Editor's Blog: Putting Suzuka Back On The Map

Once upon a time, the Suzuka 8 Hour race was a big deal. A very big deal. It was the race the Japanese factories sent their very best riders to compete in, the event often being written into the contracts of the top Grand Prix and World Superbike riders as part of their factory deals. The list of big names to win the race is impressive. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner, Daryl Beattie, Aaron Slight, Doug Polen, Scott Russell, Noriyuki Haga, Colin Edwards, Daijiro Kato, Alex Barros, Shinichi Itoh, Tohru Ukawa, Taddy Okada. And of course Valentino Rossi. There, they faced the very best of the Japanese Superbike riders, as well as the regulars from the World Endurance Championship, of which it forms a part.

It may have been an honor to have been asked to do the race, but the GP riders were far from keen. Held in July, the race fell right in the middle of the Grand Prix season. Racing in the event meant multiple flights to Japan for testing and practice, then the grueling race itself in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. It meant doing the equivalent of four Grand Prix in the space of eight hours, then rushing home to get ready for the next race. The best case scenario meant they started the next Grand Prix event tired and aching from Suzuka. The worst case was a crash and an injury that either kept them off the bike or left them riding hurt. The only benefit was that it kept the factories happy, and marginally increased a rider's chances of extending his contract with the manufacturer for a following season.

Gradually, the race fell out of favor, and more and more riders had clauses added to their contract specifically excluding them from being forced to race at Suzuka. Mick Doohan was one of the early absentees. Valentino Rossi did it twice, won it the second time around, and swore never to race at the event again. It was simply too demanding for a rider chancing a championship. In the early years of this century, the race languished in relative obscurity. The name of the event still echoed in the collective memory of race fans, but it passed without much comment. Except in Japan, where it remained the pinnacle of the JSB season, and the battleground for the Japanese manufacturers.

That started to change in recent years. The Japanese factories, and especially Honda, started calling on World Superbike riders once again. Carlos Checa went in 2008 with Ten Kate Honda teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari, and won the race. A few years later, Jonathan Rea did the same, and this triggered a revival of the tradition. Leon Haslam and Michael van der Mark followed in Rea's footsteps, and like him, secured victory for the official HRC team. The addition of Kevin Schwantz to the grid spiced the race up even further.

2015 took things up a notch again. Casey Stoner kicked off proceedings, by announcing that he would finally take part in the race that had been on his bucket list for a very long time. Freed of any MotoGP obligations since his retirement – despite his offer to replace the injured Dani Pedrosa earlier this season – Stoner had the time and the inclination to race, and very little to lose.

With Stoner on the grid, Yamaha then upped the stakes even further. With a new R1 to market and sell, they had set their sights on victory at the Suzuka 8 Hour as a keystone in their campaign. Honda had dominated the event for the previous 18 years, the factory team taking victory at Honda's own circuit. Only a couple of wins by Suzuki broke HRC's stranglehold. It was time for Yamaha to go into the lion's den, and show what they were capable of, as a manufacturer and as a racing department.

At the start of the year, they put a lot of pressure on both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi to lead the Suzuka assault. The two Movistar Yamaha riders politely declined, though as it became evident that the MotoGP championship would likely be settled between the pair of them, their protestations became a little less polite and a good deal more adamant. Yamaha Racing turned their attentions to the Tech 3 team, where Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith were in less of a situation to refuse. It took a little bit of persuading, but both men had much to gain from pulling off what Yamaha asked of them.

Stoner, Espargaro, Smith, Alex Lowes, Dominique Aegerter, Michael van der Mark. WEC regulars such as SERT and YART, with riders like Broc Parkes, Kyle Smith, Erwan Nigon, David Checa, Tommy Bridewell, Sheridan Morais. Japanese stars such as Katsuyuki Nakasuga, Yukio Kagayama, Nori Haga (still racing!) Ryuichi Kiyonari and more. The race was once again the big deal that it used to be. Suzuka was back on the map.

