Preview: Suzuka 8 Hours

| July 31, 2001

Every summer the four Japanese factories ask their star riders to forget, for a brief period, their respective championship campaigns and help the factories win the Suzuka 8 Hours. Arguably the biggest and most demanding road race of the year, victory in the Suzuka 8 Hours is one of the best things a rider can do to for his career. Win the 8 Hours, and any Japanese factory will give you whatever you want for next year.

Honda is fielding three teams with riders easily capable of winning. The winning duo from the 2000 8 Hours, Tohru Ukawa and Daijiro Katoh, are returning, and are expected to race on Dunlop tires. The other two Honda factory teams will be on Michelin, but last year Dunlop proved to be quicker than Michelin in the 8 Hours.

Ukawa and Katoh’s biggest competition are likely to come from their fellow Honda riders – in particular, the team of Colin Edwards II and Valentino Rossi. Last year all the hype and hullabaloo surrounded Rossi. You see, Grand Prix riders don’t ride four-strokes, don’t ride Superbikes, and – now that they are stars – don’t ride the 8 Hours anymore. The unconventional, unstoppable Rossi asked? Honda to enter him in the 8 Hours last year. Although Edwards and Rossi qualified “only” sixth overall last year, Rossi was leading the race in the second hour until a lowside crash at the hairpin knocked the team out of contention.

Rossi returns this year to take care of unfinished business. Teammate Edwards, second in the World Superbike championship, has watched Ducati hog the headlines this year. It’s premature to write off Edwards from repeating as World Superbike Champion, but a win in the 8 Hours would buoy his hopes for the remaining World Superbike rounds.

The third factory Honda team features soon-to-be international star Makoto Tamada and Alex Barros. Barros, of course, has been riding 500cc Grand Prix bikes for a decade-plus, and captured the 8 Hours trophy two years ago. Tamada rode with Barros last year on a satellite team Honda RC45 and out-qualified the three factory RC51 teams, but the Japanese prankster put his machinery in the scenery during the race. Tamada has made good fortune in 2001, winning both World Superbike races at Sugo, and the Suzuka 200K build-up race in June. A Tamada triumph in the 8 Hours would cut a lot of ice with Honda and could lead to a seat in World Superbike or Grand Prix for next season.

Sitting on the sidelines for this year’s Suzuka 8 Hours is Tadayuki Okada. Okada-san was originally announced as a partner for Barros in June, but in July Honda pulled Okada out. The Japanese veteran has had a year to forget in World Superbike, although the fault there may not be so much with Okada as it was with a troublesome new-spec engine for the RC51 during the early races of the year.

The last non-Honda victory in the 8 Hours was in 1996, when Edwards and Noriyuki Haga brought the 8 Hours trophy home to Yamaha. Honda is no doubt wary of their great Japanese rival factory, as Yamaha has a dream team pairing of Haga and Anthony Gobert. Haga, the rebel without a cause in World Superbike last year, has found himself getting bucked of the Red Bull Yamaha GP frequently this year. Haga needs a win soon to maintain his star status, and the 8 Hours may be his best hope for the year.

Like Haga, Gobert is keen to win an international and get on the pace again in either World Superbike or Grand Prix. In Yamaha’s press release last year announcing their withdrawal from World Superbike, Yamaha stressed that development of the R-7 would continue for the purpose of winning the 8 Hours. Does Yamaha have something up their sleeve for the race?

Should the Haga/Gobert pair fail to do the business, Yamaha have entered their All Japan Superbike factory riders Waturu Yoshikawa and Takeshi Tsujimura on a second factory R-7.

In the years since Yamaha’s last 8 Hours win it has been Kawasaki more often than not taking the fight to Honda. The Kawasaki ZX-7R is a simple yet effective motorcycle, making it well suited for the 8 Hours. The 8 Hours is a grueling event for both man and machine, as Suzuka Circuit has some long fast straights thrown in with medium speed S-curves, a slow speed hairpin and a tight flip-flop chicane. With a proven engine and a fraction of the electronics found on the other bikes, factory Kawasaki’s almost always make it to the flag. Their downfall has usually been pit stop strategy, tire selection, or simply oil on the track.

Leading Kawasaki’s charge will be Akira Yanagawa, perennial Kawasaki World Superbike rider, and Hitoyasu Izutsu, the current All Japan Superbike Champion. In past years Kawasaki has worked overtime preparing for the 8 Hours, and last year Yanagawa and Izutsu were running neck-and-neck with Ukawa and Katoh through much of the race until Izutsu slid into the sand in the final hour. Victory this year would lift an ever-growing monkey off the back of Kawasaki, who have gone without a 8 Hours victory since 1993 when Rob Muzzy commanded both efforts successfully out of Bend, Oregon, with Scott Russell and Aaron Slight. Russell went on to win the World Superbike championship that year.

Backing up the Yanagawa and Izutsu effort are Tamaki Serizawa and Gregorio Lavilla. Lavilla has been showing ever-improving form on the World Superbike Kawasaki, and could emerge as a contender in the race. Serizawa finished third last year with Australian Peter Goddard and undoubtedly fancies his chances this year.

Suzuki, incredibly, as decided to place all their eggs in to one basket and enter just one factory team. It’s been 18 years – 18! – since the last Suzuki victory, and Suzuki are certainly within their rights to consider an unconventional strategy. All-Japan Suzuki Superbike riders Akira Ryo and Yukio Kagayama will fly the flag and just may pull of the upset of the year. Ryo finished second last year in the 8 Hours and currently leads the All-Japan Superbike Championship. Kagayama is a nobody – but so was Noriyuki Haga in 1996.

Suzuki could have the last laugh in another way, though. This year there are ten teams pre-entered in the X-Formula class on GSX-R1000s, including Yoshimura’s Shawn Giles and Osamu Deguchi who finished sixth last year on a, gulp, 200 hp Hayabusa. Also riding a GSX-R1000 in X-Formula will be Keiichi Kitagawa, who finished second last year with Ryo on a factory Suzuki. The last thing Honda, Yamaha, and Kawasaki want is to lose to a GSX-R1000.

Japanese race fans may get a chance to see American-style pit tootsies when Hooters Racing rolls out with riders Michael Barnes and Mike Ciccotto, and, hopefully, some eye-candy blondes. Barnes and Ciccotto will be aboard a GSX-R1000 in X-Formula.

Surely to be controversial – at least among the factory riders – are two new rules changes for the 8 Hours. The first change was announced earlier in the year when a 600 Supersport class was created (this year is also the debut year in Japan for a domestic 600 Supersport series). The factory riders were already complaining of privateers in X-Formula that were two slow and dangerous. This year they’ll have to content with 600cc streetbikes as well.

The second rule change as announced on July 13 when the FIM allowed three rider teams in the Superbike class for the 8 Hours. This surprise change caught the major manufacturers by complete surprise, and with little time to bring new riders in for testing before the race. Suzuka Circuit have extended the deadline for rider applications until August 1, so if the change draws more riders to the race, it is more likely to be more slow privateers that race only one a year in the 8 Hours.

Before the race five-time World Champion Mick Doohan will open the curtain on the new era of Grand Prix racing on a demonstration ride aboard the Honda RC-211 V-5 four-stroke racer.

Tracy Hagen