Solid and Steady Progress Is Key to Sealing a Fourth Consecutive Win
Although the end of June is typically right in the middle of Japan's rainy season, the weather at Suzuka Circuit was anything but. The World Superbike round at Laguna Seca had wrapped up only two days prior, but Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark had already crossed the Pacific and were in the paddock at the iconic racetrack.
Despite the travel fatigue, Lowes was pleased to be there: "I'm very happy to be back here at Suzuka and I'm proud to have been asked to be a part of the Yamaha Factory Racing Team again at the 8 Hours this year." Van der Mark was of the same mind: "Yeah, to be able to ride again with Nakasuga-san and all the same guys from the team is really exciting and I'm looking forward to it." Japanese racing legend Nakasuga was similarly upbeat: "I'm thankful to Alex and Michael for rushing over to join us again. Having them as teammates gives me a lot of confidence and meeting up with them here again makes me realise how close the 8 Hours is now." The three Suzuka winners already had their minds set on the battle to come in the midsummer heat.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Yamaha's YZF-R1 superbike, and this year's Suzuka 8 Hours machines are adorned in special commemorative red and white livery, an homage to the first-generation R1's colour scheme. "I thought last year's blue colour scheme looked really good and I liked it," said Lowes. "But this year's special colours are great. I'm happy to be one of the riders on the team for the anniversary, and if we could win on this machine again this year I think it would be really special." Van der Mark shared his teammate's view: "The colours are really bright and the bike looks nice. I want to see these special colours on the top step of the podium this year." Nakasuga, however, was enthusiastic but a bit more reserved: "It's the R1's 20th anniversary and we're trying for our fourth win in a row, but I don't want to get too caught up in thinking about that. It's more important to do what we need to do, step by step. If that results in us taking a fourth win in the R1's 20th year, it'd be amazing."
Though they would only ride in the afternoon session on that first day of testing, both Lowes and van der Mark put in lap after lap. The two had stepped off their steeds at Laguna Seca and without a moment's rest came straight to Japan, arriving at Haneda's Tokyo International Airport at around 5:00 a.m. From there they boarded a bullet train and transferred to a car before finally arriving at the circuit. Few could fault them for being extremely fatigued and jet-lagged after their non-stop journey across the Pacific.
But Lowes saw things as rather straightforward: "Sure, there's a bit of jet lag, but that just means there's no time to waste. We know why we're here and what we need to do; the trip over is just part of that. We may have won last year with the same guys, but that doesn't mean we're guaranteed to win again. The other teams are going to be even stronger this year, which means we have to put in the work to make sure we're even better prepared. We don't have that many chances where the three of us are together to ride and test, so we can't afford to waste any time at all."
Van der Mark had some words about the #21 factory R1's setup: "The R1s we ride in World Superbikes and the bike Nakasuga-san rides in JSB are all set up for us just the way we like them. But in the 8 Hours, the three of us have to share one bike so we need a setup that works for all of us. That's why we don't want to waste time and why I'm thankful to the team for this testing opportunity."
Adding to his teammates thoughts, Nakasuga shared what he attributes to every JSB1000 win he gets and feels applies to the 8 Hours as well: "The real key is how much preparation we're able to put in before the race weekend."
Team Manager Wataru Yoshikawa, who also serves as the team manager for Yamaha's factory team in JSB1000, made some observations about his star rider: "Don't you think Nakasuga looks a bit different this year? I usually see him almost every week for JSB1000 races, pre-race testing, YZR-M1 development tests and other events, but during the off-season, there was about a month and a half that I didn't see him at all. But what surprised me when we got back together after that was his facial expression. He was in great physical shape as always, so that he'd be ready whenever the season started. But this time his facial expression was completely different. He then made several suggestions about various things to try with the R1. I think he was very frustrated about not winning the JSB1000 title last season, and my guess is that he spent most of the off-season thinking about racing. And when he got back on the R1, his riding style looked a little different to me so I asked him if he'd changed anything, but he said he hadn't. This is just my guess, but I think he'd already implemented the things he'd been going over in his head during the off-season, without even thinking about it. He's already won the JSB1000 title numerous times and has had great success in the 8 Hours, but he's still evolving as a racer. I think that's really amazing and as a team manager, it's very reassuring."
Yoshikawa then reflected on the team's form for this year's 8 Hours: "As you can see from his results in JSB1000 this season, Nakasuga is in top form. And with their wins in World Superbikes, Alex and Michael are also performing better than ever. So if I let them ride as fast as they want to, I think their lap times could be unbelievably quick, to the point that it makes me nervous! So I think I'll have to rein them in and remind them that this is an endurance race, not a sprint race. The more important thing is the team's average pace."
