Most of the wider public are familiar with MotoGP and some will know WSBK. However even in the racing circles some people are not familiar with the Suzuka 8 hours race.
It first ran in 1978 when the promotor wanted to make the ultimate challenge of ‘Man and Machine’, so he looked at the calendar and purposely placed the event on the hottest weekend of the year for Japan. In recent years it has become a round of the FIM Endurance World Championship.
For all the Japanese manufacturers this event is equal or possibly in some ways more important than the MotoGP.
To generalise, for regular endurance racing teams, its often considered the priority to first make a bike that can last the distance (even sacrificing speed, weight, comfort and handling) in order to make the bike easier to repair if crashed and easier for the mechanics at the pit stops. For the Japanese factories, the Suzuka event is not viewed like that. The bike is as refined as any GP or WSBK machine and ridden every lap of the 8 hours like a sprint race. If that brings a problem with reliability or pit stop time then more technology, R&D, refinement and budget is added until a solution is found.
The top teams graft in the best riders available, even taking them from there MotoGP…etc season commitments as to get the upper hand on their rival brands.
I first got the call up for an audition (as they called it) for a seat on the Factory Honda in 2005, there were 4 riders in the short list (Katsuaki Fugiwara, Chris Vermulen, Micheal Farbrizio and Me) and only 2 would get through. I had come from racing production Superbikes in Oz that look like the bikes in your local dealership. When I walked into the pit and saw these bikes that looked like the Grand Prix bikes in magazines, my jaw dropped… I didn’t want to ride them, I just wanted to stare at them.
I got past the first test with flying colours. I was 2nd fastest in both wet and dry conditions and I also easily passed the physical test, but did loose a mark because my riding style was not so good with fuel economy.
I was invited back for the second audition and this time there were just three of us, Fabrizio had been dropped. On the first of the two day test, I crashed. I got up and saw what looked like plane crash debris leading to the bike. It was upside down against the wall, I personally had never seen a bike so damaged. The fuel tank was split and fuel was glugging out, I didn’t even think about fire but that would have been the only way to make it worse. I pushed it over onto its bent wheels, I could see straight to the throttle bodies where gravel trap stones lay, because the airbox was torn away from the mountings. Just like that, one little mistake and I had destroyed a quarter million dollar bike.
The next problem was the gaze on my arm, when I went down my arm somehow was trapped under my own body weight so quickly the leather wore through to my arm. I wasn’t to bothered but the Japanese over reacted and wanted to rush me to hospital or something. I calmed them down and agreed to let the medics put a patch on it.
The next day I was of course wanting to ride but my leathers were scrap, and because I wasn’t a high paid factory rider I only had one set. The Japanese test rider offered his suit but it was incredibly uncomfortable and I felt very embarrassed about the whole situation. To make matters worse I was now riding the spare bike and it had some experimental chassis set up. It would weave like a snake in every straight and felt like the front wheel was underneath the bike in corners. Everything just felt wrong and uncomfortable, I couldn’t recover the confidence to ride fast and although everyone was aware of the situation I was dropped from the selection.
At the time I was just a naive 21year old ozzy that acted about 15 and didn’t even fully realise how big this opportunity was. Now I look back on it as the single biggest lost opportunity of my career. Some of the greats that had ridden that position were, Malcolm Campbell, Wayne Gardener, Mick Doohan, Alex Barros & Collin Edwards.
Before the disappointment could set in the Suzuka bug had bit, I didn’t have the factory ride so I put my hand up for any seat going and secured a place with team Yoshiharu. I arrived again to Japan for a pre-event practice and to my horror the bike was nothing like the works level machine that I had smashed to pieces a few weeks earlier. This time it was a full private bike and I say bike because they only had one. It looked as if it had visited every gravel trap in Japan. Even though it looked quite bad, it rode ok and turned out to be very reliable. I stayed in Japan for the 2 weeks between the practice and the start of the race event, living at the teams little work shop. The day time mechanics would go home at about 6pm so I was there alone, bored for hours each day and would pass the time ratting through the workshop shelves and draws. There were some amazing bikes laying about the place, in an up stairs store room I counted at least 5 RC45’s of different race years plus a load of race parts from that period. It was clear that the little bike shop was a successful business in years gone by that funded some expensive race hobby. I cant remember all the bike that lay about the place but one that stuck in my mind was and RS250 with a full carbon fibre chassis.
I quickly recognised there were enough parts to build 2 bikes, so thats what I did. I stripped the race bike and started with 2 chassis, I picked the best one (least crash damage) and marked it #1 and then put all the best parts on that bike. Whatever was left went onto the other bike labeled #2, until we had 2 running bikes.
