The Honda versus Yoshimura rivalry is one of the oldest in motorcycle racing, and once again it is the main story going into Sunday's 33rd Suzuka 8 Hours, the third round of the FIM World Endurance Championship.
The rivalry started in the first Suzuka 8 Hours in 1978 when Americans Wes Cooley and Mike Baldwin took a four lap margin of victory on their Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000 after the favored Honda team failed to finish. Honda won the race the following year, then Yoshimura the next, then Honda the year after that.
A streak of bad luck plagued Yoshimura for the next 20-odd years, allowing Honda to amass more than 20 victories. In 2007 Yoshimura raced to the long-awaited third win with Yukio Kagayama and Kohsuke Akiyoshi. Honda rebounded the following year with Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari, and Yoshimura countered in 2009 with Daisaku Sakai, Kazuki Tokudome and Nobuatsu Aoki.
For Sunday's race Yoshimura has a three-rider team of Sakai, Aoki, and Kagayama. Sakai and Aoki triumphed in the 300 km "Road to 8 Hours" on June 13 in wet and dry conditions. In the pre-race test sessions Sakai's unofficial lap times were at the top of the list, and Aoki's pace was definitely competitive. With Yoshimura not participating in the 2010 All-Japan national road racing championship, the Suzuka 8 Hours means everything for this year. Yet Kagayama's fitness to race remains a question hanging over the team: the 36-year old fractured his T5 vertebra at the May 3 British Superbike meeting, and later fractured his right hand on June 27 in a fall at Mallory Park. If his body is up to it, there will be few riders able to keep pace Yuki-san.
Honda's chief tactic in the 8 Hours is to field a lot of fast teams versus Yoshimura's "all the eggs in one basket" approach. As was the case in 2009, Honda have not entered a team through the Honda Racing Corporation division and instead are providing bikes, riders, and support to private satellite teams.
On paper, the strongest of the satellites is F.C.C. Technical Sports Racing Honda, or FCC Honda for short. The team features World Superbike star Jonathan Rea, unquestionably the top international star going into the race. Rea stands third in the World Superbike Championship with three wins this year, including one in the last round at Brno in the Czech Republic. Riding with Rea are Kosuke Akiyoshi and Yuki Takahashi. Akiyoshi has won the 8 Hours once already when he was with Yoshimura in 2007. In 2009 Akiyoshi qualified on pole but fell off his Honda in the S-curves while leading on the second lap. Takahashi was a big talent in the old 250cc world championship series, with two wins to his credit. In 2009 Takahashi raced MotoGP for a half-season for Team Scot Honda, but was dismissed when the team faced a financial crisis. In 2010 Takahashi is contesting the new Moto2 World Championship and has scored a win at the Barcelona Grand Prix.
Another strong Honda team is Keihin Kohara Racing Team of Schinichi Ito and Makoto Tamada. The 43-year old Ito has won the race three times and scored pole an incredible seven times. In terms of speed and experience, Ito-san is in a class of his own. Physical conditioning is a big reason Ito has stayed on top of his game this long, but reports from Japan are that Ito did not partake in the 300km race in June due to injury. For Tamada, the 8 Hours must represent a do-or-die race to give his racing career a second life. In 2004, his second year in MotoGP, Tamada scored two impressive wins. After that his career has steadily gone downhill to the point that no teams in MotoGP or World Superbike were interested in his services for 2010.
While the Keihin Kohara riders might be called over-the-hill, the Musashi RT HARC-PRO Honda team are the up-and-comers. The team features established Japanese star Ryuichi Kiyonari, a two-time 8 Hours champion in 2005 and 2008. For 2010 Kiyonari races in the British Superbike championship and the 27-year-old presently sits third in points with four first-place and three second-place race results. Kiyo's teammates are the 20-year old Takumi Takahashi and the 18-year old Takaaki Nakagami. Takahashi won the 250cc All-Japan road racing championship in 2008 and finished third in the 2009 Suzuka 8 Hours. For 2010 Takahashi is racing in the JSB1000 All-Japan Championship (the Superbike class) and won the opening round. Nakagami, though only a teenager, already has two years of world championship racing experience from 2008 and 2009 in the 125cc division. In 2010 Nakagami is racing the ST600 All Japan championship (the supersport class) and, like his teammate Takahashi, won the opening round. A Nakagami fun fact: he is a three-time All Japan pocket bike champion from ages 6 through 8.
Another Honda satellite team with a good chance of figuring into the results is Sakurai Honda with Chojun Kameya and Australian Wayne Maxwell. The 33-year-old Kameya has enjoyed a good though not great career as a national-level rider in Japan, and is the cousin of the late, great Japanese hero, Daijiro Kato. Maxwell currently sits second in the Australian superbike championship, with a double-win to his credit in the opening round, plus a pair of pole positions. The key thing to watch with this team are the tires: all the other teams mentioned thus far will race on Bridgestone; Sakurai will race on Dunlop. Recent history has not been good for Dunlop in the 8 Hours, and the unofficial lap times from the July 7-8 test suggest that the trend looks to continue.
Though Yamaha and Kawasaki fielded All Japan factory-supported riders in the last pre-race test, neither firm are listed on the most recent race entry list.
Most of the top World Endurance championship teams are on the entry list, including defending World Champions Yamaha Austria Racing Team and current points leaders Team Bollinger Switzerland. Suzuki Endurance Racing Team, winners of the last round in Albacete, are not shown as entrants.
Indeed, what is striking about the 2010 Suzuka 8 Hours entry list dated July 8 is the fact that only 51 teams are pre-entered. As it stands, the 2010 race will have the lowest number of entries save for the first race in 1978, with just 43 teams. Fans of this great race should say a prayer for it.