The field is set and practice is on the verge of beginning. The preparation work is done and the time has come for the talking to stop and the racing to take centre stage at Suzuka. Who will be the leading actors at this year’s race? Asphalt & Rubber breaks down the field.
The Suzuki GSX-R1000 is an all new package for 2017, and while the Hamanatsu based manufacturer has been focusing its international attention on MotoGP, their Superbike program is on the verge of breaking out once again.
With Toni Elias leading the MotoAmerica championship, the bike has proven that it can compete with the Yamaha YZF-R1 in the United States, but maintaining that form elsewhere has been a bigger challenge.
In Britain it has been tough to compete with the proven packages of Kawasaki and Ducati, but there have been some positive results for the bike in BSB.
Last weekend at Brands Hatch rookie Bradley Ray was able to add a third top-ten finish to his season on the improving package. At Suzuka, a champion will be crowned in the Endurance World Championship, and with a one-point lead, the #1 crew at SERT are in a good position to claim the crown.
#1 Suzuki Endurance Racing Team (Vincent Philippe, Etienne Masson, Sodo Hamahara)
The team that is leading the Endurance World Championship by a single point won the first round of the championship, the 2016 Bol Dor at Paul Ricard, and has been able to maintain a lead since then with Vincent Philippe and Etienne Masson. Hamahara, a Yoshimura rider in the Japanese championship, will look to provide some local knowledge, but also knows the package well.
With 45 points on offer for the winner this weekend at Suzuka, a lot could change over the course of the 8-Hours, but Suzuki has shown that it has a good package this year.
Yamaha has momentum on its sidem by virtue of recent wins, but motivation will be high with the French team that they can reclaim the Endurance championship.
#03 MotoMap Supply Future Access (Yoshhiuro Konno, Josh Waters, Nobu Aoki)
The eldest Aoki brother might be 45-years-old, but he’s still a fast and consistent endurance rider. Having stood on the Suzuka podium in 2013, it will be a massive task to match that achievement this year, but with the former Grand Prix teamed with 2014 Suzuka rostrum-finisher Waters and Konno, there is potential in the MotoMap squad.
Konno is the weak link of the rider line-up, but has raced exclusively in Japan, claiming a podium finish in the Japanese Superbike series, and his local knowledge could be key.
Waters, racing in the Australian championship this year, has a wealth of experience and if the weather turns this weekend he could turn the number 03 squad into a dark horse.
#12 Yoshimura Suzuki (Takuya Tsuda, Sylvain Guintoli, Josh Brookes)
As far as rider line-ups are concerned, it’s hard to find a stronger partnership than Suzuki’s factory test rider, the 2014 WorldSBK champion, and the 2015 British Superbike champion.
Guintoli has had a disappointing campaign in the British championship, and reports in the UK have suggested that his seat is under threat for the second half of the season. A strong showing in Japan is crucial for the Frenchman and the bike appears to be working well in its endurance guise.
Teamed with Brookes, a rider who has found his form in recent weeks, provides a great compliment to Tsuda and his experience.
All three riders have had a year of jumping from one machine to another so their adaptability could be an advantage, but the biggest key will be the development that Yoshimura have put into the 8 Hours machine.
#71 Team Kagayama (Yukio Kagayama, Naomichi Uramoto, Halfizh Syahrin)
Kagayama, a former British title contender, has always been an enigma. From early in his career, he showed a turn of speed that was unlike many Japanese riders of his generation. His experience on the 500GP Suzuki early in his career had him earmarked as a potential star of the future, but ultimately it was on a Superbike that he showed his best speed.
Winning seven races in BSB in 2004 proved his credentials, and four wins on the world stage saw him develop into a consistent front-runner. Ultimately that was the high-point of his career, and in recent years he has returned to Japan and the domestic Superbike championship.
Like his team boss Syahrin is an enigma. The Malaysian has finished on the podium in Moto2, and shown in the wet a superb turn of speed. Consistency and getting the most from the bike in the dry conditions has been a problem, but he is a constant feature in the top ten of the intermediate class.
