Nakasuga Wraps Up Final Test in the 2'06s as
Yamaha Teams Work Through Issues and Prepare for Main Event
A combined test was held for both motorcycle manufacturers and tire manufacturers on July 13th and 14th in preparation for the “Coca Cola Zero” Suzuka 8 Hour event. The Yamaha riders taking part were Katsuyuki Nakasuga and Alex Lowes of the Yamaha Factory Racing Team, Takuya Fujita and Kohta Nozane of the YART Yamaha Official EWC Team and David Checa and Niccolò Canepa of the GMT94 Yamaha Official EWC Team.
Pol Espargaró tested this year’s Suzuka 8 Hour-spec YZF-R1 with his teammates at Yamaha’s private test on June 29th and 30th, but he wasn’t able to join this week’s test due to a scheduling conflict with his full-time MotoGP commitment. Testing duties were then left to Nakasuga and Lowes, who diligently put the bike through its paces around the Suzuka Circuit.
Speaking about the bike, Nakasuga described this machine as “an extension of the R1 we use in the All Japan JSB1000 Championship.” Team Manager Wataru Yoshikawa talked about how the team has “improved the reliability of each and every part and increased the overall performance precision of the bike.”
Rainy conditions unfortunately greeted the teams and riders for the first 60-minute session of Day 1, which got under way at 9:00 in the morning. Nevertheless, Nakasuga and Lowes headed out and concentrated on testing the bike around Suzuka in the wet. The second session at 11:00 a.m. did not see conditions improve, but by the third session at 2:00 p.m. the track had begun to dry and continued to do so throughout the 60 minutes, allowing the two riders to begin pushing for fast laps. Nakasuga set a 2’07.947 to stand atop the combined timesheets for the day, while Lowes put in a 2’08.749 to place himself 3rd overall.
Meanwhile, Broc Parkes had to rule out coming to Japan for the test after suffering an injury in a British Superbike race, so his two teammates Fujita and Nozane carried out testing duties in his stead. Parkes had set a 2’08 time on qualifying tires in the previous week’s test, which gave Fujita and Nozane a clear target to aim for. However, the two continued to have a difficult time adjusting to riding with Pirelli tires that they lack experience on. In order to get used to the Pirelli-shod R1, the thing they needed most was dry track time. So, with two of the day’s three sessions wet, conditions were less than ideal and certainly not what they had hoped for. The third session finally allowed them to start working towards their goal, but it wasn’t enough for them to finish the test any faster than with times in the 2’11 range. The expressions on their faces said it all, as the frustration of not being able to set the lap times they were aiming for began to show.
The GMT94 Yamaha Official EWC Team came into the test fresh from a win at the 12 Hours of Portimão, which had bumped their overall ranking in the Endurance World Championship up to 5th. For the team, this test would be their first and only chance to prepare for the main event. As Lucas Mahias was unable to participate, Checa and Canepa undertook the task of setting the bike up for the race. It was unfortunate that their first time back at Suzuka after a year’s absence saw the first two sessions essentially lost to rain. But in the third and final dry session, the pair set times in the 2’12s to finish out the day.
The schedule for the tire manufacturers’ test on the following day, July 14th, had two 90-minute test sessions starting at 9:00 a.m. and at 2:00 p.m. Although rain clouds were periodically seen overhead during the day, the rain didn’t materialize to adversely affect track conditions during the test sessions, which meant track conditions were dry for most of the day.
It was as if Nakasuga and Lowes had finally been given a green light after waiting impatiently. The two immediately upped their pace and started to chip away at their lap times. For Team Manager Wataru Yoshikawa, the wet testing time had been important, but not completely vital because, “If we have a solid machine setup for the dry, it isn’t very hard to tweak it to work in the wet.” In the first session, Lowes impressed with a 2’07.594 lap time to take the top spot. Nakasuga was 2nd on the timesheets as he set a 2’07.796.
In the second session, Nakasuga rocketed around the circuit and crossed the line with a 2’06.960, which ended up being the fastest time set over the two days of tests. Lowes was also quick, shaving his time down to a 2’07.343 to be second fastest overall. Thanks to the cooperative weather conditions, the team was also able to run a long-distance race simulation with a time attack included. With times in the 2’06s and 2’07s, the tests demonstrated that the machine, riders and team are in good shape for the race. On the final timesheets, the overall 3rd fastest time was a 2’08.377, revealing a gap that highlighted just how fast the two riders’ lap times were.