So much so that many international motorcycle racing outlets gave it prominent coverage. I considered covering the race on MotoMatters.com, but in the end, I decided against it. The rule I try follow with the site is to concentrate on what we know, and try to do that well. That is why there is no coverage of BSB, or MotoAmerica. Great series, but without the resources and knowledge to give them the coverage they deserve, I believe I would be doing them an injustice by covering them half-heartedly.

So it was with Suzuka. Naturally, I had an interest, for several reasons, but I did not want to waste the time and energy of my readers and myself by writing about things of which I know just enough to get it all horribly wrong. Instead, I watched the last couple of hours, following the race via Twitter and watching the coverage on my local Eurosport.

What did I think of the race? Endurance racing remains a very peculiar and specific discipline. Though riders go all out for each of their stints, they know they need to keep something in reserve. Once they hand the bike over to their teammates, they have an hour and a half, two hours to recover, before having to do it all again. It is a fine balance between pushing hard enough to try to pass and put some time on your rivals, while ensuring that you don't crash and lose time, and conserve enough energy for the moment you have to do it all again. Crashing is costly, not just for yourself, but for your teammates. After all, you are not just racing for yourself, you are racing for a team, and if you crash out, then it is not just the end of your race, but the race of your two teammates. That creates a different kind of pressure, and a different kind of atmosphere within the team.

With Espargaro and Smith, two riders I know relatively well (insofar as journalists every know riders well, separated as they are by being on different sides of the media), I had paid a little more attention to this race. It was interesting seeing the vibe between the two change after they returned from testing, between Assen and the Sachsenring. The two men have been fierce rivals for most of their racing lives, having faced each other in the Spanish championship, in 125s and in Moto2. Race against someone for long enough, especially someone who is as fast as you, more or less, and rivalry turns to dislike. The fact that they both were the same shirt on race weekends meant nothing: if anything, it merely amplified the rivalry. They were both nothing but cordial with each other, and completely professional in their role as teammate, but being teammates really just meant that they viewed each other as the first person they had to beat.

Such ferocity had been hard to maintain, as both Smith and Espargaro are likable young men. Both have a good sense of humor, and are positive and fun to be around, though in different ways. There was not enough difference to sustain a genuine hatred, and over the past eighteen months, the relationship appeared to be growing more cordial.

It formed a good basis for the Suzuka 8 Hour race. Suddenly, the two men stopped being MotoGP teammates – basically, an annoyance on the other side of the garage, and your first target for the weekend – and were forced to work together. We saw the relationship change, and respect grow between the two when they came back from Japan after testing. The dynamic changed, and I got the impression that made it easier inside the team as well.

Both Smith and Espargaro heaped praise on Kats Nakasuga. The multiple JSB champion and official Yamaha test rider had prepared Yamaha's new R1 well, and gave them a base set up far beyond their expectations. Working together, they had much less to do, helping to refine the bike which Nakasuga had given them. It was praise Nakasuga deserved. One of my favorite memories of recent years was seeing Nakasuga take the podium at Valencia in 2012. The Japanese rider had been brought in to replace the injured Ben Spies, and put in a solid performance in treacherous conditions to put the Yamaha M1 on the box. It was typical of the man: quiet, unassuming, utterly reliable, and not to be underestimated. His delight at getting on the podium was a joy to behold, made even greater by the fact that his son had been born that very same weekend.

His son was present at Nakasuga's second great triumph, watching from the pits as the Japanese rider helped Espargaro and Smith do what Yamaha had asked of them. The three men went to the home of Honda, and came away with the trophy – and what a trophy it is, a behemoth to rival the Stanley Cup. Espargaro and Smith used their speed to open up a gap, Nakasuga used his experience and intelligence to manage the race and ensure they achieved their objective. Smith had a few hairy moments at the very end of the race, as he found himself caught up in a yellow flag situation, uncertain of where the FCC TSR Honda was, the only rival standing between them and victory. Some emergency pit board instructions from Pol Espargaro finally laid his concerns to rest, and wrapped up the title.

