Yamaha Factory Racing made history at the Suzuka 8-Hours today, claiming their fourth consecutive victory in the great race.
This Japanese endurance race has become one of the biggest spectacles on the motorcycling calendar, and there were moments of today’s 199 laps that would have felt like an eternity for Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes.
With Katsuyuki Nakasuga ruled out with a shoulder injury following a crash in yesterday’s practice session, the burden fell on his teammates to deliver success.
They duly did, but not until they had overcome a huge challenge from Kawasaki.
Going into the race week, it was clear that Yamaha was irked by the underdog status that was granted onto Kawasaki.
Team Green may not have won at the 8-Hours before, and it is a full 25 years since Kawasaki claimed their sole win, but with Jonathan Rea and a host of his KRT WorldSBK squad involved, it was clear this was a changed outfit.
Their all-new bike was turned inside out and upside down by Pere Riba, and the test team in advance of this race. They were rewarded with Rea’s stunning pace in Friday qualifying, and in the Shootout session with pole position.
The Kawasaki was the fastest bike at Suzuka this week, but the Yamaha was the most consistent.
After a typhoon last night, the day looked set to start with dry conditions and the threat of rain later. Instead, a shower of biblical proportions erupted over Suzuka just 15 minutes before the start of the race.
Nervous tension descended on the spectacular circuit, and you could see the worry etched on riders faces; they knew the challenge ahead.
Avoiding a mistake in those treacherous opening minutes was key, and it was the Red Bull Honda team that grabbed the early initiative, with Takahashi leading from Haslam’s Kawasaki.
The Number 21 Yamaha was fourth, with Van der Mark biding his time. The heat and a stiff breeze dried the track quickly, and it was Sylvain Guintoli who gambled first on switching to slicks. He made his decision at the best possible time and Van der Mark followed suit a lap later.
It took Kawasaki another tour to pit, and by the time Rea had emerged from the pits, he was fourth and having to fight through the group.
At the front, everyone waited for Honda to pit, but they stood firm and waited. Rea was on a charge and quickly dispatched of Guintoli and Van der Mark. While many expected Rea to ease away from the pack, it wasn’t a script that the Yamaha rider had read.
We were treated to one of the best battles in memory at Suzuka, as for an hour the leaders traded blows. It was stunning racing. After an hour of racing, only a tenth of a second separated them.
The battle continued in Hour 2, with Kawasaki and Yamaha replacing teammates respectively.
Haslam started the stint with an advantage of five seconds, but Lowes quickly bridged that and set about trying to take the lead. He managed to get through a couple of times, before making it stick by the end of the hour.
A Yamaha advantage of one second was overturned by Kawasaki in Hour 3, in what was rapidly becoming a WorldSBK race spread over eight hours. It was close, it was frantic, and ultimately it was unsustainable.
During the middle hours the wheels came off the Kawasaki challenge as the number 11 ran out of fuel and later Rea crashed.
“I’m not actually sure what happened in my crash,” said Rea. “It was raining and I was on slicks. I wanted to pit, and probably should have stuck to my guns, and came into the pits, but I rode to my pitboard and stayed out. I was off the gas and the rear came around like a speedway bike and I crashed.”
In that instant, the race was determined with Kawasaki losing a lap to the Yamaha. It elevated the Number 33 Honda to second spot. The team had just sent PJ Jacobsen out on track, and the New Yorker had his hands full.
“It was a strange race for me,” said Jacobsen. “I got out on track, and it was in the wet. I’d not ridden here in the rain before, so I was in at the deep-end and trying to learn it quickly! I’m really glad that we were able to finish second today, and I want to thank HRC and the team.”
Having not been called into action during the qualifying Shootout, Jacobsen spent the majority of the race on the sidelines, but once on the bike, it was when Honda had just taken the lead.
Having led the early stages of the race with their Fireblade, it seemed that the team had waited too long to make the switch to slick tires in Hour 1, but that decision defined their race, and allowed them to stay a pit stop ahead of Yamaha for the majority of the race.
Jacobsen was in the lead when an hour-long safety car period came to an end, but was quickly hunted down by Van der Mark.
Even so, it was a solid stint and he handed over to his teammates, having consolidated Honda’s grip on second position. Honda would ultimately take two stops less than Yamaha, who came in for a splash and dash at the end of the race, and were the best team in the pits by a distance.
“What can I say three in a row, and four in a row for Yamaha!” exclaimed Alex Lowes. “It definitely wasn’t an easy day for me and Michael because unfortunately Nakasuga-san picked up the injury.”
“It was a tough race, but Michael did a great job, and he had the worst of the conditions, so it wasn’t an easy race for him. We managed to race really well and stuck to our plan.”
“After the second half, we had a bit of a gap, and managed to stay calm and bring the bike to flag. The first two stints in the dry we were strong, I’m probably a bit surprised how strong we were, but it was a great day and a fantastic feeling to win again.”
The final hours passed with Kawasaki making up ground, but it was too little, too late, and they would finish the race third.
Behind the Yamaha, Honda, and Kawasaki entries was the first Suzuki of the Number 95 crew. Having seen the Yoshimura Suzuki squad beset by problems, it was the turn of the 95 to lead the charge.
Tommy Bridewell, recently sacked in BSB, had a superb 8-Hours. In fifth position, the FCC TSR Honda squad claimed the Endurance World Championship with a solid race at Suzuka – a fitting end to the Championship and the Suzuka 8-Hours.
Photos: © 2018 Steve English – All Rights Reserved
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