Only hard-core racing fans know that the most important race in the world—at least as far as the four biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world are concerned—begins in Suzuka, Japan this weekend.
Forty years ago, Soichiro Honda, the founder of today's impressive industrial conglomerate that bears his name, decided to create a race that would serve as a showcase for the prowess of his engineers. So that he could stand out on the other Japanese factories, it had to be a race that took the mechanics to the limit ... and this was how the 8 Hours of Suzuka was born.
An 8-hour format was chosen because it requires the most from the engines, the great passion of Mr. Honda. A 24-hour race is longer and tougher, and thus mechanics have to be technologically more conservative. This format was too simple for Mr. Honda. By contrast, 8 hours is the perfect duration, because to aspire to win, you have to "squeeze" the engines, which in turn have to work at maximum output for eight long hours.
It’s also no coincidence that the race takes place the last weekend of July, which is traditionally the warmest time of the year in Japan. The temperature is usually a bit over 30°C (86°F), but the humidity is terrible, nearly unbearable. Conditions that make the riders—three per team—suffer a brutally. The heat and humidity take such a toll on the body that the teams all have small inflatable pools filled with cold water behind their pitboxes; the riders lie down in them right after they peel off their leathers to cool off. Back in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, the factory teams even had doctors apply IV fluid replenishment to the riders in between stints, but that practice was soon banned.
And the last "no coincidence" is that the race is held at the Suzuka circuit, a track considered the mother of all circuits due to its difficulty. It’s owned by Honda and is housed within an amusement park also owned by the company…need I say more to explain how important this race is to Honda? And for all of this, it's also easy to imagine what it means for other Japanese factories to beat Honda at home.
This race will be especially intense this weekend as it is the 40th edition of the race. Honda, who lost the last two years to Yamaha, has prepared a completely new bike for this race. Suzuki has done the same. Yamaha currently has the upper hand in qualifying, with its official Yamaha Factory Racing Team of Katsuaki Nakasuga, Alex Lowes, and Michael Van der Mark on provisional pole, followed by the Yoshimura Suzuki Motul Racing Team of Sylvain Guintoli, Josh Brookes, and Takuya Tsuda in second, one of Honda’s main teams, the MuSASHI RT HARC PRO Honda Team of Takumi Takahashi, Jack Miller, and Takaaki Nakagami in third, and the Kawasaki Team Green squad of Kazuma Watanabe, Leon Haslam, and Azlan Shah Bin Kamaruzaman in fourth. The ten quickest teams will participate in the “Top 10 Trial” on Saturday where each team chooses its quickest two riders to do a flying lap to determine final grid positions for the Le Mans-style start where the riders run across the track to their motorcycles (if you’re thinking this resembles the World Superbike Championship’s previous “Superpole” qualifying process, that’s because this race is where the idea originated from).
2017 Coca-Cola Suzuka 8 Hours provisional qualifying results (team lap time average of all riders):
1. Yamaha Factory Racing Team (Katsuaki Nakasuga, Alex Lowes, Michael Van der Mark) YAM 2:07.118
2. Yoshimura Suzuki Motul Racing (Sylvain Guintoli, Josh Brookes, Takuya Tsuda) SUZ 2:07.523
3. MuSASHI RT HARC-PRO Honda (Takumi Takahashi, Jack Miller, Takaaki Nakagami) HON 2:07.538
4. Kawasaki Team Green (Kazuma Watanabe, Leon Haslam, Azlan Shah Bin Kamaruzaman) KAW 2:07.857
5. F.C.C. TSR Honda (Dominique Aegerter, Randy De Puniet, Josh Hook) HON 2:07.919
6. YART Yamaha (Broc Parkes, Kohta Nozane, Marvin Fritz) YAM 2:08.176
7. Team Kagayama (Yukio Kagayama, Hafizh Syahrin, Naomichi Yuramoto) SUZ 2:08.553
8. Moriwaki Motul Racing (Yuki Takahashi, Ryuichi Kiyonari, Dan Linfoot) HON 2:08.796
9. Honda Suzuka Racing Team (Daijiro Hiura, Yudai Kamei, Takeshi Yasuda) HON 2:08.984
10. Satu HATI Honda Team Asia (Dimes Ekky Pratama, Mohammed Zaghwan Zaidi, Ratthanpong Willairot) HON 2:09.295