Making the task that little bit easier for the Yamaha men was the early exit of the factory MuSASHi HARC-PRO Honda team. Just a few laps into his first stint, Casey Stoner crashed heavily on the way into Turn 10, his bike ending up in the middle of the track at The Hairpin. Honda were at first cagey about the crash, but after Stoner tweeted a picture of himself with plaster on his leg and his arm in a sling (he broke both his shoulder and his ankle) giving the cause as a stuck throttle, HRC were forced to own up. An initial press release was issued and then withdrawn, a follow up stating only that it was a mechanical problem. Eventually, they came clean: the throttle had been stuck open at 26 degrees when Stoner crashed, which on a short racing throttle is a little less than half throttle. Footage confirmed it: the video clearly showed Stoner losing the front and grabbing the clutch, before running wide and onto the grass. With no grip, down he went, tumbling badly and fracturing his bones along the way.

Stoner's crash reinforced what Espargaro and Smith had been saying: Suzuka is a fantastic circuit, one of the very best in the world – the two ranked it with Mugello and Phillip Island in terms of level of challenge – but it is also dangerous. The walls are close and cannot be moved, and a mistake can easily end in very severe consequences. It is tragic that Suzuka is not on the MotoGP calendar. But if it was, even greater tragedy might follow.

Does this crash finally spell the end of Casey Stoner's career as an active racer? It's hard to say, but you have to suspect it does. The Australian may feel he wants one more shot at actually finishing the race – he was robbed of any real chance of a result by mechanical mishap, rather than anything else – but he may also decide to just call it a day. We will probably only find out ahead of the Sepang tests next year, if he is spotted testing the Fireblade once again.

The Yamaha victory in 2015 makes next year an even more interesting prospect. Victory for the R1 came under exceptional circumstances, with a lot of support and two of the best riders in the world on the bike. It is hard to imagine Honda taking this lying down, which raises the question of what they will do next year. What they really need is something to replace the aging CBR1000RR (the RC213V-RS will never be homologated, and is meant as a rich man's toy, rather than a Superbike in the WSBK sense of the word), but that is not on the cards for 2016, despite the endless rumors of a new and competitive bike.

Will HRC instead bring in its big guns? Will the loss of face Honda suffered at Suzuka cause HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto to have a quiet word in the ears of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez? And if it does, will they be able to resist, claiming they have MotoGP titles to chase? And what of Yamaha? If Márquez and Pedrosa are roped in, will Yamaha be forced to pressure Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo into taking up the challenge?

Probably not, but with Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, you can never quite be sure. There is honor at stake. And that honor means that Suzuka is once again a big deal. I think that's a good thing.

Motorcycle News did an excellent series of video blogs with Bradley Smith on Suzuka. Well worth watching how Smith works his way through the weekend, and the ups and downs they face. A great initiative.

Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.

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Stoner's crash and injuries are a graphic example of why the top MotoGP contenders will continue to be reluctant to take part. If he was competing in MotoGP he would be missing races.

Is Smith the first brit to win the 8H? or did Rymer team up with Scott Russell in the early 90s for a win?

Try telling that to those who play rugby for the British Lions or compete in the Olympics hailing from Northern Ireland.

Last time I looked it was part of Britain? Whether or not it will stay that way forever is another matter.

Jonathan Rea actually lives here on the Isle of Man, we are not a part of the UK and are a self governing Crown Dependency.

*British & Irish Lions.
The national rugby team in Ireland is a little different from other sports teams, as there is no Northern Irish team. Players coming from the 6 counties simply play for the Irish team, alongside players from the 26 counties of the Republic. That is the reason why both Amhran na Bhfiann and Irelands Call are performed before the Irish rugby team plays (Northern Irish players on the team usually dont sing Amhran na Bhiann, but do sing Irelands Call). The Ulster rugby team (which is 6/9ths British by county) play in the Pro 12 with teams from the other 3 provinces of Ireland, not the English Premiership.
The British & Irish Lions are made up of players from England, Scotland, Wales ("British"), ROI & NI (Irish), and are commonly referred to as simply "The Lions".

