It is a race unlike any other, and it has a circuit unlike any other to match. The Suzuka 8-Hours is the biggest race of the year for Japanese manufacturers, and it is held on one of the longest laps of the year.
With lap times of over two minutes, it is very easy for time to burn during a session, and it is very easy to left rueing any mistakes you make.
The Japanese venue is one of the most technical on the planet. It is a lap of contrasts, with the sweeping corners of the opening half, followed by a hairpin and chicanes in the second half of the lap.
Getting it right takes time and any mistake is heavily punished on the stop watch.
“The track is quite tough here at Suzuka because it’s such a long lap,” said two-time winner Alex Lowes. “It’s actually a lap of two halves in a lot of ways. Each corner leads into the next on the opening half of the lap, and if you make a mistake it impacts the following couple of corners.”
“It’s very technical in that opening section. The middle of the lap is more stop-and-start, with a first gear hairpin and a chicane where you need to be very precise. It’s difficult to find the braking marker into the final chicane as well.”
“The bike setup is quite difficult because you have two very contrasting halves of the lap.”
The lap begins with the riders coming across the line and steaming into Turn 1. It’s ever tightening, and very easy to run in too quick. A mistake here, particularly in the Top 10 Shootout, is incredibly costly; the lap time is ruined before it’s even began.
From the exit of the opening corner of the lap, you’re straight into the Suzuka Snake. The next section of corners, all the way to Dunlop, need to be taken as smoothly as possible. They link together, and if you’re offline at any point, it’s impossible to set a fast time.
“I’m really excited to be back racing at Suzuka because it’s so much fun to ride,” said Jonathan Rea. “It’s probably my favorite track in the world. It’s a great layout that’s fun to ride, and it’s also a bit of a fitness test!”
“When you finish this, race it’s one of the best feelings in the world. I won it in 2012, and it was the best race win of my career.”
Rea will be battling for Kawasaki, as the WorldSBK champion tries to right a wrong; it’s been 25 years since a green machine won at the 8-Hours.
Having a bike that can change direction quickly will be crucial for Rea to have any chance this weekend, because it’s a key to going fast at Suzuka.
The run between Turns 3 and 4 illustrates this perfectly. Riders can try and hold a shallow line for Turn 3, which is the key to this section of the track.
Keeping a minimum input and not scrubbing speed on the change of direction, riders will enter Turn 3 in second gear and hug the kerb as closely as possible on the exit, to be in the right place for Turn 4, and the following pair of bends, before the run up the hill towards the Dunlop Curve.
These four corners are all linked together, and being off-line is punished heavily by the clock.
The clock isn’t the only punisher at Suzuka. The conditions play a huge role too, and the pressure that riders are under is immense. The physical demands are huge, but the mental toll builds up also.
Being a factory rider brings expectations of success. The 8-Hours is a huge race, and even for European riders they understand the history of Suzuka.
“I love the 8-Hours,” said Lowes. “It’s such a big event, and back in Europe it’s got a big fan base too. It’s been a great honor for me to race for Yamaha, and to win it the last two years.”
“The biggest change between riding at Suzuka, and a normal race in WorldSBK, is that you’re working with your teammates, and trying to make sure that every little detail is covered. The heat and humidity are something to deal with, and the stints in the race are just over an hour.”
“Being patient is key and the biggest factor in success is that you need to be consistent. The bike is heavier, there’s extra features on the bike because it’s an endurance race, but in terms of the feeling on the bike it’s very similar.”
The opening half of the lap culminates with the never-ending Dunlop Corner. This right-hander sees riders slide all the way through before the entry to the Degner Curves.
The first of these right-handers has a sizeable compression on the entry, and it’s very easy to run in too hot and have to take to the gravel trap.
Named after Ernst Degner, the East German defector who sold the secrets of the two-stroke to Suzuki in exchange for passage to the West and a 1962 world championship, these are both fast and bring an end to the opening half of the lap.
Exiting under the bridge riders will use as much kerb as possible and try and put as much weight over the front as possible, to control the wheelie, before braking heavily into the first gear hairpin.
The bike moves under braking, but being smooth is crucial because this is a corner where it is very easy to lose a lot of time.
“Suzuka isn’t comparable to anything else we do,” surmised Leon Camier, prior to withdrawing from this year’s event with injury.
“The track and conditions are so physical, and I remember the first time I went I was in such a bad way during my first stint; I thought my head was going to explode! I don’t know what’s tougher between the physical side and the mental side of racing at Suzuka.”
The hairpin leads into a chicane before riders get to tackle the Spoon Curve. This long left-hander is one of the best on the circuit, and one that riders all know is crucial. Being on the left side of the rubber for what seems like an age, it’s very easy to wear out a tire.
In endurance racing, it can be better to be below the limit in corners like this to ensure tire life for the full lap. Patience is a virtue, but it also pays off in this corner.
Once through Spoon, riders are on to the back straight, but staring at the 130R. While slower than in the past, it’s still a fearsome fourth gear corner. The end of the lap sees riders hurtle towards the Triangle Chicane.
Hooking back to first gear, the bike will slide on the entry to one of the best overtaking opportunities on the lap. Flip flopping from right to left to right again, riders will be sliding through the final corner, and start looking out for their pitboards for their next lap of Suzuka.
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