A glimpse into Honda’s dominance at the Suzuka 8 Hours
We shed some light on the bikes and riders from Honda, a brand that has won more Suzuka 8 Hours races than any other manufacturer till date
The Suzuka 8 Hours – one of the world’s premier motorcycling events – is a motorcycle endurance race held at the Suzuka International Racing Course, a racetrack built by Honda’s founder Soichiro Honda in 1962. As the name suggests, the race runs for eight hours straight, with two or more riders in each team alternating during pitstops.
The Suzuka 8 Hours race began in 1978, towards the end of Honda’s 11-year break from Grand Prix racing, as a race for the prototype Tourist Trophy Formula One (TT-F1) motorcycles so the big four Japanese motorcycle brands (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha), could use them on the track.
The main attraction of the Suzuka 8 Hours race is that it normally features star riders from MotoGP and World Superbike racing factions from around the world. In fact, many riders have some mandatory participation clause regarding the 8 Hours race written into their contracts when they initially acquire a factory ride with MotoGP or World Superbike. However, if the rider has notable success in their respective class during the season, they will usually negotiate to have the requirement for future 8 Hours races removed from their contract.
High-level Japanese riders, however, return for the race annually as it is regarded by the Japanese as one of the biggest motorsport events on their calendar. As the Suzuka 8 hours is part of the FIM World Endurance Racing Championship, its priority on the international calendar, along with the off-weeks in the FIM calendar, makes this race one of the most crucial on the schedule.
The winningest team yet
In the 41 years (counting till 2019, as the 2020 edition will be held on November 1) the Suzuka 8 Hours has been held, Honda has won a total of 27 times. This is significantly more than the team with the next highest tally (Yamaha) which has a total of just eight wins so far.
We now give you a greater detail on both the motorcycles as well as the riders who achieved this feat, starting with the first time a Honda was atop the podium, incidentally the second year the race was held.
In early 1979, Honda launched the CB900F. Its 901cc DOHC inline-four engine made it the perfect endurance power unit and took Honda’s new RS1000 endurance machine to a clean sweep of the Suzuka 8 Hours podium.
Two factory-backed importer teams battled for victory on CB900F-powered RS1000s: Tony Hatton and Mike Cole, riding for Honda Australia, and Ron Haslam and Alex George, riding for Honda Britain. They both finished on the same lap, breaking the race record by three laps. The podium was completed by Shinji Sumitani and Toshio Asami, also on Hondas, albeit riding CB900Fs for Blue Helmets MSC. In fact, the top eight positions on the final standings were filled by Honda bikes, a clear testament to the work of Honda’s RSC (Racing Service Centre), established to support private teams contesting endurance and TT F1 events.
After a year’s gap where Suzuki took the top spot and the Suzuka 8 Hours race was now upgraded from FIM Coupe d’Endurance to the Endurance World Championship, Honda returned with Mike Baldwin and David Aldana astride RS1000s, who went on to win the 1981 race by a clear two laps. Additionally, the fastest lap went to the RS1000 ridden by Britons Ron Haslam and Joey Dunlop, who were sidelined by a crash and engine problems.
The 1982 edition was the first 8 Hours race run in heavy rain, when a typhoon hit Suzuka. Conditions were so bad the race was stopped for safety reasons after six hours. Despite the odds, however, the Japanese riders excelled in the rain, with the RS1000s of the Blue Helmets MSC team taking a one-two, with the first place going to Shigeo Iijima and Shinji Hagiwara, just 28 seconds ahead of Hiroyuki Ito and Toshihito Yoshimura. Additionally, in 1982 the Honda RSC was transformed into and rebadged as the HRC. The next year, however, the win went once again to Suzuki.
The switch to 750cc
In 1984, the Endurance World Championship and the TT F1 series switched from 1000cc engines to 750s. In came the Honda RS750R, based on the VF750 V4 road engine, astride which American riders Mike Baldwin and Fred Merkel gave the newly minted HRC its first 8 Hours victory. In fact, Honda monopolised the podium, with the Honda France duo of Guy Bertin and Dominique Sarron coming in second with just one lap’s difference, and Honda France’s second team of Gerard Coudray and Patrick Igoa finishing a further two laps down.