I see what you were going for, but it was just a bad example. Rea is British, as are the Dunlop brothers and Michael & John Laverty. Eugene is the only brother who identifies as Irish, not sure why there is a difference there.

In any case, British riders are well supported and liked by Irish racing fans. I would assume because they are fluent in English and they can express themselves properly in interviews, we have a somewhat similar sense of humour, and there arent comparatively many top level Irish racers to support!

Just to re-iterate that, as someone else explained, (Great) Britain is geographically an entirely different island to Ireland. No part of Ireland is part of (Great) Britain.

Politically, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Note that the official name of this country distinguishes between the two: NI is different from GB. Prior to ~ 1922 / 1927 it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves British. Some consider themselves Northern Irish. Some consider themselves Irish. Some consider themselves combinations of those. Some would be offended if they were considered anything other than exclusively one of those. You'd have to defer to each individual on that. (I'm sure you know that, just to make it clear for others).

I said technically.

Ireland is an island. [Great] Britain is an island. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it's on the island of Ireland.

^ Well that certainly clears things right up Macrowaterrific!
My family is Scottish. We make fun of the Irish. Unless there is an Englishman around, then we like the Irish more and scoff at them instead. Seems like we are all Brits, and our food rather sucks. Until there is a Scot in MotoGP I will be proud of our Brits. I have a Triumph 675 by the way, and it is getting a Scottish flag on the tank. Perhaps I am not the best person to be "clarifying" either? I feel GREAT about claiming Rea as one of my own this year though!

No, Leon Haslam was part of winning team in 2013 and 2014 and Johnny Rea was part of the winning team in 2012. So the last 4 (including this) years, have featured a Brit on the top step.

Would be kinda cool to see, Pedrosa and Stoner competing in the same team.

I like both of these, but nothing that cool could ever really happen right?

Marquez and Stoner on the same bike.. when set up for them, it would be a nightmare for Pedrosa. It's the scenario that most motoGp fans want to see: those two, on the same bike, track, conditions.

Takahashi knows how to win at Suzuka, so the obvious choice as the anchor.

The GSXR1000 will be getting it's long-needed update in 2016, and the factory has Pol's brother Aleix and Maverick Vinales to put some fast in the saddle.

The new GSXR1000 will be a good bike but won't have much for electronics, and will look like it has missed the boat the the new Yamaha is on. It will be an improvement, but won't make much of a splash. Then a new Honda comes out that gives the R1 a run for the money, and the Suzuki is again obselete.

As a Stoner fan... gutted. I wonder if the crash isn't the REAL end of his career so much as coming out immediately and saying it was the bike's fault. Freed from holding his tongue about Brigestone tires etc. makes me wonder if maybe he slipped a bit too much, Honda historically don't take too kindly to that language.

Really liked reading about what you see from Espargaro and Smith. Makes me wonder if we'll see a noticeable difference the second half, or if they just flip the switch and go right back into GP mode. It's funny because they are two of the more likeable personalities on the grid.

Roll on Indy

It was only in 2010 that Honda had a sticking throttle on Pedrosa's bike, at their home race and ending his long shot hopes of the title that year.

But in both cases I'm pretty sure that there is more to the story then will ever be public knowledge.

HRC discover cause of CS crash:

But seriously, thanks for the link, wow, a full-on apology to CS from HRC on their own website. Unprecedented surely?

Expect Tokyo harbor to be augmented by a few ex-HRC employees and some concrete blocks by now, as motogpnews used to say.

And yet the comments on other sites are still full of trolls suggesting that CS's 'ambition outweighed his talent'.

I've always found CS to be good at explaining his efforts once you realise that he's actually giving more information than expected. Most riders would say "I wasn't fast enough" CS will say "I wasn't fast enough because the tyres don't feel right" or "there's a balance issue" or "the throttle stuck". This is often interpreted as blaming the bike. Other riders will be telling all this to their crew chief in the debrief as areas to work on, CS just gets it out there in the press conference.

