Tick, tock, tick, tock. As those second hands keep moving when you’re in the pits at the Suzuka 8 Hours the time being lost can be huge. In many cases it’s been the difference between winning and losing the great Japanese race. It might last eight hours but the race is defined by how much, or most importantly how little, time your bike spends in the pits.
Getting the bike in and out quickly is just as important as being quick through the twists and turns of the track. You can’t win the race in the pits but we’ve seen time and again that the 8 Hours can be lost in the pits.
Last year Kawasaki set the pace in practice and qualifying but having ran out of fuel and suffering a crash they were out of contention once the race neared the half way stage. Suzuki? They’ve had fast bikes in recent years but early crashes have scuppered their chances. You need to be perfect to beat Yamaha and with Honda having struggled for outright pace in recent years Big H was forced to settle for podiums on the back of sound strategy.
Yamaha had a big advantage with the new R1 a few years ago but that’s since been diluted. Their success now comes from having a crack team that understand the race and how to maximise their potential as they do from their speed on the track.
“I love the team side of endurance racing,” said three time winner Alex Lowes. “Every week through the year me and Michael [van der Mark] are trying to beat each other. We’ve a good relationship but you’ve got to beat your teammate! That’s why Suzuka is fun because we come here and work together. We’ve gt the same goal and want to win. Nakasuga-san is good to work with too and we all get on really well.
“That relationship is probably the most important thing that goes into having success at Suzuka. You need a good bike, a good team and three good riders. Endurance racing is special because you need all of these parts to come together to win. We’ve been able to do that in the past but eery race is different and last year’s results count for nothing once practice starts. You’ve got to earn it every year.”
The importance of the team around you at Suzuka hasn’t been lost on the competition this year. Kawasaki have been licking their wounds from last year. The return to Suzuka of Jonathan Rea was heralded as a sign that Team Green was, at long last, putting their eggs into the Suzuka basket. They were in it to win it. Rea was out there to dominate and show just why he’s been able to smash every record in WorldSBK history. The return ended up being one of a missed opportunity but it did spark the biggest change imaginable for Kawasaki.
The KRT WorldSBK title winning squad are now competing in the 8 Hours for the first time. Rea and Leon Haslam are joined by Toprak Razgotlioglu to form arguably the strongest trio of riders in the field. It’s not just elite riders though it’s a full team effort. Last year Rea brought his closest allies from WorldSBK with Pere Riba leading the expidition to the Far East along with a handful of team personnel. This year Kawasaki Racing Team will bring their full arsenal and it’s going to be very exciting to see how that plays out.
“It’s strange because this is obviously very different to WorldSBK,” said Rea. “Last year we brought myself, Pere and some guys and did a good job but we made some mistakes. Running out of fuel was bad and my crash was the nail in our coffin. For this year it’s different because Kawasaki clearly saw how good a job we could do, and they saw how well Pere was working with the Japanese engineers. I’m excited for this year but it takes time to get used to Suzuka. The bike is quite foreign for me and takes some getting used to. This year is different too because we’ve got Toprak on the bike too and that’s very positive but he’s a lot taller than me and Leon so it’s tough for him to be comfortable.
“Leon has done a lot of the testing and he’s been really important in giving us a direction for the settings. Some things are set up for me and some things for Leon. He’s very good at sorting the electronics and they can be important for him so his feedback on that really gives us a setting. I can adapt to that, he can adapt to things that I need and that’s the key.
To have success in Suzuka you a fast bike, fast riders and to be mistake free. You need to tick all the boxes and most importantly you need to avoid the time ticking by with your bike sitting in the pits.