THE 40th edition of the Coca-Cola Suzuka 8 Hours is arguably the most important race in any motorcycle manufacturers’ calendar.
In some ways, it is more important than the MotoGP or World Superbike Championships due to its place in the hearts and minds of the Japanese motor fraternity and fans. Held every year since 1978, the Suzuka racetrack, owned by Honda Motor Company, the 8 Hour race is vitally important to Honda, who have won the race 27 times since its inception.
And this year, with the CBR1000RR not doing so well in international competitions around the world, sees Honda fielding an unprecendented number of factory-backed race teams in an effort to stem Yamaha from winning a third consecutive Suzuka 8 Hour crown.
Among the favourites are the Mushashi RT HARC-PRO Honda team (Takaaki Nakagami, Jack Miller and Takumi Takahashi), Moriwaki Motul Honda (Yuki Takahashi, Ryuichi Kiyonari and Dan Linfoot) and F.C.C. TSR Honda (Dominic Aegerter, Randy de Puniet and Stefan Bradl).
Among the many Honda teams is the Satu Hati Honda Team Asia. Last year, the team finished eighth with riders Dimas Ekky Pratama, Ratthapong Wilairot and Md Zaqhwan Zaidi. This year, the team returns with the same riders plus team mechanics and managers from Asia as well. The Satu Hati team runs a fairly standard CBR1000RR SP2 with modifications for endurance racing such as a bigger fuel tank with quick fillers, quick change front and rear wheels and electronics upgrades.
The winning Yamaha team last year, Yamaha Factory Racing Team (Alex Lowes, Michael van der Mark and Katsuyuki Nakasuga) will be looking to do the triple crown. Suzuki is laying their hopes on the Yoshimura Motul Suzuki team (Takuya Tsuda, Sylvain Guintoli and Josh Brookes) and Team KAGAYAMA (Yukio Kagayama, Naomichi Uramoto and Hafizh Syahrin) to upset both Honda and Yamaha. Kawasaki has a proud tradition at Suzuka but is only running a single works team — Team Green (Kazuma Watanabe, Leon Haslam and Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman) — to spearhead their effort.
Besides all this, there is the Endurance World Championship rivalry between reigning champions Suzuki Endurance Racing Team (Vincent Philippe, Etienne Masson and Sodo Hamahara) and Team GMT94 Yamaha (David Checa, Niccolo Canepa and Mike diMeglio) and between them stands only one point in favour of SERT. In total, at Suzuka, there will be 68 teams competing for the honours in 8 Hours, 1,300km and 220 laps.
The 8 Hours was flagged off at exactly 11.30am and a fierce fight began almost immediately between the Yamaha Factory Racing team and Mushashi RT HARC-PRO. As they sliced through the field, it seemed as though they were in a sprint race instead of an endurance event. Eventually, the Yamaha eased away gradually during the second and third hours and all the teams settled down to a regular pace.
The championship regulars were hard pressed in this race, the last in a five-race season. SERT qualified 22nd and were under pressure to perform. With rivals GMT94 running ahead by one lap due to the safety car incident blocking SERT’s challenge, rider Sodo Hamahara crashed. Returning to the track after a pit stop for repairs, SERT resumed its pursuit.
The rest of the work teams behind the leading Yamaha and Honda, swapped places regularly during pit stops, with the F.C.C. Honda, Moriwaki and Team Green featuring regularly in third, fourth and fifth. GMT94, Honda Dream and YART Yamaha were following close one or two laps behind. Team Yoshimura, who qualified second, had an early crash by rider Takuya Tsuda and had dropped back to 67th place (last!) but were gaining on the leaders. By the seventh hour, they had reached the top 10.
Disaster then struck Team Mushashi HARC-PRO Honda. A crash by rider Takaaki Nakagami in the third hour meant they dropped back to fourth. The relative pace of the top eight teams meant they had little chance of gaining places. Team Satu Hati, starting conservatively in 13th in the first hour, had come up to eighth and holding station in that position.
By the sixth hour, the leading two teams — Yamaha Factory Racing Team and Kawasaki Team Green — were still on the same lap and had left everyone else by one lap or more. Some teams were more than 40 laps behind but still running hard. The fight was on for the fifth through eighth, and ninth to 13th placings as the teams were all running close together. Only disaster could stop the top four from finishing in their current order.
As night dawned, more drama emerged. The Satu Hati Honda team found themselves in an unscheduled pit stop to replace a rear number plate bulb, dropping them from a strong fifth down to ninth place. They eventually finished eighth. The Yoshimura Suzuki team battled past to secure seventh place and Honda Dream Racing (Tatsuya Yamaguchi, Tomoyoshi Koyama and Ryosuke Iwato) also capitalised on the Asian teams’ predicament, finishing sixth. Steady riding, problem-free YART Yamaha (Broc Parkes, Marvin Fritz, Kota Nozane) finished the race in fifth position.
The Yamaha Factory Racing Team secured their third consecutive victory in the Suzuka 8 Hours after 216 grueling laps. Kawasaki Team Green crossed the line almost one lap back (2’ 09”.052 seconds) with Leon Haslam doing the last two consecutive stints in an effort to chase down the Yamaha. He almost collapsed before the podium ceremony from the effort. F.C.C. TSR Honda, which had been running in second place until an engine fire in the last minutes (resulting in a lightning pit stop), redeemed some of Honda’s honour by finishing in the last podium place with the unlucky Team Mushashi HARC-PRO Honda in fourth, two laps in arrears from the leaders.
The 2016-2017 Endurance World Championship slipped from the grip of the Suzuki Endurance Racing Team to the new champions, Team GMT94 Yamaha, who finished 11th. But they still managed second despite finishing 18th, ahead of YART Yamaha, which nearly managed to steal the championship, but failed to finish fourth in order to wrest the crown from both GMT94 and SERT. Just two laps in arrears at the end of a gruelling season meant third in the championship for YART Official EWC Team.
Eleven teams did not figure in the final results. Two Safety Car periods put some teams off their strategies and numerous crashes and mistakes penalised some teams and rewarded others. Action and drama make the Endurance World Championship a thrilling season. And the Suzuka 8 Hours is the crown jewel of endurance racing.