Equal Parts Glory and Gloom
The #21 Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team’s fourth year of Suzuka 8 Hours competition brought a fourth different factory machine, counting from the FZR750 (0W74) Kenny Roberts and Tadahiko Taira rode in 1985. At the same time, the Suzuka 8 Hours was transforming into a springboard for racers hoping to move to the Road Racing World Championship or as an opportunity for those hoping to further their careers at the world level. Wayne Gardner became the 1987 500cc World Champion with back-to-back Suzuka wins to his name and Kevin Schwantz began racing at Suzuka as he made his way to GP stardom. In a similar fashion, Wayne Rainey, who was racing in the premier class for Team Lucky Strike Roberts, paired up with 1987 Suzuka winner Kevin Magee for the race in 1988, and won the prestigious event before going on to take his first GP victory at Donington Park the following weekend. Rainey later became a legend with a streak of three premier-class titles (1990–1992), etching his name into the annals of road racing history.
But in 1988, the #21 Shiseido TECH21 Racing Team also had a future legend on the squad. Joining Taira was Australian Mick Doohan, who would later win five consecutive 500cc world titles. While he joined Honda in 1989 to compete in GPs full-time, he rode a Yamaha in 1987 at Sugo for the Japan round of the TT Formula One World Championship, where he podiumed with 3rd. He was already a rider clearly on the rise.
“He wasn’t really worried about the setup. Whether the bike was sliding or not, he would just go out and ride it.” This was how Taira later described him, and Doohan did not disappoint, showing the speed fans were expecting by clocking a faster time than the Japanese rider in qualifying.
Yamaha brought three factory machines to the race. In addition to Taira and Doohan on the #21 bike, Magee—now with a GP win in Spain on his resume—was back to try and win again and was paired with Rainey, his teammate at Team Lucky Strike Roberts. In essence, they were a GP team racing at the Suzuka 8 Hours on their factory #3 YZF750. The third Yamaha in the field was the Y.R.T.R. team pairing of Michael Dawson and Kunio Machii on the #6 bike.
The start and early stages of the race became a battle among the GP riders, with Rainey on the Yamaha, Gardner on the Honda and Schwantz on the Suzuki. After the first stint was over and the second riders were out on track, the race developed into a duel for the lead between the two YZF750s of Magee and Dawson. However, Dawson had an unfortunate crash and though the Australian remounted to continue the race, the team was no longer in contention for the win and eventually finished 8th. Meanwhile, the GP duo of Magee and Rainey maintained a fast pace and clicked off laps unopposed at the front until the chequered flag, topping the previous year’s record with 202 laps and taking Yamaha’s first-ever consecutive Suzuka victory.
The TECH21 team could not quite match the pace of Rainey and Magee, but were nevertheless in the running for a podium finish...until bad luck struck once again. While in 3rd with just 10 minutes left and 197 laps complete, Taira’s YZF750 came to a stop just before the S Curves. It was Taira’s fourth attempt at the 8 Hours in as many years and his third try as a rider, but he was once again unable to take the chequered flag. Yamaha’s second straight victory was praised as an awesome display of besting all rivals for the win, but for TECH21 fans, the post-race fireworks were vexing reminders of another disappointing year.