Yoshikawa's fears were quickly allayed by Lowes.
Last year's Suzuka 8 Hours was somewhat unpredictable, with rain falling during the race and the safety car coming on track for several laps. In the midst of this, Lowes set the 8 Hours race lap record during his second stint with a 2'06.932.
"My time from last year is the lap record? Well, I'm happy to have it, but to be honest I don't think the lap record is that important in the 8 Hours. It's more about how steadily you can run quick laps and that's what I had in mind while I was out on my stints last year. To get the lap record while doing that is definitely nice, but it's not something you really try for as you're riding." To that Nakasuga responded, "Of course, records are great and Alex's time from last year was set while he was simply carrying out our team's plan, so it's even more impressive. But honestly, our top priority this year is just like last year and that's to win. All records mean much less if you don't win in the process."
Let's wind back the clock to July 31, 2016 at around 6:30 p.m. With about one hour left until the checkered flag, the Yamaha Factory Racing Team's pit garage was a flurry of activity just before their final pit stop. A voice bellowed out and echoed through the garage: "We're not going for 19! 18 is enough! 18!" This was the moment the team decided to forgo trying to tie the record with 219 laps, opting instead for a safe 218 to secure the win.
When the YZF-R1 had made its way back down the pit lane and stopped at the team's garage, the mechanics spent a bit more time than usual, giving the bike a thorough check before sending Alex Lowes out for the final stint. Knowing that he only needed to complete 218 laps, he was able to guide the machine across the finish line with steady riding instead of trying to push for the record.
"For sure, doing 219 laps was possible," recalled Yoshikawa. "But it was already dark and to ask the riders to push harder to take a record also means taking huge risks. We're the factory team so of course we want to go for records, but the win comes first. And that's why on the final pit stop, the team took extra care like inspecting the machine and cleaning off the windscreen." For Yamaha, the 2017 Suzuka 8 Hours was not about securing records, but about securing victory. For fans of the 8 Hours however, records are still very much a tantalising part of the event. Yamaha has taken back-to-back wins at the 8 Hours before, but last year's hat-trick was a first, and a fourth consecutive win this year would eclipse that record. A win would also mean the fourth in a row for Nakasuga himself, which would make him the first rider in history to ever achieve the feat. Another victory would also make van der Mark and Nakasuga tied for 2nd in career wins at the 8 Hours. All would be fitting achievements to mark the YZF-R1's 20th anniversary.
Nakasuga makes his stance clear: "There are a lot of records on the line this year, so even if I do my best to shut out all the talk, I still end up hearing about them. But for me, I just want to do anything I can to not get caught up in thinking about it. For us as riders, we only need to go out there and carry out the job the team has set out for us to do. I think that's the only real path to victory."
But as soon as he says this, van der Mark grins and quickly chimes in: "But see, the all-time win record for a rider at the 8 Hours is five, so winning number four this year would put us in good shape to tie it next year!" Nakasuga can't help but crack a wry smile. "It's always like this with us. I don't think there's another team at the 8 Hours with this kind of upbeat atmosphere. Of course, our individual on-track potential is really high and our teamwork with the staff and mechanics is amazing, so I think that's another reason why the Yamaha Factory Racing Team is so strong."
Following the two-day test, Lowes and van der Mark returned to the World Superbike paddock. Team Manager Yoshikawa saw it as a productive test overall, but went on to recount the difficulties inherent in taking on the 8 Hours.
"The 8 Hours is technically one event on the EWC calendar, but for us it's like an entirely independent race so it feels like a new undertaking every year. Our rivals have line-ups and machines with much stronger potential than before, so although we've won three in a row, if you asked me if that gives us an advantage this year, I'd say 'No.' Like all the other teams out there, we're just another challenger for the win and that's precisely why it's vital that we prepare as much as possible. Our target is to do more than 219 laps, but at the 8 Hours there's always the possibility of changes in the weather, accidents, machine trouble and other issues. The key to victory is how well and how quickly we can adapt to and address any issues that may appear, so the target number of laps is only on paper. We want to do a great race to give Yamaha fans and 8 Hours fans something to cheer about, so we'll hone our teamwork even further and aim for a result that befits the R1's 20th anniversary."
The records that will accompany another Yamaha victory must be forgotten for now. Only after winning this year's 8 Hours can they be fully celebrated and written into history.