy if you’re struggling for laptime. This year however Honda were in attack mode and rode aggressively throughout. This aggression possibly cost them in the final stint with Takumi Takashahi’s pace falling off a cliff in the closing laps after completing the race with back to back stints.

Kawasaki and Yamaha remained battling at the front. A mistake in the pits at their final stop left Yamaha with a mountain to climb and with Rea turning the wick up on his Kawasaki to break the lap record the race was looking done and dusted before a sprinkling of rain came down. Suddenly there was tension in the air and that only increased after Rea’s crash. The decision, or indecision depending on your viewpoint, of Race Direction to confirm the results meant that the climax to the weekend’s racing was strange but it shouldn’t discount the achievement of Kawasaki.

Pic by Kawasaki

To take the WorldSBK team to Endurance and win the biggest race of the year is a remarkable feat. To do it without a Japanese test rider is even more impressive and then also competing with different tyres compared to their WorldSBK mount where the settings and weight distributions vary wildly. The fast adjustment after a handful of testing hours was frankly astonishing and the whole distinction shouldn’t be overshadowed by protest and confusion. Kawasaki put themselves into a position to win and duly delivered by the letter of the law. It’s just a shame that amongst all that melee we didn’t see them celebrate on the podium and we didn’t know what the outcome would be.

To make it in Serie A in the 1980’s Rush needed to adapt to the slower pace of a defensive minded, tactical league. To make it at the Suzuka 8 Hours Kawasaki Racing Team had to adapt to different tactical battle but it certainly wasn’t at anything less than the flat out, attacking pace with which they’ve dominated WorldSBK in recent years.

By Steve English @SteveEnglishGP

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