Sorrow Again for the TECH21 Team with Another DNF in 1986
In 1985, Kenny Roberts and Tadahiko Taira were the dream team duo for the Yamaha TECH21 Team, Yamaha’s first full factory entry for the Suzuka 8 Hours. With victory in sight and just 30 minutes left on the clock, tragedy struck and left the team unable to make it to the chequered flag. The following year, Yamaha was back at Suzuka as the Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team, this time with Taira pairing up with French racing star Christian Sarron for a second challenge. But the team’s run of bad luck wasn’t over yet...
In 1985, Taira sealed his third successive All Japan 500cc Championship title and cemented his reputation as the fastest rider in Japan. The next year, he began his long-awaited full-season campaign in the 250cc World Championship, qualifying an impressive 2nd on the grid in his GP debut at the opening round in Spain and sending expectations soaring for the race. However, shortly after the start, he was hit from behind by another rider, breaking his left leg in the process—Lady Luck did not smile upon Taira’s first Grand Prix race either. To somehow cut off his string of bad luck and to make up for 1985’s shocking disappointment, Taira came back to Japan for the 8 Hours, much to the delight of his fans.
His teammate for the race would be 1984 250cc World Champion Christian Sarron. In his title-winning season, he raced a production TZ250 machine for Sonauto Yamaha—Yamaha’s subsidiary in France—in a light-blue race livery loved by countless fans. The Frenchman began racing in the premier 500cc class in 1985 and had finished the season 3rd overall. While contesting his second year in the class in 1986, he came to race at Suzuka for the first time.
Yamaha’s factory bike for the 8 Hours had changed from the FZR750 to the YZF750, and while two Yamaha machines had lined up for the race in 1985, that was increased to three for 1986. The Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team was joined on the grid by Team Lucky Strike Roberts, fielding the American duo of Kenny Roberts—making his second Suzuka appearance—and Mike Baldwin, and Team Racing Sports with Shoji Hiratsuka and Toshinobu Shiomori. Wayne Gardner, who won the previous year, and Dominique Sarron—Christian’s younger brother—started from pole position on their Honda and stayed in the lead, opening a gap while being chased by the Shiseido TECH21 Team and Team Lucky Strike Roberts.
The TECH21 team’s handicap was the difference in how Taira and Sarron preferred to shift gears on the bike. Taira used a ‘race-shift’ or ‘GP-shift’ pattern where the rider pushes the gearshift pedal down to shift up, while Sarron preferred a conventional shift pattern like road-going motorcycles, where the rider pulls the pedal upward to shift up. This meant that every time Sarron or Taira came in after a stint, spectators could see the rather atypical scene of the team quickly changing the shifter. This didn’t slow the pair down too much however, and they ticked off consistent laps to chase down the leaders. But just past four hours into the race while running in 3rd, the engine started having trouble and the team had to retire from the race just like they did the year before. It was an all-too-soon and frustrating end to an otherwise strong showing. As Taira had to travel back to Europe the next day to make it in time for the next GP in Belgium, he ending up leaving Suzuka Circuit before the race had even finished.
Following that, a fall by Baldwin ended the race for Team Lucky Strike Roberts while Hiratsuka and Shiomori fought hard to take 4th by the chequered flag. The highest-finishing Yamaha that year was a production FZ750 running with racing kit parts ridden by Michael Dawson and Kevin Magee on the Marlboro Yamaha Dealer Team. The Australian pair took to the podium with 2nd, finishing just two laps behind winners Gardner and Sarron. For Yamaha, the FZ on the Suzuka 8 Hours podium marked a first for a five-valved Yamaha machine and was cause for celebration, but fans were unable to hide their disappointment in the factory TECH21 team’s race coming to an end just past the halfway point that year.