Manuel Pecino / Photos: Jun Goto
Yamaha did it again. It didn’t matter that their star rider was injured on the eve of the race. Nor that challenger Johnny Rea beat the track record and took a pole position that will be a new standard from now on. Not to mention that the 41st edition of the 8 Hours of Suzuka was one of the most chaotic from an atmospheric standpoint. When last Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Japan the race director lowered the flag on the straight, Yamaha added their fourth consecutive victory in what remains the most important race for the Japanese factories.
For this edition Honda and Kawasaki threw in everything they had to try to break Yamaha’s four-race winning streak. It was a wasteful effort.
It’s true that the 8 Hours has lost the splendor of the 80s when racing in Suzuka was a priority for all the top riders in the world. “When we signed our contracts,” explained Kevin Schwantz, “we asked for a clause that said we could race in the 8 hours. Doing well at Suzuka, either in the GP or the 8 Hours, meant having your contract renewed for the following year.” What Kevin didn’t say was that at that time, a rider like him, Rainey, Gardner or Doohan charged a one million dollar starting bonus.
It’s also true that the mammoth, multi-million budgets which were available to the Japanese factories race departments to create a motorcycle for a single race are a thing of the past, but the 8 Hours is still the 8 Hours. For this edition for example, Honda and Kawasaki threw in everything they had to try to break Yamaha’s four-race winning streak. It was a wasteful effort.
Trying to describe last weekend’s 8 Hours in a “traditional” way is something that, honestly, I do not see myself capable of. So many things happened that to recount all of them would make the story endless, so I’ll make a different kind of report…
In an endurance race it is expected that weather conditions may change throughout the race. But what is not expected is that these changing conditions include a typhoon!
In an endurance race and because the 8 Hours of Suzuka is the last test of the Endurance World Championship, it is expected that weather conditions may change throughout the race. But what is not expected is that these changing conditions include a typhoon. Yes, you read that right: a typhoon.
After suffering a heat that broke records in Japan, weather forecasts warned of the arrival of a typhoon for the race weekend; apparently the 12th typhoon this season in Japan. At first the forecasts warned that it would pass through the region that Suzuka is located on Saturday afternoon and that it would last until Sunday midday.
The first consequence of this was the Top 10 Trial cancellation, a sprint where the top ten classified decide the order of the starting grid, leaving the track one at a time. Since the wind prior to the arrival of the hurricane came during this session damaging those who had to leave later, it was replaced by one all at a time.
After beating the lap record on Friday and establishing onSaturday a new pole record, it was clear: Johnny Rea was the fastest rider at Suzuka.
REA MARKS HIS TERRITORY
Jonathan Rea cared little about the format change. After beating the 8 Hours record on Friday with a time of 2.05.168—which could have been a high 2.04 if another rider hadn’t disturbed him on his fastest lap—on Saturday the three-time SBK World Champion demonstrated his authority at the 41st edition of the 8 Hours by setting a new pole record. It was clear: he was the fastest at Suzuka.
Rea impressed, yes, but did not intimidate his rivals. On Saturday evening, Kouichi Tsuji, head of the Yamaha competition department, insisted on explaining to me that at the 8 Hours of Suzuka, “the speed”, that is, the ability to go fast, is just one more factor in a complicated equation that makes up losing or winning that race. And according to the Japanese engineer, it is by no means the most important … 24 hours later, time proved him right.
THE CLIMATOLOGICAL FACTOR
The announced typhoon did not arrive at the scheduled time, but erupted with fury on Saturday night to Sunday, leaving the tail of it as a gift for the race. And the consequence was that it turned the 41st edition of the 8 Hours into one of the most complicated? disconcerting? unpredictable? editions ever.
The rain came in a fine drizzle at some times and heavy downpours in others, turning the race into a kind of poker game where the decision to leave the track to change tires became the card that could determine Honda’s chances for victory – Because HRC officially returned to the race after a decade of absence defending their interests of “supported” teams.
HONDA, UKAWA CONDEMNED THE TEAM
HRC managed the return to “their race”—the 8 Hours are run on a circuit owned by Honda—by betting on fuel consumption, probably the most decisive factor in this special race. The fact that their top engineers were in command in the CBR1000SP2 #33 box piloted by three-time Suzuka winner Takahashi, MotoGP rider Nakagami, and Patrick Jacobsen (a last-minute addition that made Jacobsen feel like a fish out of water) evidence that Honda had put all their cards on the table.
Engine made at HRC, electronics superior to MotoGP…you just had to hear how the bike sounded to believe it.
Betting on consumption was risky, because using less is easy, but you have to do it while maintaining competitiveness. And that’s like a white blackbird. It must be said that the HRC engineers fulfilled their part: the four bikes that only made six pit stops throughout the race were Hondas. While competitors had to enter to refuel after 27 laps, the HRC bikes held off until 30.
But there was a factor in the Honda box that failed miserably. That factor had its own name: Thoru Ukawa, de team manager.
