The Suzuka 8-Hours endurance race kicks off this week, with the racing action coming to us this weekend. The final stop on the FIM Endurance World Championship calendar, Suzuka also happens to be the endurance race that all the Japanese manufacturers want to win.
To put Suzuka into perspective, this race means more to Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha than the Motegi round of MotoGP.
It means more than any domestic championship, the World Superbike Championship, and possibly even the MotoGP Championship as well. For the Big Four, this is big business.
It is no surprise then that we are seeing three official one-off factory teams entering this year’s Suzuka race, on top of the bevy of factory supported squads already in the FIM EWC paddock.
With so much on the line this year, Asphalt & Rubber will have boots on the ground for the 2018 Suzuka 8-Hours, bringing you content every day from this truly unique race in Japan.
A Race within a Race
Because of the added importance that the Japanese brands place on the race, the Suzuka 8-Hours is really a race within a race. Battling for the outright win are the specialty Suzuka teams.
They are often stacked with All Japan Superbike riders who are specialists at riding fast at Suzuka, along with sometimes a smattering of western motorcycle racers that have been drafted from the WorldSBK or Grand Prix Championships.
This year, we see three special Suzuka teams being formed by the factories: the Red Bull Honda squad, the Yamaha Factory Racing Team, and the Kawasaki Team Green outfit.
Suzuki is in the mix as well, with its factory-support Yoshimura Suzuki team, which will have four riders instead of the usual three.
The riders for these factory teams are as follows:
- Red Bull Honda: PJ Jacobsen (WorldSBK), Takaaki Nakagami (MotoGP), & Takumi Takahashi (All Japan)
- Yamaha Factory Racing Team: Alex Lowes (WorldSBK), Michael van der Mark (WorldSBK), & Katsuyuki Nakasuga (All Japan)
- Kawasaki Team Green: Jonathan Rea (WorldSBK), Leon Haslam (BSB), Kazuma Watanabe (All Japan)
- Yoshimura Suzuki: Sylvain Guintoli (MotoGP Test Rider), Bradley Rey (BSB), Takuya Tsuda (All Japan), & Kazuki Watanabe (All Japan)
In terms of story lines, there is a lot at stake this year at Suzuka. For the first time in 10 years, Honda is fielding a one-off factory team. Official motivations might vary, but there is one clear reason for the formation of the Red Bull Honda squad: to stop Yamaha from winning.
The Yamaha Factory Racing Team has won the last three Suzuka 8-Hours endurance races, and if it wins a fourth one in a row, the team will have achieved something that no other team has been able to do before.
Honda may dominate the tally sheet of wins at Suzuka, but it has never won more than three times in a row. Quite simply, Big Red is tired of seeing the Tuning Fork Brand stand on the winner’s top step, and it certainly doesn’t want to upstaged at its home venue.
The Other Suzuka Factory Specialists
In addition to the HRC team is the less official, but still factory backed squad of Musashi RT Harc-Pro Honda. This team will field Randy de Puniet, Dominique Aegerter, and Ryo Mizuno.
A three-time Suzuka 8-Hours winner (2010, 2013, & 2014), the Muashi team is definitely one to watch, and it was the last Honda team to win at Suzuka.
Feeling the increase in competition, Kawasaki too has made the notable step of making a one-off Suzuka team, which is a rarity from the manufacturer.
Team Green typically doesn’t put a lot of resources into the FIM Endurance World Championship, and has only won at Suzuka once – in 1993 with Scott Russell and Aaron slight at the helm..
A runner-up the last two years at Suzuka though, Kawasaki will be looking to make the next step on its progression in 2018.
Less experienced than the Yoshimura Suzuki squad, and with less resources than Honda and Yamaha, the Kawasaki Team Green squad is this year’s dark horse entry. If they win, it will be a huge upset to the order of things. There might be riots in the streets…I’m only half joking.
Another one-off team to watch is Team Kagayama. A Suzuka podium finisher in 2013, Yukio Kagayama is no stranger to this Japanese track, and won Suzuka back in 2007, with the Yoshimura Suzuki team.
This year he will ride with American Joe Roberts and Japanese rider Naomichi Uramoto, while Kevin Schwantz will serve as the team’s manager.
The Championship Teams
Aside from the special Suzuka teams, you have the regular entries from the FIM Endurance World Championship, who are fighting things out for the title.
Amongst the teams there are usually several “factory teams” from each manufacturer, who enjoy varying degrees of support from back home.
On the Honda side of things, there is the Honda Endurance Racing Team from Britain (which is 3rd in the FIM EWC standings) and the F.C.C. TSR Honda France team, which despite the name is from Japan.
The French team currently leads the FIM Endurance World Championship standings, but it will need a strong result to stay on top and take home the title.
This can be easier said than done at Suzuka, as the race sees a number of wildcards thrown into the mix. First there’s the heat, and the track is difficult, especially as the race transitions into night, but the big factor will be the one-off teams that will get in-between the regular EWC entries.
Vying for the win, and to upset the F.C.C. TSR Honda team is the GMT94 Yamaha squad. One of two factor Yamaha teams (the other being YART), GMT94 is one of the winningest teams in endurance racing.
Oddly enough, this will be the last year that GMT94 Yamaha will race in EWC, as the French team is moving into the World Supersport Championship.
The other factory Yamaha team is the Yamaha Austria Racing Team (YART), which is always a race-win contender, but hasn’t enjoyed the same success in EWC at the GMT94 outfit.
At Suzuki, the Suzuki Endurance Racing Team (SERT) is the 800 lbs gorilla. No team has won more FIM EWC titles than SERT, though this season has been abysmal for the French team.
Currently seventh in the standings, it is hard to predict an upset result, but one shouldn’t be too quick to rule out the Suzuki team.
Part of this year’s struggle has been the switch to the new Suzuki GSX-R1000. After having nearly eight years to develop the old platform, SERT is having to come to terms with the new bike, which has a lot more power, but also a lot less R&D.
They may be discounted this season, but certainly wins will be expected for next year for the Suzuki Endurance Racing Team.
For a full list of the teams entered in the 2018 Suzuka 8-Hours endurance race, and which riders will be on their teams, please consult this official entry list from the FIM.
A Word About Tires
Of note, the FIM Endurance World Championship is the last motorcycle world championship to have a proper tire war, as there is no spec-tire rule.
Amongst the FIM EWC entries, there is some diversity in tire choice, but at Suzuka, it is Bridgestone that rules the roost, with a few high-level teams using Dunlop as well.
A home track to the Japanese brand, Suzuka creates a number of challenges for tire manufacturers, the mystery of which Bridgestone seems to have unlocked.
I had one high-level executive at a rival brand admit to me that in order to win at Suzuka, a team must be using Bridgestone tires.It is a notable thing to hear, and the results seem to show the truth in the statement.
It will be interesting to see if that remains the case for 2018.
As I said at the start of this story, we will be exhaustively covering this year’s Suzuka 8-Hours endurance race from Japan. We’ve got a bunch of interviews and photo shoots lined up, as well as a couple features for you to read.
Suzuka is an amazing event that entirely gets lost in translation for the western world. It’s brutal, it’s hard, it’s fast, and it’s incredibly special.
For those not able attend, hopefully our coverage will be the next best thing.
Photo: © 2016 Steve English – All Rights Reserved
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