Since the tire manufacturer’s test was organized by Bridgestone and Dunlop, the Pirelli-sporting YART Yamaha Official EWC Team was forced to take part in a separate “general track day” session. Because 600cc machines were also on track with the 1,000cc R1, it was difficult for the riders to get in a totally clear lap. Fujita and Nozane weren’t able to better their times to the extent they had wanted to. Their final session on track was cut short by a sudden burst of rain, effectively ending their test early. They will head into the race weekend with issues left to work out.
The GMT94 Yamaha Team’s Checa and Canepa were able to set times in the 2’10s and 2’11s before the end of the day. Suzuka Circuit is known throughout the motorsports world as a uniquely difficult track to master. Its long 5.821 km overall length and wide variety of corner types contribute to its difficulty. However, that also gives it a special place in the hearts of teams and riders alike. For Canepa, his first outing on the circuit proved to present a steep learning curve, but with each session he improved his times and left the team with a positive outlook going into the race.
Yamaha Factory Racing Team
“Pol had a race this week so he couldn’t make it to the tests this time, but since we rode together and won last year I have absolutely no doubts about his readiness. Lowes joins our team this year, and he’s already proven to be a really fast rider. We competed against him in last year’s 8 Hours as he was riding for a rival team, and even then I’d already taken notice of his quick, stable riding style on track. At this test I feel like he’s gotten even faster. We have been given an important task this year: take back-to-back wins. But we have an excellent group of riders and two years’ worth of data since the introduction of the new R1, so everyone is counting on us. I think we have really strong potential this year. Our team is on top of their game as well. I know they’ll be ready to deal with any accidents or trouble out on track as quickly as possible. The three of us riders, alongside our team, will fight to achieve our goal of another win this year.”
“I feel really comfortable on the bike, so my motivation is high and I’m really enjoying being out there riding. I couldn’t beat Nakasuga-san’s time in the last session, but for me the goal wasn’t to get the fastest lap time. I was more focused on being able to do fast, consistent laps, which I did. So I’m quite satisfied. But right after I put fresh tires on and headed back out in the last session, I got caught up with some slower riders. If that hadn’t happened I could have probably been closer to Nakasuga-san’s time. Our team really is one of the best. Nakasuga-san and Pol are great riders and our mechanics and staff are outstanding. I feel great on the bike too. So for me this was a perfect test. All that’s left now is to concentrate hard and ride as best we can in the race.”
Team Manager Wataru Yoshikawa
“We had a few days with unstable weather, but we still got through our main testing work without any issues. We won the race last year, but afterward when we went back and analyzed the data, there were a few things we weren’t totally satisfied with. So our machine prep for this year focused on correcting those areas. We made every part on the bike more durable and precise, and through a lot of very small changes we’ve upped the overall level of our machine. I’d heard that our new rider, Alex Lowes, had been injured before his first Suzuka 8 Hours test with us. I was a little worried about that, but over the course of testing, it’s been obvious that he’s very fit. He’s been able to gradually improve his lap times, to the point where he’s now quite fast, so I’m relieved. With these three riders, if I told them to go out there and ride as fast as they want, they could probably hit the low 2’06s or even 2’05s. But this is an endurance race, so we’ve got to keep that in mind and keep the riders’ raw speed in check on the team side of things. That being said though, they know their roles and what’s expected of them for the race, so there’s nothing to worry about there. As a Yamaha factory team, our primary goal is of course to take another win this year, but we will also be aiming to set a new record for number of laps completed. We plan to keep improving and preparing with these goals in mind right up until the lights go out on race day.”
YART Yamaha Official EWC Team
“I set a 2’11 on the first day, and that’s been my fastest lap so far. My tire had just started to degrade a bit on that lap, so I think I’m making progress in the right direction. Really though, I’d have liked more dry time to test out the Pirelli tires. Broc [Parkes] was injured so he couldn’t be here for the test, but the team got in contact with him and he gave us some tips on how to ride the Pirellis. But even with that I still haven’t mastered it. One positive for the test is that I’ve made it all the way through without crashing. This isn’t an individual event. If I crash the bike that affects my teammates, so I can’t afford to do that. Now we’ve got to focus on our race weekend preparation. I’ll work together with Broc and Kohta [Nozane] to form a strong team and get the best out of our machine.”
