Suzuka Sunday: How strategy plays out over 8 Hours
Following last year’s Suzuka 8 Hours-which saw Kawsaki, Yamaha and Honda battling it out at the front throughout-we took a look at the strategy that each factory employed to try and win one of the closest races in the history of the great Japanese race.
Eight hours, three teams, one (eventual) winner. This year’s Suzuka 8-Hours had it all, but it also showed again that the differences between Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Honda are such that each has to approach the race in different ways.
Yamaha had the best pace on track, Honda were the quickest in the pits while Kawasaki, the eventual winners, were a balance between the two with the pace of Jonathan Rea and the consistency of Leon Haslam allied to a fast crew. By almost any measure, Rea was the fastest rider on track on Sunday. It wasn’t by much, but the four-times WorldSBK champion had an an edge. He needed it because Haslam, feeling unwell, was no match for Yamaha. Rea needed two or three tenths in hand. In the final hour, he was told by his Kawasaki Racing Team that “you can go full gas now. It’s a 25 lap stint so fuel isn’t an issue.” Almost immediately he broke the lap record, as the only rider inside the 2:06’s. It was hugely impressive.
That 25-lap duration was crucial for the race because Kawasaki had struggled on fuel economy throughout the race. They were able to hit their markers, but Yamaha and Honda could run longer. Does that make a difference at Suzuka? In some ways it does and in other ways it doesn’t. It only matters if extra economy can mean you can complete the race quicker. Can you make one less pit stop? Can you get away with less fuel in the tank and thus a slightly quicker pitstop? With the relentless pace at the front making a stop less was always unlikely. Kawasaki averaged 27 laps a stint, which is the perfect target for a seven stop race.
A safety car meant that there was little risk of fuel during the race so teams were no longer on the limit for their mileage. It also meant that there was little advantage to be gained by stretching their stints to the limit. Plans can change in endurance racing and for some teams the goal became keeping their riders fresh by stopping slightly early. Kawasaki did this and so did the S-Pulse Suzuki squad. That team, also running just two riders, decided this was the ideal strategy. Tommy Bridewell saying, “we weren’t going to be able to do six stops so why stay out longer than you have to? We came in a lap or two early on each stint to make sure that myself and Brad [Ray] weren’t pushing to our physical limit all the time. That final couple of laps can take a lot longer to recover from.” In the pits, Kawasaki did a solid job, but were on average 1.5s slower than Honda. Over the course of the Suzuka 8-Hours race duration, this is “free” time for Honda to gain…and they’d need all the help they could get.
For Kawasaki, the real target was Yamaha and beating them in the pits by almost 25 seconds, and being faster on their outlaps, over a race distance was crucial. On track, Rea was on fire. His form was scintilating and his pace and consistency was tremendous. If he needed to make a move on lapped traffic, he was decisive and forceful. It was hugely impressive. The only problem for Kawasaki was that when Haslam sat on the bike, his pace wasn’t quite as strong. Haslam, a Suzuka expert and former winner, was at least half a second a lap slower than Rea throughout the race, and this meant that he was under pressure from Yamaha during his stints.
Yamaha, as outlined above, had time to find on track having been relatively poor in the pits. Their plan revolved around consistency, both in pace and in their racers. Their three riders – Katsuyuki Nakasuga, Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark – were all evenly matched. In fact their average lap times throughout the race (when you discount some anomalies) were almost identical. On track, Yamaha was the most complete team, but they simply gave themselves too much work to do due to their poor pit stops. Losing time in the pits and on the outlap are sure fire ways to leave yourself with little margin for error in a street fight, which is exactly how this year’s race played out.
Honda on the other hand was gaining free time in the pits. Their pit stops were incredible, and it saw them find 11 seconds on Kawasaki in the stops. Their bike also worked tremendously on cold tires, which meant that Takumi Takahashi and Stefan Bradl were able to find an extra second on their outlaps. Finding this was a big advantage to keep them in contention for the race. On average for each stop the Honda was able to find two seconds on the Kawasaki but a whopping 10s on the Yamaha crew. Engineers would pay good money for that level of performance compared to rivals every hour. In the past, Honda’s calling card was their fuel economy and an ability to go longer and potentially make six stops. This year their pace at the front was such that the six-stop strategy was never really an option.
Suzuka Strategy: Time in pits and average pace in clear conditions
|Pit Time||Avg Out Lap||Avg. Pace|
As a guideline for Suzuka, to make six stops you need to complete 68 minutes on each tank of fuel. That’s roughly 31 laps for every stint. Honda’s longest stint in the race was the opening hour where, with the benefit of the safety car, they completed 33 laps. At that point the game was on. They could try and eek out fuel but that would mean cruising. In the past, Honda needed to use this approach because they weren’t fast enough to win the race outright. This year was different; they went flat out.
That meant 28 and 29 lap stints or, approximately 62 minutes for each stint. They were missing the six stop target by six minutes every time they pitted. After the second stint, it was clear that Honda wasn’t going to be able to make the race on six stops, so suddenly it was all about their pace. With Takahashi on the bike, they were in a great position. With Bradl on the bike, it seemed to take the German a little longer to get up to speed and adapt to the full fuel load. He was, like Haslam, half a second per lap slower than his teammate.
The pit stop strategy was right for Honda, but arguably their rider strategy wasn’t right. Starting the race with Takahashi meant that, with Kiyo out action, they opted to double stint the Japanese rider at the end. This was partly down to his speed advantage and also because they wanted his experience on the bike for the final hour in the dark conditions. Bradl only completed a couple of night practice laps, so it would be unfair to throw him in at the deep end of the race.
Starting the race would have meant he’d do the fist stint when racing conditions are more familiar to him. There’s not as much lapped traffic and you can find your rhythm. Traffic was Bradl’s biggest struggle, but once into a stint he was a regular 2m07s runner. This is a good consistent pace, but Honda’s plans came unstuck in the final hour when Takahashi’s pace suddenly fell off the cliff. Up until that point, the Japanese rider wasn’t far from the pace of the other bikes. He was a few tenths adrift, but pit strategy had kept him in play and the 33 was leading in the closing hours before the final stint.
At the time when he was overtaken by Haslam for the lead, the reaction all around Suzuka was similar; if they want to have a chance of winning Honda would need to keep Takahashi on the bike. This would however prove incorrect. Physically exhausted in that final stint, he waned and Honda lost over a minute as Takahashi settled for a podium.
On the surface this race seemed to be where Honda still enjoyed a slight fuel advantage that gave them extra laps at the end of each stint. That advantage though wasn’t all that significant because an advantage is only worthwhile if you convert it. Half a stint earned on fuel economy is essentially the same as none, and we saw the perils of that fact in the result.
The 2019 Suzuka 8 Hours was a study in the subtle differences that go into making an endurance race work. Three different bikes and three different styles but very evenly matched.