Home joy as Team HRC makes it three winners from three EWC rounds with Suzuka victory
Team HRC has made it three different winners from three rounds of this season’s FIM Endurance World Championship with victory in the 43rd Coca-Cola Suzuka 8 Hours, the ace line-up of Tetsuta Nagashima, Takumi Takahashi and Iker Lecuona taking the chequered flag by more than one lap.
The #33 CBR1000RR-RSP was peerless throughout the eight hours and save for a brief dice at the early restart there was little doubt of who was favourite baring the unexpected.
The Suzuka 8 Hours start came with rather surprising blue skies after a build-up week of alternating grey hazy humidity or rain, the heavens seemingly cleared ahead of the race. The HRC led the field away cleanly, but behind it the top qualifying permanent EWC-entered #7 Yamaha YZFF-R1 had a shocker, down as low as 25th with Niccolò Canepa giving himself plenty to do, in complete contrast to Gregg Black on the rival #1 Yoshimura SERT Motul GSX-R1000R, who had a stormer, up to fourth on track on the first lap.
No sooner was the first lap done than the safety car was out for the first time after Kosuke Sakumoto on the #17 Astemo Honda Dream SI Racing CBR1000RR-R took out Naomichi Uramoto on the SDG Honda Racing version of the same bike heading into T13, providing an unlucky race exit for both with their teams’ dreams of glory turning into an instant nightmare.
Sakumoto lost the front and seemingly came from nowhere to torpedo Uramoto in the spectacular crash from which both riders walked away. With both bikes needing recovery and the barriers needing repair however, it was a 7-lap safety car period.
The Honda NSX was followed first by the #33, then the #5 FCC TSR CBR1000RR-R Fireblade with Josh Hook riding the opening stint, from the #10 Kawasaki Racing Team Suzuka 8H ZX-10R with Leon Haslam on start duties, then the SERT, followed by the #37 BMW MOTORRAD WORLD ENDURANCE TEAM M1000RR with Illya Mykhalchyk on board.
With the safety car back in, it was an early tussle for the lead with Black, Takahashi and Haslam all dicing after the restart before the HRC was back to the place that its pace dictates and started to stretch out a lead.
With the early banter over, strategic considerations soon can into question: who would pit first of the frontrunners? Answer: YART. Canepa had done a fabulous job to redeem his tardy start, up to tenth by lap 10, seventh a lap later, and into third position by lap 14.
By lap 26, the YART was in, with Canepa swapping for Marvin Fritz and so the first stops ensured. The #5 was next, Hook for Di Meglio, then the SERT, Black for Watanabe, but not till lap 28 was the #33 HRC in for Takahashi to swap to Nagashima.
The HRC pitting handed the lead to the #10 Kawasaki for a lap for before it pitted too. Fuel consumption considerations were now there for all to see.
Fuel consumption was not the only consideration for the season-contending #11 Webike SRC Kawasaki France team after Randy de Puniet had a low-speed drop at Degner 2, requiring a return to the pits and a 7-minute turnaround before Florian Marino returned to the track.
A second safety car came out at the two-hour mark after an off for the #51, whilst the rider was okay the bike was lightly toasted from a fire, but it was as you were at the front save for the timing and spacing of the two safety cars which are deployed at Suzuka. The #10 Kawasaki got picked up by the second one thus handing the Honda yet another advantage.
It was to get worst for the #10 before it got better, but first an overheating issue for the #37 BMW M1000RR meant rider Mykhalchyk was soon overheating too as he had to push back to the pits – no mean feat in the searing heat – whilst Jonathan Rea laid down the ZX-10R whilst navigating traffic coming into the chicane. The Brit was soon back up, and the nearest rival YART soon in for their next rider change, so to positions were swapped, however the BMW was sadly out with a coolant retention issue unable to be resolved.
“I’m really disappointed – of course – because we had a technical issue and we were unable to fix it to continue,” said Team Manager, Werner Daemen.
“It’s a big shame as there are so many positives from this race weekend. We came here having never raced here before and we were ninth in the Top 10 Trial and sixth in qualifying. The team did a really good job. We didn’t have a single crash. It’s been a great effort from all and we know what to do for next year.”
With the BMW out, the battle in the second half for lead full-season entry continued between the #7 Yamaha and #1 Suzuki. The YART’s pace did not diminish and despite not being able to run quite as long as the Suzuki before pit stops, pace seemed to be winning through.
As the final hour started to tick by, so a rear tyre change took longer than wanted, before Fritz headed out for his final stint, but soon there would be consternation as the German got caught up with the #74 Akeno Speed – Yamaha Superstock bike at T13 such that both ended up embedded in the air barriers. As well as Fritz having to dig his Yamaha out of said barriers, the team would also have to make repairs to the R1 and serve a penalty too.
“The podium was in touching distance, but with less than an hour to go, I went to overtake a back-marker and crashed,” explained Fritz.
“I was not even pushing that hard at the time; I was just focusing on my rhythm. I went to make the pass up the inside at Turn 13 as he left a gap, but then he moved back across the track, and we were both on the same racing line. We made contact and went down.
“The bike was damaged a lot, but the team did amazingly to repair the bike in under ten minutes. I am just sorry for the team, as we worked hard all week, and everyone deserved the podium. We were fast in every session, and it hurts to finish like this.”
It was Hanika out for the final stint on the repaired Yamaha, with the ride through still to be served, with the squad losing out on the permanent EWC race lead to the #7 Suzuki as well as losing the prospect of the overall podium.