Odd and ugly vitriol has rippled back at Stoner. It is ugly, unnecessary, and smells of ego. He has become a lightning rod of both defense and attack that is polarized, personal, and reactive. Perhaps from a perspective that he violated some unwritten code that he was supposed to "make nice" and filter himself re his feelings about...everything. Owed it to us, the series, his employer, his competitors, etc. I find the secondary reactions towards his public personae (and lack thereof) off putting much more than his public personae or lack thereof.

It's the same old haters, hanging on to that old comment until they could spit it out with the rest of their bile.
Thank the Universal Deity, they are mostly at crash.net, and not here.
Anyway, they've probably mostly moved on to trolling Lewis Hamilton hate sites. Isn't he the current whipping boy?

Stoner was significantly faster than the other Honda riders, so (assuming he wants another go at it) Honda would be choosing to have a slower rider if they said no, and I would think they want the most competitive team that can organise for next year.

And speaking of Indy, in 2012 he completely shattered his ankle only to have a bigger boot made so he could run the race finishing fourth. Only after more diagnosis he sat out the next several races to let it heal. When it comes to racing bikes Stoner is tough as nails.

Was actually at Indy that year, what a horrific crash and what an amazing ride after.
I wasn't so much saying it would be the injury/crash that would "end" it for Stoner, but more like what David was talking about, like just thinking it really is time to hang it up. I sure hope not

I do not think that they can pressure Rossi to race Suzuka again, or even Lorenzo. On the other hand... young Marc and pressured Dani...possible. But really Honda does not have much choice. Accept VDM they dont have much choice in SBK. Their museum SBK example of a bike dispels most of good riders away. So they will have to search in MotoGP.

When the Eurosport interviewer asked Pol whether Bradley would be finishing the race for the team. "Well I suppose so. But he didn't get pole!"

Awwww bless! Like brothers - never let an opportunity for a dig go by!!

Very much appreciate this report on the Suzuka race and its background. I've always had a soft spot for endurance racing fostered by its golden era in the late 70s/early 80s, when the grids were full of a wide variety of manufacturers with their production-based prototypes and other exotic private entries. I used to make an annual pilgrimage to the Bol d'Or at Le Mans and Paul Ricard with a bunch of pals, until negligent car drivers started to whittle down our numbers.
Back then there were two 'pilotes' per bike for a 24 hour race - and I'll never forget the haggard look on Christian Leon's face after he'd finished a stint around 2.00 AM with another 13 hours to race. Those guys were beyond tough.
The 1978 duel between the Leon/Chemarin factory Honda and the Pons/Sarron OW31 Yamaha was something to see (and hear). The result hung in the balance until the last hour when the Yamaha was reluctant to re-start after a pit-stop. Here's a nice pic of the two-stroke beast in its den - the oriental rug is a nice touch.

Nice comment about old days. And I love the picture. That second exhaust is very close to rider reproductive parts..LOL. This ware epic times as I can see.

Don't Yamaha France strokers look ace? One thing Sinbad, I presume that's a modern shot of said beast as there looks what appears to be a website .com logo for one of the sponsors?
Cripes I've got sooo many pictures like these lurking on my PC from the Bikers Classics at Spa- I can't think of many events where there are so many different classic racers, totally free access and only around 30 euros for the weekend. Couldn't go this year but next year, oh yes!
Hang on, if it's in July 2016 I'd better get in the channel tunnel queue now....

Of course you're right - it half-crossed my mind to wonder why I didn't see the Gauloises logo on the fairing. I guess the Persian carpet blinded me. Anyway here's an authentic snap of the late lamented Patrick Pons easing the TZ through one of Paul Ricard's right-handers.
As for old pics - I have some beauties of endurance bikes steaming through downtown Barcelona in 1979 - somewhat similar to this compilation:
Or this film clip:
Dukes, Guzzis, Beemers, Laverdas, Japs and privateer twins, triples and fours dicing it out in the middle of a great European city! Totally nuts. Check out how close the spectators are to the action! Talk about being spoiled.