But there was a factor in the Honda box that failed miserably, and that was the cause of tremendous frustration that was read on the faces of the Red Bull Team riders after the race. That factor had its own name: Thoru Ukawa, the team manager. His race strategy was a sequence of wrong decisions that determined the final result.
The first mistake was for Nakagami to stay on track with rain tires for three laps more than other competitors in the first relay; a decision that cost him 16 seconds. The second was to send Takahashi into a relay after 27 laps, when afterwards it was seen that the Honda was capable of doing up to 30. And the last one, which was the final straw, was to send PJ Jacobsen out onto a soaked out track, with Jacobsen a complete “virgin” in such conditions at Suzuka. Nervous, pressued and very uncomfortable on a motorcycle that had never ridden in such conditions, the American lost three seconds per lap during his relay. That’s where the chances for HRC ended. It must be said that Honda entered the finish line 30 seconds behind the winner.
“Somehow I felt that I was thrown into the deep-end. I think there were people with more experience than me with this bike in the conditions that they had me go out in,” said a resigned PJ after the race.
TEAM GREEN IS…GREEN
Kawasaki’s strategy to dethrone Yamaha was opposite to that of Honda. In their case, they bet on pure benefits. As explained earlier, at the hands of Rea they showed all their muscle in practice. But they then had to undergo a diet before reaching the race, because during the previous tests held a few weeks before, the engineers realized that the motorcycle was fast but in those conditions fuel consumption was too high: they had to reduce power by 3%.
If Honda’s cause for failure had a name and surname, at Kawasaki the faults for crossing the line in third were shared between the person in charge of managing the race and the one who had been the big star in practice.
Those two were the ones who made capital mistakes out of everyone in the green box. The first miscalculated and the bike ran out of gas in the second relay. The bike stopped at the fast left before the chicane, which allowed Rea to reach the pits by inertia but losing a good number of seconds in the process
The second mistake, and the one that definitely crushed the Kawasaki team’s dreams was a stupid crash by Rea while he was riding behind the pace car. The new 8-hour fast lap record holder, the poleman of the race, shattered his and the team’s chances by falling while he was behind the pace car!
After the race, the almost four-time SBK World Champion was quite angry with how the race had been managed by the team. “While we were riding behind the pace car, I asked the team several times to allow me to go in and change the tires, but they insisted that I stay on track. As for the crash, I can’t tell you what happened. The tire suddenly went away, as if it were speedway. I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. Fortunately, I was able to get to the box with the bike and we only lost one lap.”
The second mistake, and the one that definitely crushed the Kawasaki team’s dreams was a stupid crash by Rea while he was riding behind the pace car.
If the fall was a consequence of concentration loss, of anger caused by his “discussion” with the team or because the tire got cold from so much rolling behind the car, the truth is that it matters little, the fact is that the possibility for Kawasaki to win their second 8 Hours in 41 attempts vanished.
YAMAHA’S MASTER FORMULA
Have fuel consumption controlled, have a strategist to observe what is happening on track with perspective and ability to make appropriate decisions, have riders with heads on their shoulders who can make determined and implacable passes. Because with 64 bikes on the track the number of riders to overtake during the 8 Hours is infinite and not being sufficiently determined in this maneuver can cause one to lose many, many seconds.
After four consecutive victories in Yamaha they know very well what to do and what not to do to win the 8 Hours.
Especially in the last relay at night, when the difference between the fast and slow riders usually reaches seven seconds per lap. Losing 2 /3 seconds behind a straggler is very easy.
Yamaha has all these factors perfectly internalized. After four consecutive victories they know very well what to do and what not to do; the same goes for their three riders: they are fast, effective and with clear ideas.
On Saturday afternoon, after Rea’s demonstration of power, I had the opportunity to talk with van der Mark and Lowes about their teammate’s performance. “Well, he wanted to show how fast he is, that he is faster than us, so be it. I congratulate him for it, but the race is something else,” the Brit pointed out with irony … He knew very well what he was talking about.
Technically Yamaha extended that masterful formula to its 8 Hours version of the R1 2018. The motorcycle was a prototype in the strictest concept of the word. And what a machine! Developed by Nakasuga in the All Japan of SBK, he had an engine under the fairing prepared to perform for exactly 8 Hours, not one more. It contrasted with the YART R1 #7 that was in the same box, a series races R1 with Öhlins suspension—The “good” motorcycle sported Kayaba—and with an engine to withstand 24 hour races.
SUZUKI, AWARE OF REALITY
The Hamamatsu factory showed up to this 8 Hours quite aware that their chances of winning were almost nil. As always, the responsibility to defend their interests was borne by Yoshimura, although the presence of Sahara san, the head of the MotoGP project, exposed the direct link between both parties.
Suzuki’s passage through this 41st edition of the 8 Hours was without pain or glory. That Yoshimura will be present on the grid in the future with chances to compete hand to hand with Yamaha, Honda or Kawasaki will depend in large part on being able to have top-level riders. In this sense, I would not rule out seeing their MotoGP riders next year discovering what it is like to race in the fourth dimension.