In the mean time word had gotten out that I was going to do the race. I had a call from friend and legend of the sport Kevin Magee. He is a Suzuka8Hour winner so I listened to what he had to say. He went on about how tough the race would be and how important it is to stay hydrated. He said “drink until you feel sick and then keep drinking, and eat every chance you get.” He then explained “facilities at the circuit aren’t modern so there are no showers”, however he found one in a workers cabin behind the circuit offices. He drew me a map and gave clear instructions. At first I though he was just being dramatic but when he said the factory teams were band from using a drip to re-hydrate their riders, because its an advantage on the smaller teams, I began to believe how serious he was!
I was intrigued, so shortly after I arrived to the circuit I set out to find the showers. Lo and behold just as he said…There it was. Though in the years since he was racing it had become a store room. It took me a good 45 minutes of stacking boxes of old smelly marshals overalls into the corner before I exposed the shower. I turned on the tap and rusty water sprayed out for maybe 30 seconds, but that wasn’t the only problem. I drain was half blocked so the floor was filling up. I could only run the shower for a few minutes before it would reach the door, I didn’t want to alert people to my secret location.
I was teamed up with a Japanese rider, Yoshiyuki Sugai who I knew nothing about. I later found out no other Japanese riders wanted to team up with him because he was hard to work with. As I didn’t speak a word of Japanese or him a word of English, we got on just fine and are still friends today.
He started the race and I would ride second and so on for the following 8 hours. One hour riding, one hour of resting, until my 4th stint that would finish the race. This all sounds pretty straight forward but only 16 laps into my first 27 lap stint, I felt like the heat was trying to strangle me. I couldn’t concentrate anymore, I was making mistakes. I put my head over the screen in search of cool air but it was like a hair dryer pressed up against the air vents of my helmet. I put my head back down and continued to suffer for what felt like the longest hour of my life. I was taking my feet off the pegs any chance I could because the hot air from the exhaust and oil cooler were literally burning my feet. I convinced myself to press on but swore with every agonising lap, I would never do this stupid race again!
I finally made it to the scheduled pit stop. As I got off the bike and with no air flow, the feeling of heat intensified. I was in a panic to get out of my leathers, like someone was holding me under water and getting the leathers off would allow me to breath again. I stripped off to my undies, grabbed a towel and ran to the shower. I had to run balancing on the gutter because the tar in the pits was too hot for my already burnt feet. I stood under the cold water until it reached the door. I returned to the pit, got dressed, grabbed some food and a drink and then like some kind of sick joke a team member said “you had better start getting ready, you will be out again soon”. I looked at my watch in disbelief, it was the shortest hour of my life. I wanted to cry, I didn’t want to go out there again as it was approaching 2:30 and the peak of heat. My life was hell for the next few hours. I got on for the 4th and last stint, the sun was almost gone, the temp had dropped and the end was near. I crossed the line in 6th place and like some emotional mystery, I immediately forgot the pain and I was overcome with the satisfaction of the achievement. We were already speaking of next year and what we could do better.
This was also a super great, amazing result for the team. In the 19th year they had been at it their previous best finish was a 17th.
To my surprise this still wasn’t enough to catch the interest of the big teams and so in 2008 it was like ground hog day. I went through the exact same feelings emotions and asked myself “what the hell are you doing here again”. We finished 7th, even though this is one position worse, it was actually a far better race for us as we were much closer to the leaders at the finish. This would be team Yoshiharu’s last race in the 8Hours, the team owner was suffering the affects of a stroke and after 20 years at it, he decided a 6th and a 7th was enough.
I remembered the promise I made to myself and didn’t race 2007 but couldn’t help myself and was back again in 2008 with Sakurai Honda team where I was teamed up with a young Japanese rider Kazuma Tsuda. Not a factory team but definitely a step up from the optimistic Yoshiharu. A very important lesson was learned about the race in this move. The first 2 years we were on Bridgestone tyres because Sugai was a long term test rider for the brand, but at the time I didn’t think much of it. Now as part of the sponsorship deal for Sakurai team, it meant we would race on Dunlop tyres. In a normal temperature range (15-20-30 degrees) this would have a very small affect on the final result, but at Suzuka with a 36-38 degree ambient temp and around a 60 degree track temp, tyre brand becomes very important.
