Under the relatively recent changes to the shape of the entire EWC calendar the Suzuka 8 Hours will truly will be a finale. Unlike other FIM World Championship series the EWC is run from the middle of each calendar year to the middle of the next - making this year’s championship a fight for the 2018/2019 crown. Currently Team SRC Kawasaki France is leading the championship, with the intention of getting the ultimate job done in a few days’ time.
As well as being the championship decider in modern times the mystique and status of the Suzuka 8 Hours as a stand-alone event mean it is something of a living motorsports legend. It is such a landmark on the calendar that frequently one of the first questions star riders from other global and domestic championships are asked in winter testing is “Are you doing ‘The 8 Hours’?” Everybody knows what you mean - even when other EWC events on the calendar are also raced over an eight-hour duration.
This year, on the Number 10 ‘Kawasaki Racing Team Suzuki 8 Hours’ Ninja ZX-10RR, four-time WorldSBK Champion Jonathan Rea, reigning BSB Champion and serial WorldSBK podium rider Leon Haslam, and WorldSBK independent rider points leader Toprak Razgatlioglu will combine to form something of a dream team. This season the official Kawasaki effort has been reorganized with several KRT WorldSBK technical staff members joining the home-based KHI staff - all sharing the clear view of winning the race for Kawasaki for the first time since 1993.
The ambition to score the outright win is evident and understandable. It is the race that all the Japanese factories in particular want to take more than any other, combining as it does a short enough overall duration to make it almost a sprint race, but also providing a test of machinery over eight steamy and challenging hours at the height of the punishing Japanese summer.
Started in daylight but finishing in the dark, it is a huge racing challenge for manufacturers, riders and teams to undertake. The uniquely-designed 5.821km long circuit comprises a figure eight, with a tunnel and a bridge section, all of which contribute to the complexities that have to be overcome to win this iconic contest.
Kawasaki has been at the forefront of competition since the very first Suzuka 8 Hours race in 1978. In that first year Kawasaki finished on the podium first time out. New Zealander Graeme ‘Croz’ Crosby and Australia’s Tony Hatton took their Yoshimura Racing Group Kawasaki Z1 to third place.
In those early days teams arrived with all kinds of machinery, not all of it strictly production-derived. A Yamaha TZ750 finished second in 1978; a Kawasaki Z750 placed fifth for the Kobe Supersports Team and its two local riders, Masaki Tokuno and Hiroshi Iwamichi.
The wonderfully named Hamamatsu Escargot (escargot is French for snail…) overcame their own kind of capacity disadvantage, not to mention their own name, to finish 12th on a CB400. Even small capacity two-strokes also made up many places in the high end of the midfield. At the other end of the scale a CBX1200 – from ‘Team CBX’ finished 11th. Kawasaki’s Sugiyama Cycle Shop, running a Z920, was a first year entry, finishing in 13th overall, and the Z650-equipped Kinomi Racing team was just one place behind.
The mix of full factory teams (with GP-level riders often drafted in) taking on some very privateer efforts (with keen locals and often some eclectic choices of machinery), would continue long into the next few years. At the same time, however, the Suzuka 8 Hours was already a very serious business for all the Japanese manufacturers, who would ring fence some very heavy racing investments for their own ‘race-within-a-championship’ weekend that continue to this day.
Often factory efforts would take on two or three guises, some introducing an international element, several enjoying a technical co-operation with tuning companies like Yoshimura or Moriwaki, plus ‘foreign’ teams from National or International competition would bring their own fresh outsiders’ view into the Suzuka fishbowl.
Even with the strongest efforts, success is never guaranteed in endurance racing, but in 1980 the official Team Kawasaki squad took Gregg Hansford and Eddie Lawson (yes, that Eddie Lawson) to the runner-up spot - within a mere 40 seconds of the win.
The breakthrough Kawasaki Suzuka 8 Hours race victory came in 1993, when Kawasaki legends Scott Russell and Aaron Slight rode their ITOH HAM Racing Kawasaki ZXR-7 into history, heading up a quality field of rival machines. And not to forget some truly superstar names such as Eddie Lawson, Takuma Aoki, Michael Doohan, Daryl Beattie, Alex Barros, Peter Goddard, Kenny Roberts Jnr., Robbie Phillis…
Nothing underlines the idea of how big the Suzuka 8 Hours had grown by that stage than the roll call of names drafted in to give each manufacturer the chance of winning. 120,000 people witnessed the success America’s Russell and New Zealand’s Slight enjoyed that year on their Kawasaki, in what was and is the most Japanese race meeting it is possible to imagine.
Now with SRC Kawasaki France riding high in the overall championship points, and the KRT Rea, Haslam and Razgatlioglu trio looking to take their Ninja ZX-10RR to the very top in a few days’ time, all eyes will be focused on the green pit boxes.
The anticipation and expectation is growing with every second now, but at least we do not have long to wait. Just until July 28, 11.30 local time in Japan, to be precise.
ENDS…. for now