Has there been a more underwhelming bike in 2017 than the all-new Honda Fireblade? Derided in WorldSBK, and rejected in road racing it has had some success in the British championship.
The bike has struggled in the Endurance championship, though shown some flashes of potential. But, at Suzuka there will also be a collection of exotic Fireblades that could spring a surprise.
The Japanese race has always seen more involvement from HRC than has been seen in other series, and that will be the case once again this year. With a string of ringers taken in for this one race, it wouldn’t be a surprising to see Big Rg compete for the win at a race they utterly dominated in the past.
#5 FCC TSR Honda (
Stefan Bradl, Josh Hook, Dominique Aegerther, Randy de Puniet)
A trio of Grand Prix winners and all with plenty of experience. While this would have been Bradl’s first Suzuka 8-Hours, the former MotoGP rider has raced the Fireblade all year in WorldSBK.
It has been a very challenging year for the German but a switch to the HRC electronics has certainly buoyed his confidence ahead of this weekend’s race. He won’t be a feature at this year’s race, having become ill with an inner ear infection. As such, Bradl has been replaced by Australian Josh Hook.
Aegether has been a constant threat at Suzuka in recent years and shown a superb turn of speed that even put him on the radar for a MotoGP ride in 2015.
#19 Moriwaki Racing (Yuki Takahashi, Ryuichi Kiyonari, Dan Linfoot)
Having posted the fastest time in pre-event testing, Moriwaki is certainly back with a bang at the Suzuka 8-Hours. The bike will be shod with Pirelli tires, so it is likely to be at a disadvantage in race trim, compared to the Bridgestone mounted bikes. But, with such vast experience on their side, Moriwaki will be primed for a strong race.
Kiyonari has won at Suzuka a record four times, Takahashi has is a multiple Japanese champion and Grand Prix race winner, while Linfoot has been able to consistently grind out good results in BSB, as shown by his near constant status as a top-five rider in the standings in recent years.
#72 Dream Team Honda (Ryo Mizuno, Jason O’Halloran, Jamie Stauffer)
O’Halloran is one of the few Honda riders around the world who has been able to get the most from the new Fireblade. Sitting fourth in the BSB standings, he is on the cusp of a showdown spot for the title playoff at the end of the season, and he has taken three podiums already this year. He is riding as well as ever and keen to return to Suzuka having missed last year’s race.
Stauffer, a three time Australian champion, brings with him plenty of experience and a steady pair of hands. Mizuno is 19-years-old and won the Japanese Moto3 championship two years ago before moving to the Moto2 series last year.
#111 Honda Endurance Team (Julien da Costa, Sebastian Gimbert, Freddy Foray)
The factory Honda squad in the Endurance World Championship has had a difficult season, and unfortunately for them it would be a surprise to see that change at Suzuka.
With so many all-star crews, and the local blend of exoctica, it is a huge challenge for any of the EWC squads to mount a serious threat for the podium at this race.
The team rolled out the new Fireblade at Le Mans, and while a top ten was outside their reach, after a race beset by problems from the outset and a fight back through the pack.
Last time out in Slovakia the team returned to the podium and continued to make progress with the bike has to be the goal for this weekend.
#634 MuSashi Harc Pro (Takumi Takahashi, Takakki Nakagami, Jack Miller)
Winners of the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Suzuka 8-Hours, the team is keen to get back to winning ways, and after drafting in two Grand Prix riders they have left few stones unturned.
In Miller, Honda has brought in one of the stars of MotoGP, and when teamed with factory rider Takahashi, a three-time Suzuka winner, they provide a strong backbone to the squad.
This will be Nakagami’s first outing on a Superbike, but with the Japanese rider heavily linked to a promotion to MotoGP for 2018, this is a key opportunity for him to prove his merits.
The grid is pockmarked with Yamahas, but their challenge will rest in the hands of three bikes. The regular Endurance World Championship machine has been a consistent race winner in recent years, winning the title last year. The Factory Racing Team Yamaha is also a two-time defending race winner.
