The Suzuka 8 Hours presents lots of challenges to teams and riders. The most unique for many of the WorldSBK stars in action this weekend is that they’re out there for hours on end from day to night. The hottest temperatures to the slightly cooler evening temperatures. You’re lapping traffic from early in proceedings and you’re doing it all with, at times, very limited reference points once the darkness sets in.
You’re still in a race but it’s a very different proposition to your usual 35 minute blasts. That being said there’s still familiarity. There’s still rivals to beat and champagne to be sprayed. Out on track after the sun sets the clock is ticking down and time is running out to get to the front. Bottled up behind another rider moves have to be made but with every lap the chances of getting the job done are getting slimmer and slimmer. The only problem? Other than the narrow beam of light from your bike illuminating a tiny section of the race track the riders can’t see much. They’re racing on a rhythm, They’re searching for any reference points around the track to pick out a braking point.
“We do so many laps in practice and testing that it’s all automatic and you can ride on instinct,” said Jonathan Rea when asked about the challenge presented by the darkness. “Some places are quite well lit up, some places can surprise you. The kerb at Degner 1 really does pop out of nowhere! That side of the track isn’t very well lit so you ride a lot based on feel. The big challenge during the race is to understand the speed and ability of the riders that you’ll lap during the race.
“The difference between the fastest and the slowest riders here is massive and you catch them so fast that it’s hard to understand where they’ll actually go. If you attack a slow rider they can panic and turn into your normal line. You’re always best to err on the side of caution when you’re passing riders because even though you can lose half a second it’s a lot better than the worst that can happen.
“So much of Suzuka is about trusting the other riders. You’ve got to believe that there won’t be another bike coming down the inside of you. A lot of the time you try and forget about them, forget about the lights and just ride point to point around the track. I really enjoy racing at night because there’s no distractions, it’s quiet inside your head during those stints.”
Once the sun sets the race is nearing its close at Suzuka. There’s not long left but there’s still time to attack or defend. This race might be an endurance event but really it’s a series of splits. Riders and teams try and plan for how long each stint will be and throughout the race you’re counting down the laps rather than the gap to the riders around you.
The pitboard is always a crucial information point for the rider. With no ship to shore radio there’s only one way to get reliable information across to a rider. It’s archaic and hasn’t been changed in over 75 years but that’s because it works. How many laps left in your stint? Check the board. What’s the gap to the rider in front? Check your board. How fast are you pulling away at the front of the field? Check your board.
“At Suzuka the pitboard counts down to the end of your stint,” explains van der Mark. “Suzuka is different to other races and there isn’t a need for too much information. The pitboard is there to make sure that a rider knows their targets during a race and at Suzuka the target is to meet you laps!”
The mind can play tricks on a rider in any race. Over the course of a racing changing from day to night when you’ve been awake for hours before the start of “the 8 hours” it’s easy to be fooled during the race by an errant back marker. A single mistake can change the course of everything. Understanding the bike and conditions is key because as the track changes and evolves throughout the race you need to adapt to it. Alex Lowes has been part of the Yamaha team that has won the last three Suzuka 8 Hours and experience has played a big role in those success.
“The race starts at 11.30 and the track is relatively cool at that point,” explains Lowes then as the race progresses the track temperature increases before it cools again in the evening. The grip changes but it’s the same for everybody in the race. You have to adapt to how you feel at the start of the stint. We’re all good enough riders to understand the track and understanding the track is one of the keys to being able to have a good stint. It’s up to us to make it work.”
At the end of each hour there’s a change on the bike and another rider jumps on and you come back to the pits and recover. Get into the paddling pool filled with iced water, get a massage, get some fluids on board. Get yourself ready for the hell on earth that is the Suzuka 8 Hours. The race is relentless and managing the race comes down to preparation.
It’s almost impossible to be as fresh at the end of the race as you were at the beginning but that’s the expectation. Experience makes a big difference during the course of a stint on track but it also plays a big role in getting ready for that stint. This is when a rider with a cool head can make all the difference. Knowing what your body needs can make the crucial difference.
“The heat and conditions are always the toughest thing about Suzuka,” said Leon Haslam. “I remember doing five and a half hours a few years ago. That’s basically 12 BSB races in an afternoon! It was crazy but on the bike it was OK because I knew that my target was to finish on the podium and I had a job to do. When I overtook the bike in front of us that day it was an amazing feeling because I knew how hard that race was for me.
“The biggest issue that it’s easy to be over hydrated. You try and take on fluids all the time but sometimes you can have too much fluid in your body and you can’t actually use it. You need to be able to balance everything at the 8 Hours but that’s part of the challenge.”