“Obviously, I am disappointed, but I am also very proud of the whole team,” said Team Manager Mandy Kainz. “We do not have as many resources compared to our factory rivals, but we were right up there at the front all week.
“We were fast from the first day of testing, and being the only team to have all three riders in the 2:05s during qualifying showed how quick we were. During the race, the guys rode superbly, they were so consistent, and it looked like we would achieve our dream of recording our first ever podium at Suzuka. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, but this is endurance racing.”
Leaving Suzuka, YART remain third in the overall standings with 93 points, 34 points behind the leaders, but the late issue for the #7 gifted the championship leading #1 bike maximum series points and third on the overall podium. Not bad for a squad that twice changed rider line-up and qualified 22nd on the grid.
Black, as mentioned, had made a stunning start from 22nd up to contending the lead, but the Suzuki pair weren’t quite able to match the pace of their rivals in the middle section of the race even if they certainly were close enough if disaster struck.
“An incredible result to score some great points for the championship,” said Black afterwards.
Ahead of the Yoshimura SERT bike on the all-Bridgestone shod podium was the #10 Kawasaki Racing Team Suzuka 8H ZX-10R of Jonathan Rea, Alex Lowes and Leon Haslam, with a T12 slow lowside for Rea in the fourth hour seeming the only real cause for concern over the 8 hours even if the safety car placing was cause for frustration.
The #10 KRT entry had been in a battle with the #7 Yamaha with the #7 having more race pace, but greater fuel consumption, and the KRT losing out in the second safety car appearance which split the KRT from the leading team. Later, approaching the halfway mark a small lowside from Rea, while trying to pass two slower riders in his effort to trim the leaders’ margin, lost some more seconds that proved to be impossible to make up again before race end.
“It is not easy to have two goals in a single season – the WorldSBK championship and also the Suzuka 8 Hours,” said Rea. “We had huge competition here, and did our best. I feel we just came up short but we can be proud, and really proud of my team-mates and everyone else for their hard work. It is a little bit bitter sweet coming second best but I think we can fly home knowing we gave it our best shot.
“There were a few mistakes in the race, a few issues, but that is Endurance racing and we can stand on that podium and be proud of our efforts.”
Next across the line of the full season contenders, the #5 FCC TSR team with Josh Hook and Mike Di Meglio in action had fought back up the order after an early brake master cylinder change, further brakes and exhaust issues to finish in tenth overall and retain its second place in the provisional World Endurance Championship standings.
The squad, down to two riders due to the hospitalisation of Gino Rea, saw Hook make a strong start to even fight for the lead and keep in the battle come the first restart in the early running but after handing over to Di Meglio the first brake issues for the CBR1000RR-R Fireblade surfaced, meaning a long next stop for the squad as the sought to rectify.
Hook rejoined down in 19th position but was yet to face a ride-through penalty before it could work back up the order to its tenth place come the chequered flag. With 13 points accrued from the weekend, F.C.C TSR Honda France kept its second place in standings, with 104 points, 23 points behind the leading Yosimura SERT.
“It’s been a very tough couple of days for us and the whole team,” said Hook after the race. “Firstly I’d just like to say our thoughts and prayers are with Gino. The race was very, very difficult as we had too many mechanical problems and having only two riders is quite physical so we weren’t as strong as we would have liked.
“Of course, I’m not happy with today’s result, but Mike and I gave 100% and this is all we can ask for at this time.”
As well as the technical and procedural issues, Di Meglio reckoned the squad could have done with a few more horses to help their fight.
“It was a very hard race, especially because of the situation with Gino,” he said. “We lacked pace and it was quite complicated to keep up with pace because here in Suzuka it’s all about power.
“Josh made a very good start and we managed to be strong at the start, but with two times rear brake trouble and exhaust trouble and a stop and go didn’t help.”
The #88 Honda Asia-Dream Racing with SHOWA was the next of the permanent entries, with Zaqhwan Zaidi, Garry Slim and Helmi Azuman bringing their CBR1000RR-R home eleventh overall.
In 15th overall, the full-time #11 Webike SRC Kawasaki France entry was further down the order than they’d have liked, with an early visit to the pits after a drop at Degner 2 from Randy de Puniet and a later lack of fuel in the tank the primary culprits delaying their charge.
Today’s victory was Honda’s 28th Suzuka 8 Hours win and the first since 2014. It’s Takahashi’s fourth win in the event, and a first for Tetsuta Nagashima and Iker Lecuona.
“I’m simply happy!” said Nagashima of his first Suzuka 8 Hours win. “I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be involved in developing the CBR1000RR-RSP in 2021 and 2022, realize its potential, and show the world.”
For Takahashi, it was his fourth victory in the event. “I’ve always been unhappy with the 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours, so I’m glad we won today,” he said. “I’m relieved that I managed to play my part, as Nagashima developed the bike, and I had to become accustomed to it and bring out its potential, otherwise I would hold him back. This is my fourth Suzuka 8 Hours victory, and if I get another chance, I will aim for the record of five victories held by Toru Ukawa.”
“I am really, really, really happy to win my first Suzuka 8 Hours. It felt amazing when Nagashima was met by the checkered flag. Everything has gone well since the Suzuka tests, the bike developed by Honda and Nagashima was superb, and I think I managed to bring out the performance of the bike.
“I was worried when the safety car entered the track that I would lose the gap our other two riders had built up, but we got through fine.”
The FIM Endurance World Championship season finale takes place on 15-18 September with the Bol d’Or at Paul Ricard.