The 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours was the greatest race I’ve witnessed in the flesh. It was tremendous from start to finish...it was just the extra time that left a bitter aftertaste.
With only one lap remaining we had witnessed the greatest spectacle imaginable. Three teams - Kawasaki, Yamaha and Honda - had treated us to a feast of great racing. With the eight hour mark in sight we had seen twenty lead changes, and up until the final half hour all three teams were within 30 seconds of each other. Suzuka is always reckoned to be a series of sprint races wrapped up as an endurance outing but this race truly was just that.
It was unbelievable. Standing trackside I just wanted to get back inside to watch it on the TV and fully understand what was happening. If you believe that you’d believe anything. I was sweating so much in the heat that I was running dangerously low of bodily fluids but even in that state of reduced mental capacity I could see this was an all-time classic.
It truly was. Right until the final moment when the red flag came out following Jonathan Rea’s crash. The Number 10 Kawasaki crashed on oil that had been left in the final five minutes by the SERT machine’s expired engine. This most dramatic race had just gotten even more dramatic.
At that moment I was walking towards the Kawasaki pit garage to get ready to photograph the scenes as the Kawasaki WorldSBK team came to Endurance racing and won. It was a remarkable story. Until that crash.
Drama and mayhem
Suddenly Yamaha were leading the race but almost as quickly as Alex Lowes passed his stricken rival the red flags came out. The race was finished and in the mind of most people Rea had five minutes to return to the pits otherwise his win would be vacated. This was definitely my thought process too and I ran to Parc Ferme to wait for the winner...whoever it would be declared.
When Rea didn’t return Yamaha were declared the winner. I was standing beside Michael van der Mark when the word came through and he was in a state of disbelief. Eight hours and it all came down to the last moment. What a way to win this great race. What a way to lose this race. The highs and lows of world-class motorcycle racing.
It was incredibly unfortunate for Kawasaki, but in endurance racing there are 65 bikes on track and anything can happen. You have to adapt to the conditions, ride accordingly and make it to the end of the race. Rea and Kawasaki didn’t put a foot wrong all day and had been robbed of a win but, as with life, the luck of the draw can be a very fickle thing. One man’s bad fortune is usually another man’s good fortune in racing and so it was on Sunday.
Waiting for word
Or so it appeared on Sunday. With Yamaha decked out in Victory Number 5 t-shirts, spraying champagne on the podium and hoisting the massive trophy aloft on the podium they had conjured up the great escape and managed to win this race again. It was only minutes later that we realised something was amiss. The press conference was delayed. What was the hold up? Kawasaki had protested. The delay went on and on. I was walking past the holding room after an hour and asked what was happening only to be told by bemused riders, “we’ve no idea.” Sitting there in champagne doused leathers the Yamaha and Honda riders were forced to play the waiting game.
At this time I checked with Kawasaki when their riders would talk. Apparently this wasn’t possible and indeed Leon Haslam and Jonathan Rea were already at the hotel bar drowning their sorrows. Their drinks quickly turned into a celebration when news came through that the result had been overturned.
Kawasaki were suddenly the winners of the 42nd Suzuka 8 Hours. Their first success since 1993 was in the history books. After a two-hour delay to come to a verdict, it was a remarkable end to the day. The best team had won the 8 Hours but suddenly in my mind a more pertinent question arose; had the right team won the 8 Hours?
I’m writing this in an airport hotel in Nagoya almost 24 hours after the race has finished and I still can’t reconcile my feelings on the result. The #10 Kawasaki was the best team at the 8 Hours this year. Their pit stops were faster than Yamaha, they made no mistakes on track and Haslam and Rea were both faultless. Rea was the fastest and most consistent rider out on track. But endurance racing is not just about speed, there's always an element of luck, of unforeseen events. Misfortune had ruled Kawasaki out of the race but such is luck in racing.
Circumstances cause confusion
If the crash had happened twenty minutes earlier the race wouldn’t have been red flagged. A safety car would have been dispatched. Race Direction were clearly trying to ensure the race ran the distance and finished in normal racing conditions. This oversight left a crash possible. However, only one rider crashed.
The crash came from contamination on the track rather than a rider error but it still happened. When Kawasaki was reinstated in the results it was because the clause for returning to the pits after a red flag hasn’t been added to the Endurance World Championship - expect that loophole to be closed this off-season - but if Kawasaki were reinstated to the results why wasn’t the SERT bike also included?
The unwritten rule is that the team or rider that causes a red flag shouldn’t be classified. It’s one that I agree with and SERT should be punished, but given that there had been another two laps completed following the engine failure, did they cause the red flag or did the reg flag happen following Rea’s crash? There’s no rule in the regulations about this. Personally I think that the SERT bike should be disqualified rather than not classified, such was the danger of their rider’s action.
If this crash happened just minutes earlier would a safety car have been deployed and the race finished in those conditions rather than in racing conditions? I’m inclined to think that would have been the case and as a result Kawasaki should count their blessings.
When is a rule not a rule?
Race Direction has come under a lot of criticism for this incident and rightly so. The length of the delay was unacceptable, having the Race Director confirm that they didn’t agree with the decision is very difficult to reconcile. They felt that the five minute rule, “which is valid in other FIM world championships”, should have been applied, but that in a court of law the rulebook left no chance of upholding their decision. The EWC and the FIM created this mess by not having a clearly red flag ruling in place and following the lead of other championships. This will surely change in the near future.
It’s a crying shame that this is the big talking point after the race because this was a fantastic race. We saw some of the best Superbike riders on the planet push themselves and their machinery to the limit. We saw that Suzuka has three different manufacturers pumping resources into their efforts and giving us real variety. We saw something amazing. We then saw something strange and disheartening; we saw a mess.
This was an incredibly complex series of events taking place in front of us. Race Direction didn't exactly cover themselves in glory, but the rulebook should have removed this ambiguity by following the guidelines of other FIM series. Kawasaki were right to protest. The correct decision was made on the basis of the regulations in place but I can’t help but feel that the right decision wasn’t made.
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