“On the second day of testing we rode in the “track day” group. I put on fresh tires for our final session and it looked like I was set for a quick lap, but just then there was a mechanical issue with my machine. Both in this test and the July 3rd and 4th tests, I just couldn’t deal with the tires well. I tried a lot of different approaches, but even now I’m still not able to get the most out of them. No matter what I do, I can’t get the speed I need when I accelerate out of the corner. That’s my main issue. This was our last test, so the next time out will be the practice sessions leading up to the main event. I’ll have to utilize those to the maximum to somehow find a way to ride this bike faster and be in good shape for the race.”
Team Manager Mandy Kainz
“Both [Takuya] Fujita and [Kohta] Nozane are working really hard, but it seems like they just need to get used to the tires a bit more. Broc [Parkes] couldn’t be here, but that doesn’t mean we’ve had an unproductive test. Our main objective for this test was to fine-tune our two young riders and have them understand the tires a bit better, which they’re doing. I believe that they’ll give us strong performances in the main event on Sunday. As for Broc’s injury, there’s still a lot of time for him to recover before the race, so I’m not worried at all. Our goal is to finish in the top 10 in the race. We’re hoping that Fujita and Nozane are able to learn a lot through this year’s 8 Hours. That knowledge will definitely put them in position to be standing on the podium in various racing series in the near future. Nakasuga stood on the top step of the podium here last year and he’s doing really well now on the racing scene. But it took him a long time to get to where he is, and he had to learn a lot along the way.”
GMT94 Yamaha Official EWC Team
“We tried some different settings with the engine and electronics to get ready for the race. We decided exactly which engine specification we’d like to use, and we’re planning to use the electronic mapping we settled on during the tests here. One thing we weren’t able to decide though was our tire choice. But that means we’ll be able to focus solely on tires during the buildup to the race. For the tires, we used the same compound during yesterday’s sessions that we’d used in Europe. Today we switched to the Japan-spec compound and our lap times dropped by two seconds. But, we’re still slower than we were last year. We all worked together to figure out the reason for that, but in the end we still couldn’t solve the problem. My teammate Niccolò [Canepa] normally runs a pace on par with Alex Lowes in World Superbike, so for him not to be able to set a fast time is less a matter of him being new to Suzuka and more a matter of our machine not quite being there yet. Of course, I’m still not totally satisfied with my own performance either. I think we still need to shave more than a second off our time before the race. Our team is trying to win the Endurance World Championship, so finishing even one position higher in the rankings is vital for us. We’re shooting for the podium. But with things as they are right now, to be in 5th or 6th overall will probably be the best we can do. We had a no-point finish in our first race of the season, so we really need to bounce back here in Suzuka. I know it won’t be easy, but our whole team will be giving it our best effort.”
“I’ve ridden at a lot of circuits before, but Suzuka has got to rank up there as one of the best. It’s got fast corners, slow corners, that chicane... The wide variety makes it tough, but I found it to be really beautiful. Also, I grew up watching the Suzuka 8 Hours as a kid, so to ride here was a dream of mine and I’m really happy to finally be able to fulfill it. Though it was my first time riding here, I picked up a lot of information that will help me in the race. But there’s still one big thing I need to improve, and that’s my feeling with the tires. We’re still struggling with that, and its keeping us from being as fast as our rivals. Four days ago I rode with Alex Lowes at Laguna Seca and set identical lap times, so to be four seconds behind here comes down to our feeling with the tires I think. But I’m not worried. We don’t have the best times right now, but that’s not all there is to an endurance race, where all kinds of surprises can pop up. Both of my teammates are fast, and they’re good at the most important factor in endurance racing: teamwork. They can also set consistent, quick lap times. I want to finish on the podium both for our championship standing and for Yamaha.”
Team Manager Christophe Guyot
“First of all I’m really disappointed that Mahias wasn’t here for the test, but I’m not too worried about it. He’s contesting the FIM Superstock 1000 Championship right now and though he’s never been to some of the tracks, he’s still managing to win. Our test went fine. Thanks to the Yamaha engineers we got a good handle on the electronics and made a big step forward between Day 1 and Day 2, but we still aren’t quite where we need to be. That’s mainly because we still have issues with our fuel consumption and the tires. I think the tire situation has been mostly resolved though, because we were able to try out a Japan-spec front tire made for Suzuka that was really good. All we need to do now is chase down faster times. The race weekend is almost upon us. I know it’s extremely difficult to finish high up the order at the 8 Hours, but we can’t rule anything out, even a race win. Everyone on the team is working together to find the best direction to take, and our machine and riders are fast, so I think we’re in good shape. When it comes down to it, this race is crucial both for our championship and for Yamaha. We’ll fight hard to achieve a great result.”