Suzuka Sunday: The drive for five comes unstuck

by | May 3, 2020 | Endurance, Latest News, Retro Racing | 0 comments

Originally published in the Dutch magazine Moto73 this feature looked at Michael van der Mark’s quest for a fifth Suzuka 8 Hours victory came unstuck, but once again the Dutchman gave it everything.

The Suzuka 8 Hours pulls riders from pillar to post. For most of the stars, it’s their only race of the year in Japan and they are under constant demands. The manufacturers want their pound of flesh, and they want their riders to pound that flesh as often as possible. Michael van der Mark was in Japan for eight days, but it was the eight hours of racing that mattered, and he was flat out all the way.

This race is unlike any other on the Dutchman’s calendar. The physical demands are huge. The mental pressure that comes from racing for Yamaha at the biggest race of their season isn’t to be underestimated. Flying through seven time zones, on the back end of racing at Laguna Seca in the United States, adds another dimension of difficultly. Racing in those conditions with a recently fractured wrist…the challenges went on and on for the WorldSBK race winner.

“The Suzuka 8 Hours is a great race,” said van der Mark. “I’ve always loved coming and I love the challenge of it. My dad raced in Endurance races and it’s always been something that I thought was pretty cool, but when you get to Suzuka and you start the race it’s amazing. The crowds are so ethusiastic, the team are doing everything for you to help you win. It’s amazing. It’s also tough though! It’s so tough actually! The travelling, the conditions and the race is so fast. This year it was full gas all the way. It was a lot of fun but at the end of my second stint, my wrist was causing me some problems”

Having injured his wrist in June at the Misano WorldSBK round, van der Mark’s participation at Suzuka was debated in the build up to the event. Having to skip pre-race testing, it seemed as though Yamaha might be faced with having to see one of their star riders sitting on the sidelines. Ultimately the former Supersport world champion made those discussions mute by returning to action within ten days of his injury, racing at Donington Park. With top ten finishes in the UK – and also at Laguna Seca – it was clear that while he wasn’t fully fit he was fit enough to compete.

Flying to Japan in the build-up to the 8 Hours, it was clear that the pressure was ramping up on Yamaha. Kawasaki were fast in testing, Honda had made a big step with their Fireblade and Suzuki, with Sylvain Guintoli, looked strong. This had the possibility of being one of the greatest endurance races in memory. On his flight to Japan, the key for van der Mark was to rest.

“It’s a very tough week at Suzuka. You’re having to do PR events, you’re riding every day and we had an extra test day included this year too. It’s very demanding so it’s really important to arrive as fresh as possible. You need to try and avoid as much jetlag as you can. When we landed in Nagoya on the Monday morning, we went straight to the Atsuta Shrine to write what we wished for on this trip. It’s easy to imagine what we wanted!”

Their wishes were for “Suzuka V5,” with van der Mark writing this on an ema wishing plate. In the Shinto faith, the ritual practices focus on establishing a connection between modern Japan and its ancient past, these rituals are a key part of their tradition. The plates are left hanging in the shrine for the gods to receive them. In the closing minutes of the race it seemed as though these prayers had been answered.

Even the best will in the world can’t fight off jetlag and eventually it’ll get the better of you. For van der Mark, the rest of the day was spent travelling to Suzuka and getting himself ready for the business end of the week as testing was set to begin the following day.

“It was a different schedule this year and it was tough for me – I wasn’t able to do any of the pre-event tests because of my injury. That meant that during the week I had to get used to the bike, the tyres and the track. It’s one of the best tracks in the world and I love Suzuka, but it’s always hard to jump onto the bike and try and be fast straight away. The test day was really important for me and by the end of the test I felt ready for the weekend. Yamaha do a great job of getting everything ready for the 8 Hours and I felt that we were prepared.”

That level of preparation was sure to be tested over the race weekend. With practice, qualifying, night practice and the Top Ten Shootout, there was still plenty of action before the race would get underway.

In practice, the Number 21 Yamaha was fast and consistent with all three riders. Once again it appeared that Yamaha had found the best balance of speed and consistency on track, with Alex Lowes and Katsuyuki Nakasuga forming a strong trio with van der Mark. The winning crew of the previous two 8 Hours were ready for action, and ready to try and make history by winning a fifth race in a row for the Yamaha Factory Racing Team. In the qualifying sessions they were fastest but the Top Ten Shootout remained. Although, a typhoon was rolling through the Suzuka countryside. The wind, rain and constant threat of thunder meant that the Shootout was delayed, then it was decided to be run as a qualifying session and finally it was cancelled. For van der Mark the day was filled with uncertainty…and events!

“It’s always strange when there’s a delay. You’ve got to be ready to get changed into your leathers once the session or the race starts. You’ve got to try and keep hydrated and eat something, but you don’t want to be too full in case the session starts! It’s always a difficult one to manage but you always find a way.

“On Saturday at Suzuka we were able to go to the Yamaha stands in the fan zones and meet a lot of fans. We were on stage for some interviews and it’s always fun to meet and see the Japanese fans. They are so passionate about Suzuka and Yamaha! It’s really cool. Once we finished those events, it became clear that the session would be cancelled and our attention started to change to the race.”