Honda unleashed the legendary RVF750 in 1985, regarded as the pinnacle of EWC/TT F1 technology: a tuned VF750 engine in a chassis derived from Honda’s experience in Grand Prix racing. Along with teammate Masaki Tokuno, Wayne Gardner, who would go on to be the 500cc World Champion, secured victory for Honda by riding the final two hours. At the finish, the Australian was 1 minute 17 seconds ahead of American Honda pairing Mike Baldwin and Dominique Sarron, whose RVF750 was fitted with a single-sided swingarm for faster wheel changes.
Gardner, along with French rider Dominique Sarron took the win in 1986 as well. No one could stay with him and the new six-speed RVF750. After six hours only one other team was on the same lap as Gardner and Sarron, who eventually took the chequered flag two laps in front. The second Honda belonged to Shunji Yatsushiro and Hikaru Miyagi, who rode a Moriwaki CBX750 to a fifth-place finish.
After a two-year gap, Dominique Sarron, along with fellow Frenchman Alex Vieira dominated this race astride the Beams Honda Ikuzawa RVF750, taking pole position, setting the fastest lap and filling the top two places. However, the race wasn’t without drama. GP riders Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan were favourites aboard their Team HRC RVF. Gardner took pole, then Doohan established a new lap record, setting a super-fast pace. The Australians were way out front with three hours to go when Doohan tangled with a backmarker and crashed, putting Dominique Sarron and Alex Vieira into the lead.
The duo of Gardner and Doohan, however, were vindicated in 1991 with their first victory together. The Australians set a blistering pace, battling for the lead with the Yamahas of Kevin Magee and Doug Chandler from the Shiseido Tech 21 Racing Team. In the final stages Magee backed off in the challenging conditions, leaving Gardner and Doohan to win by three laps. Third place went to Britons Carl Fogarty and Steve Hislop on their Knorr Cup Soup RVF750.
Wayne Gardner scored his fourth and final 8 Hours victory in 1992, a few months before retiring from motorcycle racing. This time his teammate was up-and-coming Australian rider Daryl Beattie. The Australian pairing had to fight hard for this victory, under pressure from Team HRC riders Shinichi Ito and Satoshi Tsujimoto on another RVF750. During the final 30 minutes Beattie made an unscheduled pit stop, allowing Ito to close in to within a couple of seconds. However, the Japanese rider crashed out on oil dropped by another machine. Shinya Takeishi and Kenichiro Iwahashi completed the podium in third place on their Team Blue Fox RVF750, just ahead of former 500cc and 250cc World Champion Freddie Spencer and Ryuji Tsuruta on the Mister Donuts Okumura RVF750.
The switch to Superbike regulations
In 1994, the World Endurance Championship switched from TT F1 to Superbike regulations, mandating road-based chassis as well as road-based engines, which brought about yet another legendary bike, the RVF/RC45. The 1994 Suzuka 8 Hours race, then, was a classic showdown all the way to the chequered flag. American rider Doug Polen, New Zealander Aaron Slight and their Team HRC RC45 enjoyed a thrilling battle with Itoham Racing Kawasaki’s Scott Russell and Terry Rymer. In the last hour, Slight and Russell were side by side, with Slight triumphing by just 0.288 seconds. Shinichi Ito and Shinya Takeishi took third, less than a lap down on their AM/PM Honda RC45.
Aaron Slight won his second straight 8 Hours with Honda in 1995 with teammate (and 250 GP rider) Tadayuki Okada. Once again the race for victory was fierce, with the Team HRC duo holding a five-second lead at half distance, and although they had extended that to 46.8 seconds at the flag, the top four finishers all ended the race on the same lap. Meanwhile, Shinichi Ito and Satoshi Tsujimoto made up for their 1992 disappointment by finishing second on their Team HRC RC45.
Moving now to the 1997 edition (the 1996 title went to Yamaha Racing’s Colin Edwards and Noriyuki Haga), there was a typhoon this time around as well, keeping the track soaked throughout much of the race. GP riders John Kocinski and Alex Barros led the way on their Castrol Honda RC45, but lost the lead due to two unscheduled pit stops, putting Shinichi Ito and Tohru Ukawa on their Hori-Pro HART Honda RC45s into the lead. The Japanese pair rode a perfectly judged race in the treacherous conditions, beating Kocinski and Barros by 2 minutes 4 seconds, bagging the first all-Japanese victory since 1982.
