The Thrilling Comeback Win of 1987
Yamaha took its first victory as a full factory team in its third year at the 1987 Suzuka 8 Hours, as the #21 Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team’s pair of Martin Wimmer and Kevin Magee staged a stunning comeback win in the latter stages of the race. But Tadahiko Taira, the man whose name was synonymous with “TECH21” since the team’s beginnings, was once again nowhere to be seen on the podium. An unfortunate injury had prevented him from riding and he instead served as team manager.
In 1987, Taira had moved up from the 250cc World Championship to the series’ premier 500cc class and was not racing in Japan. He wasn’t even at the Suzuka 200 km Endurance Race held in early June as Round 6 of the All Japan Road Race Championship—essentially, the “warm-up” round for the 8 Hours in July. But there were a few topics that had race fans talking.
Yamaha had brought a factory YZF750 with a single-sided swingarm for the 200 km race and had Kevin Magee in the saddle. The Australian started from pole position and rode hard in the 34-lap semi-endurance-style race—complete with pit and fuel stops—to open up big gap on the trailing riders. He took the win a whopping 38 seconds clear of the 2nd-place finisher, making a strong statement of Yamaha’s intention to win the 8 Hours.
Yamaha looked to be in tip-top shape for the iconic race, but one week before race day, the news came in that Taira been injured at the French GP. He tried to ride in some practice sessions on the Thursday preceding the race to test his fitness, but he felt that his neck would not be able to withstand the wind and made the tough decision to withdraw, instead opting to stay in the pits as team manager. To fill in for him on extremely short notice, Martin Wimmer—Taira’s former teammate in 250cc GPs with Marlboro Yamaha Team Agostini—was called and the German rider was entered in to ride with Magee.
The duo qualified well and started from 4th on the grid. The leading pair of Wayne Gardner and Dominique Sarron—the previous year’s winners—on the Honda later crashed out of the race, relinquishing the lead to Suzuki’s Garry Goodfellow and Katsuro Takayoshi. The #21 Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team now had to catch them. The heat generated from Magee’s strong braking actually ended up seizing the calipers, causing the pads to stick to the discs and adding valuable seconds to the tyre changes, but the team refused to give up. As the sun began to set, the team decided on a risky strategy: based on the gap to the leaders, instead of Wimmer swapping in, Magee would stay on the bike for consecutive stints without changing the tyres.
With 45 minutes remaining, the gap to the front was some 20 seconds. Magee was lapping around 0.5 to 1 second faster than the leaders, but the amount of time left on the clock made it unclear whether or not it would be enough. At the 10-minute mark, the gap had narrowed to just 10 seconds or so and despite having comfortably been in the lead for so long, the Suzuki pit board wasn’t calling for consistency, but telling Takayoshi to up his pace. Then, with a mere five minutes left, Takayoshi fell on lap 198 while trying to manoeuvre around a backmarker. Magee got passed the crash unscathed and went on to take the chequered flag, giving Yamaha its first-ever 8 Hours victory in a shocking turnaround in the final five minutes.
Though the team and Yamaha fans in the stands went wild for the win, the biggest cheers and applause of the day was for Takayoshi for his never-give-up spirit when he crossed the line in 2nd after re-mounting. But while the TECH21 team clinched its first win at Suzuka with Taira as team manager, not seeing him race and stand on the podium as a rider left many Japanese fans feeling something was missing. If anything, this made them want to see Taira finally hoist up the Suzuka winner’s trophy himself that much more.