A typhoon is heading towards Suzuka, but as the paddock battened down the hatches, the winds of change had already set in.
Jonathan Rea’s pole position for Kawasaki ended three year’s of Yamaha topping the times. The three-time WorldSBK champion will be out to do the same during tomorrow’s race.
Kawasaki hasn’t won the biggest race of the year since 1993 – their sole success with Scott Russell and Aaron Slight at the helm – but they may not have a better opportunity than tomorrow.
Yamaha is against the ropes, with Katsuyuki Nakasuga possibly forced to sit out the race. The Japanese rider crashed in practice, and if he misses out, the last-minute change in strategy could be the difference between winning and losing.
Wataru Yoshikawa, project leader for Yamaha, explained the crash.
“Nakasuga had his line blocked by a slower machine, and that likely led to his fall in the free practice. He went out again afterwards, but that was just to see how he was feeling physically, and we made the decision to err on the side of caution and have Alex and Michael ride in the Top 10 Trial.”
“We now have to re-examine our scheduling and strategy. The typhoon could effect the first part of the race, so the potential, skillset, and experience of our riders will be key.”
The Top Ten shootout was also hit by the weather, and it morphed into a 40-minute free for all, rather than the scheduled one shot qualifying.
This also played against Yamaha, but it’s hard to see how they could have challenged the gauntlet laid down by Rea. A new qualifying lap record and an important psychological victory were the rewards for Kawasaki.
“It’s nice to be in pole position for tomorrow,” said Rea. “It gives us the best opportunity to get a good start, and get some clear road at the beginning.”
The Northern Irishman has been quietly confident throughout the week, and now he’s starting to exploit that confidence. He looks to have carried his form, and mindset, from WorldSBK to the Endurance paddock.
“I’m really excited to be here at Suzuka, but even more than that, I’m excited in the team we have. One of the stipulations I had for doing this race was that Pere and some of the team would be involved. He’s done a great job getting the bike ready for us, and we’re working really well.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done for Rea and Kawasaki though. Qualifying is one thing and the race quite another. Yamaha might be wounded after today, but they’re not beaten.
Qualifying was always going to be difficult for the team after they elected to sit Nakasuga. The Japanese rider always finds some performance in crunch times at the 8-Hours, and with the bike developed around him, it left the team with a choice; keep everything the same for qualifying or make some changes to the bike for Michael van der Mark.
The team elected to let the Dutchman be more comfortable on the R1. Earlier in the day Van der Mark had said “with the body position on this bike I can’t feel comfortable. If you’re not comfortable you can’t set a fast time, but I can be very consistent with this bike in the race.”
Making a change to the riding position helped Van der Mark set his fastest ever time at Suzuka, Lowes also went faster than he had in previous years, but it wasn’t enough to fight Rea for pole. Yamaha had to settle for third position on the grid.
“I think that we might have been a bit better if it was the Top Ten Shootout rather than a 40 minute qualifying session. I enjoy the one lap session because you can’t make any mistakes and it’s fun.”
“It wasn’t a perfect day for us, but we did well. We’ve not had any wet weather testing this week, but we’re not in a bad position. We’ll be as positive as we can be and get through the 8 Hours as fast as we can.”
For Van der Mark the goal is the race and making sure Yamaha claims a fourth win in a row.
“We made some changes to the bike for qualifying, to make me more comfortable. I was happy with my lap because I felt good with it. This was my first time with new tires this week, and I’m happy with the lap.”
“It’s my best lap at Suzuka, so I’m happy with that, but the race is the most important thing. Our pace is consistent and fast.”
Between the Kawasaki and Yamaha is the Number 33 of Red Bull Honda.
PJ Jacobsen didn’t suit up for qualifying, but the American will be in action tomorrow, presumably for two stints. Honda is the dark horse for the race. If it rains, they could spring a surprise because while the speed has been slightly slower than the favorites, they are experienced and consistent.
Fourth on the grid is the MuSASHi RT HARC-PRO Honda, just 0.007s slower than the Yamaha and 0.05s slower than the factory Honda effort.
It was a very impressive performance by the #634 squad, and with Dominque Aegerther they have a rider who has mounted the rostrum each of the last two years.
Yoshimura Suzuki were cursing a race crash 12 months ago, and in qualifying they suffered an early crash for Takuya Tsuda that ruled them out of contention for the remaineder of the session.
Bradley Ray spoke after the session saying that the team need to find performance in the second half of the stints, but that changes made for today’s practice session have certainly helped them.
“2m 06.was the absolute limit and there was nothing left in the tank after that,” said Ray after qualifying. “With a new tire the bike doesn’t feel too bad, but after 10 or 12 laps, we start to get issues, which makes it difficult to push on.”
“I think the pace on the used tire isn’t too far off the others, but the Kawasaki and Yamaha are a step ahead of everyone. I think we can run a similar pace to Honda.”
Photo: © 2018 Steve English – All Rights Reserved
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