And a certain Laverda 1000cc V6 passing the OW31's down the main straight in one of the endurance races!
150hp out of a 1 litre bike was pretty much unheard of in those days. And carburetted, too.
Apparently the howl was something to behold.
Put paid to by the decision to use shaft drive and having a poorly located universal joint output that put (if I remember correctly) too much force on the joint at full extension of compression of the suspension.

I covered three Suzuka 8 Hour Races in the 90's. My first event was the 1990 race. 160,000 people there. Gardner, Doohan, Beattie ( relief rider), Lawson, Tiara to name a few.

It was the hardest, hottest race that I have ever been to. You literally drink fluid ( Pocari Sweat ) all day long. Never had to go to the toilet either. You just sweat the fluids out.

I think the crowd figure of 160,000 in 1990 still stands as the most spectators for the race.

Much more interesting than the current 45 ~50 minute sprint races in MotoGP.

Montjuich Park, that variety of bikes is just incredible. You can say what you like about rose tinted spectacles but where has all the variety gone? It's hard to get a flavour of that grand old place but is still worth visiting should anyone visit Montmelo for the Catalan GP.
Looking back, totally bonkers!!
Thanks for sharing Sinbad

As DE stated in the article, the riders are justifiably unhappy about the lack of run-off at Suzuka. Machine variety at Montjuich was a big attraction, but by 1979 the track was about as forgiving as a bullring - and the race was marred by the death of a marshal who was hit while tending a fallen Laverda rider who had broken his leg after hitting some architectural stonework.
IMHO it might revitalize WSBK to incorporate endurance rounds (or the WEC itself) into the series. Requiring identical engines for both long and short races might even bring costs down.
And we'd also lose the hated headlight decals!

Just say no to pit stops.

throttle by wire... I would have thought the honda would have that. no cables required, although some TBW systems still use a cable (eg: my Guzzi California 1400), I can't for the life of me understand why. perhaps better crash resistance?

I think a cable has better resilience overall. With a cable controlling the intake, and a computer controlling the fueling you have a fail-safe. Even if the fueling system goes completely haywire you can close the throttle and the engine will choke itself.

The margin of error on a race track doesn't allow for that though, if you miss your braking marker by 3m then you're already off the track.

Remember Daijiro Kato, he died at Suzuka when he crashed and hit the wall. Was that when Suzuka was removed from the calendar?

David, this may be wishful thinking, but does it not seem like the RCV213-RS is a prototype for the new Fireblade?

Honda is serious about their racing, and the aging Fireblade is hampering all of their production racing efforts worldwide (AMA, BSB, WSBK, WEC, etc).

The RCV213-RS, as a standalone "premium" bike, makes no sense. It is far too expensive and and exotic to be a track bike, but is also completely useless as a street bike without the track-only kit (less HP than a CBR600RR).

So, why did Honda make it, and try to sell it to the wealthy?

My guess is to offset the costs of producing a prototype for a radically new Fireblade based on the RCV213.

Normally, a factory like Honda can do this in house, but it's rare that you get such a radical change from one model to the next. It helps to have a transition in the form of a prototype to validate your ideas. And hey, why not sell off a few to make back the money spent on R&D?

This may be wishful thinking, but I believe the new Fireblade will be based on the RCV213-RS.

From what I understand they sell hardly any flagship bikes like cbr1000 compared to things like step through scooters.

I think the top shelf stuff is more for brand identity then sales.

Who can tell with honda these days. They make a lot of nonsense bikes like the vfr1200.

"It is tragic that Suzuka is not on the MotoGP calendar. But if it was, even greater tragedy might follow." Kato's death was tragic. Bianchi's too. Suzuka's absence from the calendar isn't.

David (or anyone else),

Which parts of the Suzuka circuit are unable to be changed? Maybe this is attributed to my upbringing in the US, but if there's a will, there's a way right?