That focus shifted to the plans for how to approach the race. In 2017, van der Mark’s first year at Suzuka, the plan was to limit his riding. The 26 year old was a two time winner but he wasn’t comfortable on the Yamaha. His six foot tall frame was a handicap compared to his teammates. As a result the plan was to limit his riding, but to give him the experience of the 8 Hours on the Yamaha. In 2018 there was more trust in van der Mark, but the plan was still to have him do two hours compared to the three of his teammates.

When Nakasuga was injured last year suddenly the plan changed. The team adjusted the bike to make van der Mark more comfortable and his pace was impressive. For 2019, the team knew that van der Mark could get the job done. They had complete faith in their three rider line-up. The strategy was set that Nakasuga would start the race before handing over to Lowes and then van der Mark. The Dutchman knew that he would have two hours on the bike, and he’d have to make them count.

Going toe to toe with both Leon Haslam and Jonathan Rea on his stints was a perfect opportunity for van der Mark. In his opening stint, he was able to stay in contention and finished his first outing with Yamaha within seconds of the lead. The race progressed in a similar way throughout with Yamaha, Kawasaki and Honda generally split by less than ten seconds. It was a thrilling race but it took it’s toll on the riders.

“After each stint you’re tired, you’ve given absolutely everything you have. You come back to the pits and once you get off the bike, the heat starts to build up and you need to cool down. I always get into the cool pool. It’s a great way to get your body temperature down and to help recovery. I’ll take a drink in with me, something to try and get my salt levels and mineral levels back to normal, and after a few minutes you start to cool down and feel a bit more ‘normal’ again. It’s not easy but you also know that you’ve got to get ready to get back on the bike again!”

Getting back on the bike for sixth stint of the race saw van der Mark versus Rea. Over the last few years, including last year’s thrilling Suzuka battle, van der Mark has never been afraid of going toe to toe with the world champion. In this stint Rea was able to constantly eek out a few hundreths of a second here and there and open a small gap.

When van der Mark got off his bike at the end of his stint the relief was clear. The physical strain was starting to take its toll. At the Yamaha garage he was given a rousing round of applause, but now he knew that his role was that of teammate and he was ready to offer his full support to Nakasuga and Lowes.

“At the end of the race my wrist was getting sore and I wanted to keep pushing as hard as I could to finish my stint. It’s hard at Suzuka because it’s a physical circuit and one that you need to be in top condition to ride well. I was struggling at the end but my times were still consistent. The stint ended and we were in second position, I lost a few seconds to Johnny, but it was close. After that I went into the cool pool and tried to relax.”

With Nakasuga on track and hunting down the race leader, the focus for van der Mark shifted from getting ready for his time on the bike to focussing on the timing screens. At Suzuka the key isn’t just flat out pace, it’s also about consistency. Traffic is always a nightmare and the race leaders are constantly adapting to circumstances and conditions. In the closing hour, with Lowes on the bike, it seemed as though Yamaha had just given themselves too much work to do. A botched pitstop had cost them at least ten seconds and that time was the difference between winning and losing. On the track the Yamaha was the fastest bike but not by a wide margin. It was in the pits that Kawasaki had their advantage, and Honda in particular were much more efficient. It left a mountain to climb and given that the pace at this year’s 8 Hours was so hot, it was ultimately insurmountable.

That was until fate played it’s hand and Rea crashed on oil with only 90 seconds remaining! Suddenly Yamaha had gone from losing to winning the 8 Hours! It was a remarkable swing, but maybe the Shinto wishing plates were going to make the difference after all. Van der Mark was running around his garage and the pitlane trying to find out what had happened. The red flags came out and the Yamaha Factory Racing Team were struggling to comprehend what was happening.

Van der Mark ran down pitlane in a sprint to the parc ferme holding area to greet Lowes and, most importantly, a race official who would tell him whether or not he had become a five times Suzuka winner.

The wait seemed endless. Van der Mark, joined in parc ferme by his girlfriend, Nadieh, was trying to get his head around success and failure. “It can’ t be,” said the Dutchman to no-one in particular. “Can it?”

An official came over and told him that “The Number 21 Yamaha is the race winner,” and van der Mark let out a primal scream as he celebrated with his team.

Quickly being handed the hat of race winner, the victory t-shirts and whisked to the podium. It all seemed like a dream…and so it transpired to be.

After a two hour delay, Kawasaki had protested and won their appeal. It was decided that the rulebook hadn’t taken into account a race finishing under a red flag. There was no provision for returning to the pits and getting your bike back to parc ferme. After a long day and a long delay, there were plenty of long faces inside the Yamaha offices but van der Mark was proud of their efforts.

“It was a strange way to end the race that’s for sure! It was amazing but it’s disappointing too. At the end of the day we always want to win the race on the track and we want to do as good a job as possible. It would have been amazing to win a fifth Suzuka 8 Hours and be part of Yamaha’s fifth win a row. It wasn’t to be but now we’ve got to get ready for winning it back next year!”


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