It’s a strong package for the Japanese manufacturer, and with the 94 machine only one point back from the Suzuki in the EWC standings, Yamaha will be feeling very confident of winning the race and the title this weekend.
#7 YART Yamaha (Broc Parkes, Marvin Fritz, Kohta Nazone)
The experienced Parkes has consistently been one of the fastest riders in the endurance paddock since making his debut in 2013. Podiums came quickly for Parkes, but crashes and bad luck have beset his crew in recent years.
The Australian brings plenty of experience to the table, and his talent is not to be underestimated. He will get to the front early in this race, bring the challenge to the front-runners, if the #7 Yamaha can have a trouble free race, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in victory contention.
Fritz is fully recovered from his Assen STK1000 crash and the 24-year-old German, a two-time IDM champion, is fast and consistent when on form.
#21 Yamaha Factory Racing Team (Katsuyuki Nakasuga, Alex Lowes, Michael van der Mark)
Could the two-time defending race winners become stronger, despite losing Pol Espargaro from their rider lineup? Michael van der Mark is a two-time winner at Suzuka, and the Dutchman has been in good form as of late in WorldSBK.
Still chasing his first podium finish as a Yamaha rider this weekend would be the perfect occasion for Van der Mark to make the step.
Last year Nakasuga and Lowes showed how fast and consistent they could be at Suzuka, and the onus will on Van der Mark to prove that he can do the same. With the bike as strong as ever it seems as though all the bases are covered heading into this weekend.
#94 GMT94 Yamaha (David Checa, Niccolo Canepa, Mike di Meglio)
Trailing the #1 Suzuki by one point heading to Japan, the GMT94 team will know that they stand on the verge of retaining the Endurance World Championship.
With 45 points for the winner, this is a straight fight between Yamaha and Suzuki for the crown, and with former 125GP champion Mike di Meglio joining Checa and Canepa, the squad is a very strong rider lineup for Suzuka.
Checa is chasing his first world title, but has consistently been there, or thereabouts, on an endurance machine, since making the switch from solo classes.
Canepa showed last year as a replacement rider in WorldSBK that he is still fast enough to be a leading rider in solo classes of racing, but the Italian now stands on the brink of success having chosen to focus on endurance racing for this season.
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
The Kawasaki is the weapon of choice in lots of Superbike classes, not least the WorldSBK paddock, but in endurance racing the Ninja needs a slightly sharper blade.
With the Japanese manufacturer not placing quite the same emphasis and importance on the endurance program as Yamaha and Honda, it has meant that it is more difficult to be successful at Suzuka. That being said it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some green in the fight for the podium.
#11 Team Green Kawasaki (Kazuma Watanabe, Leon Haslam, Azian shah bin Kamaruzaman)
This is an experienced team with Haslam, a multiple-winner at Suzuka, the clear team leader. The Englishman has already stood on the podium at BSB and WorldSBK, and is chasing the hatrick. Partnered with Bin Kamaruzaman and Watanabe, there are few teams with more experience.
Watanabe, a former Japanese 600cc champion has finished on the podium at Suzuka in the past, and shown a decent turn of speed at times. Bin Kamaruzaman is a former Asian Supersport champion who has continued to win races in that championship since his return last year.
#10 Team EVA RT (Erwan Nigon, Hitoyasu Izutsu, Gregory Leblanc)
This team has been the most consistent threat provided by Kawasaki in the Endurance World Championship, and it will take to the grid this weekend expecting to be inside the top ten, but with their aims set higher for the final outcome.
Leblanc, a 32-year-old Frenchman, has won a string of domestic titles, but his five wins in the EWC have clearly been the highlights of his career. Last year he added a second Le Mans 24-Hours victory to a trio of Bol Dor victories, and a Suzuka podium would be a true feather in his cap.
Nigon has also won at the highest level of Endurance, in 2014 at Le Mans, and while Izutsu is now 46-years-old he claimed a rostrum finish on the Kawasaki in 2015.
Photo: © 2017 Steve English – All Rights Reserved
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