Suzuka 8 Hours Interview: Michael van der Mark on winning for the third time in Japan

Michael van der Mark joined illustrious company by claiming a third Suzuka 8 Hours success

Michael van der Mark left Japan with a smile on his face, another victory and a reflective mood. The Suzuka 8 Hours winner knows how difficult it is to win the biggest single race of the year - he's done it three times.

There was a time when Suzuka was considered a hindrance on the racing calendar and it had lost its luster, but with 80,000 fans packing the grandstands this year it was clear that the revival of the race, which began in 2015, has returned it to prominence. For the victor it was a special day, not only because of the win but also because he remembers the heartbreak of losing there for the last two years.

“This race is such a big event that it takes a long time for the result to sink in,” said Van der Mark. “It's been a few years since I won and it's great to be back on the top step of the podium. I've been so lucky to win this race three times now and it's amazing. This race can give you such a good feeling, but I think that it's only when you win that you really feel that.

“It's such a tough race that when you finish the eight hours and suddenly the adrenaline wears off you start to slow down and realize just how draining it is! It's an incredible race though because there are so many people involved in making it a success. There are three riders, but there are so many other people involved in the team that make such a big effort for it to be successful.

“Suzuka is always a little different because when you come here the crew are different to WorldSBK. It's been very good though, because the Suzuka crew all work in the same way as every race team; it's just different people. To be honest we do one race a year with a different team but it always feels like a normal team and it's always easy to be with these guys. They're a really good team and it's nice to come here.

“Every year that I've come to Suzuka I've expected to fight for the win and this year was no different. The atmosphere inside Yamaha is very similar to what I experienced when I raced the Honda; they expect to win. Yamaha came here to write history and win a third Suzuka 8 Hours in a row. I've always been lucky to be on good bikes at this race and that always means that you come to Suzuka with a level of expectation.”

That places pressure on the shoulders of the riders, and for 24 year old Van der Mark there was also the added pressure of replacing Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard, a winner for the last two years, has moved to KTM in MotoGP, and while Van der Mark only joined Yamaha in WorldSBK this season, he fitted in seamlessly. The Yamaha Factory Racing Team is a well oiled machine that is polished in every area. No stones are left unturned, but for “Magic Michael” it truly was a magical race week.

“Honestly we had no stress at all this weekend. The bike worked smoothly for the whole weekend and we had no reliability issues. We found a good setting in the tests and we've all felt really happy with the bikes. We did spend a lot of time working on the race tire and being consistent with it and that made it less stressful during the race weekend because we knew what to expect on race day.

“We've all felt good on the bike and because we didn't have to change anything from the test it's been easy for us to jump into the race weekend and know what to expect. The relationship between the three of us has been really good too. They're both really nice guys and a lot of fun. Obviously I know Alex from WorldSBK, but it's been a lot of fun to get to know each other in a different way compared to our normal race weekends! It's been a really fun time here in Japan and I think that we've all enjoyed it.”

It can be a strange experience working within a crew of riders. By their very nature, the world's top racers are selfish; they have an insatiable appetite for success. It dominates their mindset and every decision they make is calculated by asking themselves “will this make me faster?” At Suzuka the goal is to stand on the top step of the podium and sometimes that means making a compromise with the settings or strategy. The most successful teams manage the expectations of their riders.

“The atmosphere inside the team has been really good. Obviously as a rider you always want to be fastest, but you also have to work with the other two riders in the team. The most important thing in the Suzuka 8 Hours is the eight hours of racing, and you're always being reminded that the most important thing is to be consistent and to win the race on the Sunday. You need to be consistent. This week we've not changed anything on it so it shows how good the bike is and how well the team prepared for this weekend.

“We all want to be fastest but the team do a great job of reminding us all that it's about the race and being the best team of three riders. For the riders it's difficult not to look at the times and compare them but you need to have a different mindset here. In the race it's funny because you spend so much time being nervous for the other guys!”

With Suzuka in the books the focus now turns to the end of the WorldSBK season. With five rounds remaining, Van der Mark is still searching for his first podium with Yamaha. Assen, Donington and a stunning Misano effort showed how close he is to achieving that goal and the lessons learned from Suzuka could prove helpful.

“It's been really good to be able to compare the Suzuka bike to our WorldSBK bike back to back. When you race one and then jump on the other to go testing it really shows what each bike does well and where we maybe need to develop the WorldSBK bike. The engines are different between the bikes because the Suzuka machine has to last eight hours, but the electronics are also very different. On the Suzuka bike they are so smooth. There are some small differences which make the bike feel easier to ride. It still has the same character as the WorldSBK bike but it's so much easier to control the power with the electronics on the Suzuka bike. I'd love to have that on my WorldSBK bike!”

One thing he'd like to see adapted in WorldSBK was the “Top Ten Shootout” that mimics the old style of Superpole. Riders get one lap to set their qualifying time and it provides tension and excitement. For Van der Mark the session also marked a strange sensation; watching others on track while he sat in the garage.

“It's difficult when you're watching the Superpole session and not on the bike,” admitted the Dutchman. “Every rider wants to be out there and show what they can do, but Alex and Nakasuga-san have been so strong and fast here that we decided before the weekend that they would do the Superpole session. Alex has more experience of this bike and I was OK with the decision. They did a great job and set the fastest time so it's all great when they do a job like that! When you are watching the session on TV it's a very different experience but as a team we got the result we needed to.”

The trio of Yamaha riders certainly got the job done on race day, claiming a historic hat-trick of wins for their manufacturer. Standing in pit lane as Lowes crossed the line, the release of emotion within the Yamaha garage was clear to see. Not only was this mission accomplished, it was also a clear relief and release after meeting expectations.

“I think that the key for us winning was that all three of us riders had incredible pace and consistency. There were a lot of strong riders in this race but we didn't make any mistakes and that's the most important thing in a race like this. We were lucky with the weather today, but in that first hour, Katsuyuki [Nakasuga] was so impressive. The conditions were so difficult and he was so strong. When Alex went on the bike he was also really strong and fast and was able to break the lap record. When I went on the bike we were leading, and I was doing my best to ride a bit slower and try to get an extra lap out of the tank. I didn't quite manage to do that extra lap, but it didn't matter because our pace was so good throughout the race.

“Suzuka is a really fun event. It's super tough on you physically and emotionally but when you finish the race it's so good. The track is amazing, the bike is fantastic but the stints are hard! It does get easier as the race progresses because you find a rhythm and a comfort zone. It's so hard physically to do this race but it's funny, because once you finish the race you really remember all the things that make this event great and want to come back the next year!”

It's highly unlikely that we will see Yamaha break up their 2017 winning team. Van der Mark, Lowes and Nakasuga will surely start the 41st Suzuka 8 Hours as the clear favorites.

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Thank you indeed for this interview, Steve. I always lust for 8-hour races. Looking forward to more content.