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.
The 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours was the greatest race I’ve witnessed in the flesh. It was tremendous from start to finish…it was just the extra time that left a bitter aftertaste.
With only one lap remaining we had witnessed the greatest spectacle imaginable. Three teams – Kawasaki, Yamaha and Honda – had treated us to a feast of great racing. With the eight hour mark in sight we had seen twenty lead changes, and up until the final half hour all three teams were within 30 seconds of each other. Suzuka is always reckoned to be a series of sprint races wrapped up as an endurance outing but this race truly was just that.
It was unbelievable. Standing trackside I just wanted to get back inside to watch it on the TV and fully understand what was happening. If you believe that you’d believe anything. I was sweating so much in the heat that I was running dangerously low of bodily fluids but even in that state of reduced mental capacity I could see this was an all-time classic.
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.
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 my fellow contributors but that’s a story best left for Adam to tell!
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 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.
Why is the Suzuka 8 Hours dominated by Bridgestone tyres?During last year’s edition Michael Laverty and Sylvain Guintoli sat down to explain why nothing makes the competition sink like a ‘stone
Even the most talkative factory riders get tight lipped when the topic of tyres is raised. After taking nine tenths of a second off the unofficial lap record Jonathan Rea was asked to compare the feeling with Bridgestone tyres compared to the Pirelli rubber used in WorldSBK. The triple world champion sidestepped that landmine with customary ease by saying “they’re both very high performance tyres.”
There are however some outliers in the Suzuka paddock. Some riders are able and, most importantly, willing to talk on the record about the brands. Only a handful of riders have experience with both tyres, and Michelin MotoGP tyres, and even fewer have the freedom to speak about the contrasts. Both Michael Laverty and Sylvain Guintoli however have that experience of the three brands. Going back to the early days of Michelin’s return to MotoGP Laverty, then Aprilia’s MotoGP test rider, helped the French manufacturer define their initial batches of tyres.
Speaking about the contrast between the Bridgestone shod front runners at the Suzuka 8 Hours and bikes using Pirelli tyres, such as the BMW that the Northern Irishman raced 12 months ago, he offered his thoughts on the differences in riding styles that comes from the rubber underneath you.
Ego is a crucial part of the successful makeup of any world class racer. They need to have the belief that they are faster than everyone else on the grid. That they can do things that no-one else can. That they’re the man for the job. What happens though when you’re forced to check that ego at the garage door? Having that ability can be the difference between winning and losing in Endurance race.
Adapt and survive. It’s rule of law in the natural world but it’s also the only way to be successful in endurance racing. Being a team and working together is the key success at the Suzuka 8 Hours. If you’re Yamaha Factory Racing Team rider Michael van der Mark you know this better than most.
The Dutch star might be a four time Suzuka winner, a WorldSBK race winner and a World Supersport champion but he’s also cast in an unusual role in Japan; the outlier.
What is that makes Suzuka special? It’s the contrasts, the conditions and the unforgiving nature of this 3.6 miles of asphalt
“Suzuka is probably the best circuit in the world,” explains Jonathan Rea. “It’s got everything! It’s technical and its physical. It’s a complete test.” If this 3.6 miles circuit is good enough for a four times world champion to think so highly of it the Japanese venue must be special.
And it is. Suzuka is a never ending roller coaster and like all good coasters it has its peaks and troughs. The lap begins with the Suzuka Snake. A technical section of the lap that links the first seven corners. Make a mistake anywhere here and you’ve cost yourself the laptime. In the Top 10 Shootout this section separates the fast from the fastest. It’s so easy to run a metre offline in one corner and then be pushed an extra couple of metres off for the next corner.