Ito and Ukawa repeated the feat in 1998 as well, this time astride the famed Lucky Strike Honda RC45, defending a narrow lead over the Castrol RC45 of Sete Gibernau and Alex Barros, which finished 43 seconds behind the winners. This meant the team not only scored the first back-to-back team victory in the 22nd running of the race, but also celebrated Honda’s 50th anniversary by monopolising the podium, as Honda’s new World Superbike star Colin Edwards took third alongside Tadayuki Okada on their Castrol RVF, still on the same lap at the finish.
Then in 1999, Okada and Barros completed Honda’s second 8 Hours hat-trick, the GP pairing bettering the World Superbike duo of Castrol RC45 riders Aaron Slight and Colin Edwards by one lap. The next year, Honda had an all-new machine: the V-twin VTR1000SPW, which became the brand’s sixth different 8 Hours winner, following in the wheel tracks of the RCB1000, RS1000, RS750R, RVF750 and RC45.
The star entry in 2000 edition was Moto GP racer Valentino Rossi with teammate (and WorldSBK star) Colin Edwards on the Castrol Honda VTR1000SPW. Rossi took the lead in the first hour, but then fell. Edwards was fighting back when he too crashed after four hours, ending their race. By then Tohru Ukawa and Daijiro Kato (Team Cabin Honda) had established themselves in the lead, which they retained till the finish, beating their closest rivals by one lap.
In 2001, Rossi had learned from his first endurance race and this time he rode perfectly, once again alongside Edwards. The winning pairing had a race-long duel with the second Cabin VTR1000SPW of Tadayuki Okada and Alex Barros. The result was in doubt until the final moments, with Edwards taking the flag 14.2 seconds ahead. Additionally, the duo of Tohru Ukawa and Daijiro Kato took fourth place –missing an all-Honda podium by only ten seconds
The VTR V-twin won its third consecutive outing the next year, with Daijiro Kato and Colin Edwards, an important result in the 25th running of the event. Kato rode the final session, his first in the dark, which was complicated by a rainstorm. The reigning 250cc World Champion held his nerve to cross the line 25 seconds ahead of the second Cabin VTR of Makoto Tamada and Tadayuki Okada. Third place went to the Sakurai Honda VTR1000SPW of Alex Barros and Yuichi Takeda.
The next year, Yukio Nukumi and Manabu Kamada had a thrilling duel for victory, with the VTR1000 completing a unique achievement of an unbeaten run of four 8 Hours victories. The Japanese duo snatched the lead in the final hour when their rival ran into technical problems, completing the race one lap ahead of the runners-up and two laps ahead of Takeshi Tsujimura and Shinichi Ito, riding an inline-four FCC TSR ZIP-FM Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade.
A return to the Inline-four
Despite the less then favourable outing in 2003 with the CBR1000RRW, MotoGP rider Tohru Ukawa turned the tide to its favour, netting Honda its first victory with an inline-four machine since 1982. Additionally, this was Ukawa’s fourth success on a third different type of Honda, after earlier successes on the V4-powered RC45 (1997 and ‘98) and the V-twin-powered VTR1000 (2000).
Ukawa took the lead in the first hour and set a blazing pace with Seven Stars Honda teammate Hyasu Izutsu to ensure they were never headed. They finished one lap ahead of their closest rivals (the Yoshimura Suzuki team, who finished second), with Weider Honda Gakuen’s Toshiyuki Hamaguchi and Shogo Moriwaki taking the last podium place. That said, the CBR1000RR dominated the race, bagging eight of the final top ten places!
The next year saw another historic victory for Honda, the company’s 20th 8 Hours success, a record fifth win for Ukawa, and CBR1000RR Fireblades locking out the top six finishing positions. Seven Stars Honda’s Ryuichi Kiyonari and Tohru Ukawa were the dominant force, winning by a huge margin of three laps, with Chris Vermeulen and Katsuaki Fujiwara (running the other Seven Stars Honda CBR1000RRW) completing an impressive one-two from a further lap down.
