Alanf’s blog…
Scattered thoughts

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Falling star…

Author: site admin
Category: Other Forms Of Racing

History books are filled with things that were once hot and yet now they’re not. Items or people or places or events which had their day in the sun and have since faded into obscurity. The Rubik’s Cube, the Edsel, Asbury Park New Jersey, New Kids on the Block and deep fried twinkies have all seen their star ascend and then set.

Well, there was a time when one of the biggest races in the world, even bigger than the Japanese round of the Grand Prix series, was the Suzuka 8 hours endurance race. This was an event where once a year the other Japanese factories would come to Honda’s test track and try to play David to Soichiro’s Goliath. When I was younger and first getting interested in motorcycle racing the entry list for the Suzuka 8 hours read like a who’s who of the racing world. Even if the riders didn’t like the track or didn’t like superbikes, they were contractually obligated to attend because of the prestige associated with the event. Think of the biggest names in motorcycle roadracing for the past three decades, then read over the list of people who have raced and won the Suzuka 8 Hours. The lists line up pretty well: Cooley, Crosby, Aldana, Baldwin, Merkel, Gardner, Magee, Rainey, Lawson, Doohan, Beattie, Slight, Russell, Polen, Edwards, Haga, Itoh, Ukawa, Okada, Barros, Kato and Rossi have all lofted the Suzuka trophy.

However, over the past three years, the event has lost much of its former glory. The reasons for this are many but the biggest issue has been the increasingly dangerous nature of the track as the speeds of the bikes has increased over the years. This was highlighted by the tragic death of Honda’s MotoGP star Daijiro Katoh during a GP race in 2003 and further reinforced when Japanese rider Keisuke Sato died back in June of this year after a crash at the track. Even more recently Katsuaki Fujiwara crashed while practicing for this years’ 8 Hours and broke some vertebrae. Some improvements have been made to the track since Katoh’s accident but the list of recent serious injuries show that its still got a long way to go before its ready for another international race and may be even longer before the factories are willing to risk their top level riders just to win the historic race.

The second issue which has dampened enthusiasm for the Suzuka 8 Hours event is the sheer dominance by Honda. The first eight hour endurance race at Suzuka was held in 1978 and won by Americans Wes Cooley and Mike Baldwin aboard a Suzuki. In the 27 years since then, Honda has won 19 races including a unbroken sweep from 1996 through last year. In contrast, Yamaha is the second most successful manufacturer with four wins, Suzuki has brought home two more since ‘78 for a total of three and Kawasaki has a single win. Clearly it has become very difficult for the factories to keep finding the motivation to come back to Suzuka each summer for another thrashing from Honda.

The final thing that seems to have affected the stature of the 8 Hours race is the declining popularity of endurance racing as a whole. Since 1980, the Suzuka race has been part of the FIM World Endurance Championship. There was a time when Suzuka, along with other rounds of the international endurance race series like the 24 hours Bol d’Or at LeMans, the 24 hours of Spa-Francorchamps and the Imola 200, were huge events followed world wide. As those events have lost much of their international flare, so has Suzuka. Just as the major factories no longer field fully supported bikes to the teams racing the FIM Endurance series, they also no longer put forth that effort at the 8 Hours.

Unfortunately, this year’s 28th “Coca Cola” Suzuka 8 Hour Endurance (the third round of the 2005 FIM World Endurance Championship) appears to have continued this tradition of decline. However, what the race is lacking in formal factory participation it makes up for with privateer and factory supported teams. This year eighty teams lined up for the Lemans style start all hoping to have a shot at the huge purse that always accompanies the race. However, not content to demolish their competitions formal teams, Honda also played the 800 lb gorilla against the privateers with two semi-factory teams and another few well funded not-quite-privateer teams taking the grid. In fact, there were a total of 34 Hondas in the field compared to 19 Suzukis, 16 Yamahas, 7 Kawasakis and various other teams running a BMW, a Ducati, an Aprilia and couple of exotics from Over and Asahina.

Seven Stars #7 Honda

The favorites going into the event were the two SevenStars Honda teams: #7 with riders Tohru Ukawa and Ryuichi Kiyonari and #11 with World Superbike stars Chris Vermeulen and Katsuaki Fujiwara. In this case, Honda would get great press material if either team won. A win by the #7 team would put Tohru Ukawa on top of the all time Suzuka winners list as he is currently tied with Wayne Gardner at four. Additionally, a win by the #7 team would add Honda’s rising star Kiyonari’s name to the list of riders who have won the 8 Hours. If, on the other hand, #11 were to take the checkered flag it would be a triumph for Honda’s international superbike efforts with Vermeulen as their Superbike star and Fujiwara one of their Supersport stars.

The race was flagged off in nice weather and a nice battle developed up front between Kiyonari on the SevenStars #7 bike, ex-GP ace Shinichi Ito on another Honda and the Yoshimura Suzuki of WSBK ace Yukio Kagayama. By the first pit stop, roughly an hour into the race, SevenStars #7 had already started to pull out a lead. This continued in the second hour but in the middle of the third stint it started to rain and the wet stuff kept up for two straight hours. It was during this window that SevenStars really sealed the deal. Their wet tire strategy proved superior to the other teams and their ability to stay on two wheels really made the difference as bike after bike crashed. At the mid-point of the race, they already had a full lap advantage over their nearest rivals. In the closing hours, the SevenStars #11 bike made a surge forward and at the end of the eight hour race it was the two SevenStars bikes in first and second.

This marked the historic fifth race win for Tohru Ukawa and was SevenStars was the pointy end of a Honda weapon which dominated by not only filling out the entire podium but bringing home Big Red bikes in the top six positions. In the end, the Ukawa/Kiyonari teaming turned 204 laps to win three laps ahead of Vermeulen/Fujiwara on the second Seven Stars entry. The Team HARC-Pro Honda with ex-GP rider Haruchika Aoki and Takeshi Yasuda came in third, four laps down on the winners. It may have been the Honda cup when it comes to brand diversity but endurance racing, especially world caliber endurance racing with so many ex-GP, World Superbike and Japanese national champs in the mix, is exciting stuff nonetheless. The amount of strategy that goes into endurance racing rivals that of a grandmaster chess match and watching riders race hard in the dark or wet is always thrilling.

But the sad thing is that no one, outside a few PR agencies and inside some race team transporters, really cares. While his Suzuka results help define a veteran rider like Tohru Ukawa, it will be a minor footnote in the career of a rising star like Kiyonari or Vermeulen. However, there may yet be hope on the horizon. As the saying goes “A rising tide lifts all boats” and the increasing popularity of motorcycle racing worldwide may yet restore some of the glory that once shined upon the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race.

[image from the FIM World Endurance Championship web site.]