Jonathan Rea grabbed the headlines on Friday in Japan, with an unofficial lap record at the Suzuka 8-Hours, which put the Kawasaki Team Green ZX-10RR on a pole-position start.
The Northern Irishman was nine tenths of a second faster than Pol Espargaro’s 2016 pole lap, and Rea’s time was made all the more impressive by the fact that he, like the majority of front-runners, didn’t opt to use a qualifying tire.
The FIM Endurance World Championship regulations allow teams to use 14 sets of tires throughout the Suzuka weekend, and with eight tires allocated for the race, and two qualifying tires, it means that for the opening two days the front-runners focus on race pace with used tyres.
Though of note, Rea set his fastest time in the second qualifying session, with a fresh tire.
The three-time world champion was as fast as expected, but his performance shows the focus that Kawasaki has placed on Suzuka.
With Pere Riba, Rea’s WorldSBK crew chief, leading the effort, the team has turned their bike upside down compared to last year. With an all-new bike, the Team Green squad are looking for a change of fortunes by adding to the manufacturer’s sole Suzuka success.
For Rea the weekend couldn’t have started better, and he’s excited by how the weekend has progress.
“For me it wasn’t that important to set the time, but it was nice surprise,” said Rea. “I didn’t expect us to go that fast.”
“With a qualifying tire, the previous record being 2m06s, so I thought a middle 2m05s would be a good lap, but to set this time today, in qualifying practice, was mad. It was a pretty good lap though, I didn’t make too many mistakes.”
“It’s a long lap, 2m05s, so there is a lot to do and a lot of corners. I didn’t make too many mistakes, and then I found a slower guy at Spoon, and I kind of compromised my line just a little bit, but I knew I got sector three nailed, so I could afford not to be too aggressive there.”
“It worked so that was nice. I initially though it was 2m 06.1s because it is a digital dash so I thought one of the lines had gone missing!”
While Rea assessed the pace as “mad”, it was clear that Kawasaki is expecting to challenge this weekend.
Riba’s confidence in Rea is unshakeable and with the man he calls “the best Superbike rider in the world” Kawasaki could be placed to turn the formbook upside down.
Standing on the podium for the last two years was a solid achievement, but now their sights are set higher.
Yamaha has a target on their back heading into the Shootout (the Top 10 qualifiers will have a final qualifying session on Saturday), and while the Number 21 squad has been keen to pay their respects to Kawasaki throughout the build-up to this weekend, they feel that they didn’t show their true pace in qualifying.
A combination of the tire regulations, traffic and red flags put paid to their efforts.
“It was a good day for us, but Friday is always different at Suzuka,” said Alex Lowes. “We have six qualifying sessions with all the different riders, so it’s tough and there was a lot of traffic out there.”
“I didn’t get a clear lap. We used the second qualifying session to try something for the race, and we got some quite good information on that. In the night session, I was quite strong plus the pit stops have been good so it has been a positive day.”
“We all spend the tests, practice and qualifying worrying about your lap times and how fast you can go but it is not a sprint race; it is about being consistently fast with all three riders for the eight hours.”
“That’s the aim for Sunday. We knew that some other guys would be fast this year, and we know how good the Kawasaki bike is with good riders on it. It is no different to World Superbike. So we know that we need to improve on last year, and I believe we have improved and I also feel stronger.”
Teammate Michael van der Mark echoed those thoughts.
“With the regulations you need to have a good plan before the qualifying sessions,” said the Dutchman. “Our plan was for Nagasuga-san and Alex to use new tires, and I’d be on used tires.”
“It was still good though to improve my best laptime in that session, but it’s a struggle here for me with my body position. The handlebars are difficult and when I try and set a fast lap time, I don’t feel comfortable on the bike, but it’s fine for setting consistent pace.”
“We knew that we had to prepare for the race and that’s been our focus. Our race pace, for all three of us, is very good and possibly even stronger than last year.”
Behind the leading duo is the Red Bull Honda squad, featuring PJ Jacobsen. The outfit are over 1.5s slower than Rea, but just under one second off the pace when the riders’ times are combined.
“I’m looking forward to the race,” said Jacobsen after completing 20 laps during the opening practice session of the day. “I’m really excited to be racing for the factory HRC team. It’s very hot at the moment here, so it’ll be a brutal race and it’s going to be a fast race too.”
“The Kawasaki with Johnny Rea is very fast, the Yamaha’s with Alex and Mickey are quick, Yoshimura have Bradley Ray and Sylvain Guintoli so it’s going to be tough! For me the tyres are quite different here compared to WorldSBK and I’ve always felt quite confident here.”
The Yoshimura Suzuki was a surprise package last year, and the speed of their three riders is very similar with Bradley Ray having adapted to the Suzuka specification machine very quickly.
Further down the order American Moto2 rider Joe Roberts had a strong day on the Kagayama Suzuki, and was able to set close to the pace of the top ten riders.
Friday Qualifying Results for the Suzuka 8-Hours:
Photos: © 2018 Steve English – All Rights Reserved
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