Until the arrival of Yamaha’s MotoGP-studded factory team in 2015, the Suzuka Eight-Hours had been a little, well, wanky. The big names had, some said, got wise and had the iconic endurance race written out of their contracts instead of into tit and the days when Doohan, Schwantz, Rainey, Sarron and the like could be seen campaigning trick Superbikes were long gone.
Valentino Rossi did it once - and won - Colin Edwards did it with him but from 2003 to 2012, when Jonathan Rea stepped up, it was mostly won by Japanese riders like Ryuichi Kiyonari with the occasional appearance from Carlos Checa as the factories concentrated on GPs and, to a much lesser extent, WorldSBK.
Suzuka is a Honda track, in all senses of the word as it belongs to the firm, and before Yamaha rocked up with the trickest R1 in Christendom, the factory had won all but two races from the year 2000. Honda were in trouble and even star turns from Casey Stoner and the late Nicky Hayden were unable to remove Yamaha’s paws from the trophy.
This year the Yamaha team of Alex Lowes, Michael Van Der Mark and Kats Nakasuga have got six Suzuka wins between them and are going for a hat-trick of victories.
“The tests have gone well and all three riders have been fast and consistent throughout. We know that if we all do our job to the best of our ability, then we will be challenging for Yamaha’s third straight win. I know what this race means to Yamaha and also to myself, so I’ll be giving 100 percent for our team to achieve victory. I enjoy the different challenge of riding with - not against - my team-mate,” said Lowes.
Honda are fielding a raft of teams that could stop them. MuSASHi HARC Pro are Honda’s works outfit and have entrusted their campaign to Japanese Superbike star Takumi Takahashi, Moto2 front runner Takaaki Nakagami and Jack Miller as the star attraction as the only current MotoGP rider in the field.
FCC TSR are also on the works programme but today lost Stefan Bradl to an ear infection so Moto2’s Dominique Aegerter and veteran Randy De Puniet are in charge of that Fireblade with Josh Hook promoted from the Team SuP Dream Honda to replace him. Bradl had tested the Suzuka CBR and is very much in love with its Magneti Marelli electronics package, so we could see it transferred to the WorldSBK Fireblade sooner rather than later but an ear infection prevented him from flying to Japan at very late notice…
Motul Moriwaki were the quickest team at the final test with Kiyonari, who has won the race four times for Honda, teams with Yuki Takahashi and Eight-Hours virgin Dan Linfoot - who is insistent he is absolutely not interested in ‘those’ sort of manga films - and are the dark horses.
Kawasaki with Leon Haslam at the helm are also again going large but haven’t been able to tempt back Rea as he is after his third straight WorldSBK title - and Tom Sykes appears to not be interested. Haslam has Kazuki Watanabe and Aslan Shah as his partners this year.
Yoshimura Suzuki are again relying on Josh Brookes and factory test rider Takuya Tsuda to form the backbone of their challenge but have also added former WorldSBK champion Sylvain Guintoli to the mix as he pops his Suzuka cherry. Brookes is the only rider who doesn’t campaign the new GSX-R on a regular basis but said he was pretty happy with his times in the last test.
Along with the rider and manufacturer war at Suzuka comes a tyre war, which happens nowhere else in first-class motorcycle racing any more. Bridgestone are the acknowledged masters of the track and ship MotoGP-spec tyres to their riders - Nakasuga has his own special qualifying tyre - but Pirelli, Dunlop and Michelin are also in the mix with the regular World Endurance Championship teams which include SERT, YART and Honda Endurance.
The field has its share of British and British Superbike riders too. Jason O’Halloran has joined the Honda Dream Sakurai team which has revealed his middle name to be Mark. He has fellow Aussie Jamie Stauffer with him and their squad is completed by Ryo Mizuno, and they benefit from Bridgestones.
Christian Iddon makes his first Suzuka appearance with the BMW Motorrad39 squad and he has Althea BMW’s Raffaele De Rosa as a team-mate an Bridgestone tyres under them.
Elsewhere in the entry list, Team SuP Dream Honda has Gregg Black and the legendary Shinichi Ito - the first man to crack 200mph on a 500cc GP bike - as its line-up while British Supersport star Bjorn Estment lines up with Sheridan Morais and Brandon Cretu in Team Rabid Transit on an R1.
Yukio Kagayama is back again with his own team but less star studded than in previous years while Josh Waters remains in the MotoMap Supply team with Noby Aoki. Anthony West has got himself a ride in the Superstock category while roads specialist Horst Saiger is with the Bolliger Team Switzerland mob.
What happens when:
Free practice begins at 1.45pm (local) tomorrow, called supplementary, before first practice at 8.30am on Friday, July 28th with qualifying from 11.30am from which the top ten teams go through. Night practice starts at 6pm.
Saturday will see a free practice session at 2.15pm before the Top Ten Trial begins at 15.30 where each rider in the top ten teams gets one flying lap to settle the grid. Warm-up is at 8.30am Sunday and the race kicks off at 11.30am, finishing eight hours later. The sun is scheduled to set at 6.58pm.
Eurosport 2 will show the race live, beginning at 4.15am on Sunday.
And there is, of course, the annual team name game and the best three this year are:
Team Clubnext and Motobum
Titanium Power HOOTERS Racing
DOG HOUSE BOM KOOD
Go on-board with Yamaha GMT94’s Nico Canepa during testing earlier this month