2006 witnessed Honda’s tenth consecutive 8 Hours victory and another one-two for the Fireblade, with Takeshi Tsujimura and Shinichi Ito (FCC TSR ZIP-FM Honda) leading the first hour, then slipping behind the Toy Story RT Run’A & HARC-PRO CBR1000RR of Yoshiteru Konishi and Takashi Yasuda. Past half-distance, however, Tsujimura and Ito retook the lead and maintained their advantage to the flag. There were seven CBR1000RR machines in the top nine.
Suzuki broke Honda’s dominance in 2007, however Honda was back ahead in 2008, with Honda 500 GP and World Superbike winner Carlos Checa and teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari claiming the top spot on the podium (2008 was also the Japanese racer’s second victory in four years). Kiyonari was able to break ahead on the second lap, but lost the lead to 2006 winner Shinichi Ito. However, Ito soon crashed out, while a rain shower wiped out a few more racers. This meant Kiyonari and Checa regained the advantage and drove it all the way to the finish. Also, future Honda MotoGP winner Cal Crutchlow finished in sixth place with teammate Tatsua Yamaguchi, astride a Moriwaki Motul CBR1000RR.
Suzuki won the 2009 edition, but Honda were back again in 2010, with Ryuichi Kiyonari, Takumi Takahashi and Takaaki Nakagami astride the Musashi RT HARC-PRO Honda CBR1000RR setting an unbeatable pace, giving Kiyonari his third 8 Hours victory. The trio (the rules were changed in 2009 to include three riders per team) finished the race with a clear one-lap lead over Keihin Kohara Honda’s Shinichi Ito and Makoto Tamada, with Kosuke Akiyoshi, Jonathan Rea and Yuki Takahashi (F.C.C. TSR Honda) taking third place after climbing up from 42nd place.
For 2011 Kousuke Akiyoshi/Shinichi Ito/Ryuichi Kiyonari (F.C.C. TSR Honda) scored a hard-fought win, after a crash in the early stages, to reach the finish 38 seconds in front of the Yoshimura Suzuki team. The result gave Ito and Kiyonari their fourth 8 Hours victory, equalling Wayne Gardner’s tally and just one short of Tohru Ukawa’s record five successes. This victory was particularly meaningful for Ito, as it was his final season. The podium was rounded off by youngster Takumi Takahashi and veteran teammates Makoto Tamada and Tadayuki Okada, who also finished on the same lap as the winners.
The next year, Johnathan Rea, Kousuke Akiyoshi and Tadayuki Okada helped Honda score its 25th Suzuka 8 Hours victory in the 35th running of the event, finishing an impressive four laps ahead of second-placed Tatsuya Yamaguchi, Yuki Takahashi and Yusuke Teshima (Toho Racing –Moriwaki). And that wasn’t all, as it was the first Suzuka 8 Hours victory for Brit racer Rea, and the third win for both former All-Japan Superbike champion Akiyoshi as well as for veteran Okada, who had scored his first win way back in 1995, astride the RVF750.
After a bi-national winning team in 2012, Takumi Takahashi (Japan), Leon Haslam (the UK) and Michael van der Mark (The Netherlands) scored the first tri-national victory for Musashi RT HARC-PRO Honda. The team held a narrow seven-second lead over their closest rivals, the Yoshimura Suzuki team, at the start of the final hour. Former All-Japan 250cc champion Takahashi took the rain-stricken last session, and ensured a lead of 1 minute 51 seconds at the flag.
And that wasn’t all, as the tri-national team repeated the feat in 2014 as well, giving the CBR1000RR its fifth successive 8 Hours victory despite a storm, numerous crashes across the grid and multiple Safety Car deployments. The FCC TSR Honda team of Kohsuke Akiyoshi, Jonathan Rea and Lorenzo Zanetti were the unluckiest, when Akiyoshi crashed out after four hours, losing a one-lap lead, and managing to finish in the 40th position overall.
The years 2014, 15, 16 and 17 went to Yamaha, while Kawasaki bagged the win last year. However, with the release of the all-new CBR1000RR-R Fireblade, with a new engine engine more heavily based on the RC213V MotoGP bike, Honda could very well be adding to its tally of 27 Suzuka 8 Hour victories, come November. Whichever way the balance tilts, we’re sure we’ll be in for a stunner of a show, especially considering the greater dose of excitement afforded by motorsport post the reopening of the worldwide lockdown.