In my first stint on these tyres, struggling to keep grip in the heat, I almost crashed in the very fast turn one. I saved it from the initial crash but then ran extremely wide and forced to take to the gravel. With the wall approaching quickly I washed off speed right to the last second, I laid it down and softly bounced off the wall. Quicker than you can imagine I had the bike up and carried on till the end of my stint. Kazuma and I had worked well together over the passing hours and were maintaining 8th. It was just before the last pit stop and my last stint the team announced some bad news, we needed to replace the exhaust in that final pit stop. The crash I had 6 odd hours ago had caused a small kink the exhaust that was now an open split with fatigue. It would not pass technical control at the finish so had to be replaced. After the amazing fast change and some burnt fingers, we had dropped to 14th and there was only 50 minutes to go. But a bit of luck was on our side, as the race went into darkness the track temp dropped and the tyres were back in the game. While almost the whole field were slowing up by an average of 3 seconds in the dark, I was taking full advantage of the cool temp and amazingly set my fastest laps of the race. This took us back to a 10th place finish.
For 2009 I was convinced I wouldn’t return unless it was with a Bridgestone supported team but again I had no offers from any of the top teams and the draw of the race was too much so I agreed to ride for Sakurai again, even on the Dunlop’s. Unfortunately, just one week before the race I crashed in my regular BSB championship race. I hyper extended my thumb and snapped the ligament. It required an operation to reconnect it and obviously I was also forced out of the 8hours.
All the big name riders were taking big pay cheques and riding for big factory teams with big support crews, while I was going year after year riding for free and for the love of the race. I had had enough and wanted to show I didn’t ride for free anymore. So guess what… I didn’t ride in 2010, 2011 or 2012. My point wasn’t being heard and it was just as painful to watch each year, as it was to suffer the heat for no financial incentive.
In 2013 I was riding for Tyco Suzuki in the British Superbikes and so the stars and the moons alined and I was invited to join Yoshimura Suzuki, one of the favourites to win and the only team to have competed every year since the beginning. I was teamed up with Takuya Tsuda (older brother of Kzuma from 08) and Nobu Aoki. In my first stint I was riding particularly hard in an attempt to make back some time lost by Nobu, who had a ride though penalty for going over the speed limit in pit lane. I was borked by a lap rider and crashed. The screen was gone but the damage was minimal so I picked it up and carried on. Tsuda and I rode the bike like that till the end, we were agonisingly close but finished 2nd. I was so pleased to stand on the podium but couldn’t stop thinking about all the what ifs.
In 2014 I was riding for Milwaukee Yamaha in BSB and was invited to join Yart (Yamaha Austria Racing Team) with Katsuyuki Nakasuga and Broc Parks. The start of the race was delayed for an hour because of torrential rain. Kats and Broc both rode before me and said the bike was terrible to ride in the wet and we were well outside the top10, but it was back to dry when it was my turn to ride and stayed dry till the end, we had worked our way back to finish 4th.
2015 I was again with Milwaukee Yamaha in BSB and winning with the all new Yamaha R1. It was all through the press how Yamaha Factory were coming back to challenge for the Suzuka8hours win, with a full factory prepared bike. I thought I was was in the hot seat for the position but was disappointed to find out I didn’t make the selection and didn’t compete that year.
Well down the line on negotiations for the 2016 season and a possible return to World Superbikes with my Milwaukee team, there were long delays on what brand we would merge with. I had many messages from Yoshimura Suzuki asking if I could join them again. I was using all the stall tactics but it was getting out of hand so I put my boss on the spot and he gave me permission to do a deal with the Suzuki team. He would honour it even if we were with another brand. As it would turn out we went to WSBK’s with BMW but I had the deal already in place to ride the 8hour with Yoshimura.
I arrived to Japan straight from the US round of World Superbikes at Laguna Seca. The season to date has been tough, we’re not getting the expected performance from the BMW, so results are down. Only twice scraping inside the top ten takes its toll on the team and the atmosphere. I’m thinking to myself ‘this is a good opportunity to wipe the slate clean’. A change of bike and team just for one event, and not just any event but one I love. Testing and practice went reasonably well, my team mates Takuya Tsuda, Nori Haga and I were all within a few tenths of each other and we were happy enough with the compromised settings of the bike to suit the three of us.
Yoshimura is a tuning company that goes up against the well funded factory teams every year but they go in with the objective to win and this year felt like it could be the one. The race went very smooth, no crashes and no mistakes at the pit stops but the ageing Suzuki wasn’t enough to put up a real challenge. Yamaha went on to take the win with us locked in battle with Team Kawasaki for the entire race, regularly exchanging position and with only 10 seconds gap in the dying laps we were forced to accept 3rd.
The experiences of this race have been life changing for me and I hope one day to soak up the glory and feeling of the ultimate victory.