2002 Endurance World Championship
2Suzuka Eight Hours
August 2/3/4 2002
Suzuka: Eight GPs in one day!
The Suzuka Eight Hours race is a unique event. Top riders describe the world's fastest endurance race as 'eight Grands Prix in one day', and while endurance competition is all about going the distance, the Suzuka pace is never anything less than flat-out f rom green light to chequered flag, despite Japan's debilitating high-summer weather.
This weekend Michelin aims to prove once again that its tyre technology gives riders the best of everything at Suzuka -- best grip, best feel and best endurance. The French tyre brand dominated last year's Eight Hours, entering just two factory teams and ta king a one-two finish against much more numerous opposition. Valentino Rossi / Colin Edwards (Cabin Honda VTR SP-1-Michelin) won a thrilling duel with Tadayuki Okada / Alex Barros (Cabin Honda SP-1-Michelin) by just 14 seconds to give Michelin its 13th vic tory and a third success in the last four years.
The omens for further Michelin success in this most challenging of races are good. So far this year Michelin riders are having it all their own way in World Superbike and the new MotoGP World Championship, raising the company's domination of the planet's t oughest race series to another level. Troy Bayliss (Ducati Infostrada 998-Michelin) is currently dominating World Superbike, in which Michelin has won 19 of 20 races so far, and Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) is ruling MotoGP, in which Michelin is unbeaten.
As usual, Michelin will use a mix of their Grand Prix and Superbike technology at Suzuka. And the two Michelin-equipped team line-ups reflect that blend, including both MotoGP and Superbike riders. Reigning 250 World Champion Daijiro Kato joins regular Eig ht Hour team-mate Tohru Ukawa aboard a Team Cabin Honda VTR SP-W, the pair aiming to repeat their winning partnership of two years ago despite suffering recent injuries on the World Championship trail. They have former World Superbike champion Colin Edward s as their reserve rider. And MotoGP veteran Alex Barros, who won the 1999 Eight Hours, partners All-Japan Superbike ace Yuichi Takeda aboard a Team Sakurai Honda VTR SP-W. These are the only two crews running Michelin but both are amongst the favourites f or victory because all four riders understand the vast physical and mental effort demanded by this race.
"It's quite exciting for us to have Kato and Ukawa riding for us," says Nicolas Goubert, chief of Michelin's motorcycle competition department. "They're both star riders, both very fast at Suzuka and they've won the race before. I think Barros and Takeda w ill also make a good combination, Barros has also won the Eight Hour, he's on great form at the moment and Takeda can be very quick. This race is always a big fight, and as always, anything can happen in endurance racing!"
All four men have tested the SP-W at Suzuka this year, a vital part of their preparation for the event, since Michelin don't contest the All-Japan Superbike series. "This is one reason why the Eight Hours is a particularly challenging race for us, we don't get a lot of track time there with these bikes," adds Goubert. "The information we gain during the Suzuka MotoGP race is never so useful for this race because the track temperatures are so different, and the bikes, too. But we are quite confident this yea r, because we've had four or five useful tests, and because we scored one-two finishes in the only two Suzuka four-stroke races we contested last year, the Eight Hours and a round of the All-Japan series."
Michelin's contribution to the ambitions of the two teams is, as always, enormous. Each team renews front and rear tyres at each rider change, so Michelin's technicians must use all their experience to make sure that the correct compound tyres are chosen f or each session, as track temperature and race conditions change hour by hour.
"The Eight Hour is a very specific race, largely because of the high track temperatures," adds Goubert. "At the hottest time of the day, between two and four in the afternoon, the track can reach 54 degrees, and our job is to provide riders with good grip and traction throughout every session. We always have to come up with something special. Recent tests have gone well, with Kato doing some very good endurance tests, clocking consistent 2m 09s laps despite a track temperature of 50 degrees. Two weeks ago w e tested with Edwards and Takeda in the rain, which could also be useful because rain is a possibility.
"The 16.5in fronts and 16.5in rears we'll be using this year are not dramatically different from what we used last time. We have some excellent new compounds, and construction has changed slightly, that's all. Last year our tyres were very consistent durin g the race, and we expect our 2002 Eight Hour tyres to be just as consistent, while allowing a slight increase in pace."
All of Michelin's Eight Hour riders should feel familiar with their Suzuka tyres. "Our Superbike and MotoGP tyres are more similar than before, though there are still differences, because the bikes are more similar than before," adds Goubert. "Both MotoGP and Superbike riders now use our S4 profile 16.5in rear slick, with different constructions and compounds."
The S4 is just what's required for the Eight Hour -- its trigonal profile puts more rubber on the road at maximum lean angles, which gives more grip, cooler running and therefore extended life.
This year's Eight Hour is particularly significant for former winner Kato, since it's the first race of his new four-stroke career. When the MotoGP World Championship reconvenes later this month, Kato will be riding Honda RCV V5s like those ridden by Ukawa and Rossi.
Michelin winners at the Suzuka Eight Hours
1983: Herve Moineau/Richard Hubin (Suzuki-Michelin)
1984: Mike Baldwin/Fred Merkel (Honda-Michelin)
1986: Wayne Gardner/Dominique Sarron (Honda-Michelin)
1987: Martin Wimmer/Kevin Magee (Yamaha-Michelin)
1989: Dominique Sarron/Alex Vieira (Honda-Michelin)
1990: Eddie Lawson/Tadahiko Taira (Yamaha-Michelin)
1991: Mick Doohan/Wayne Gardner (Honda-Michelin)
1992: Wayne Gardner/Daryl Beattie (Honda-Michelin)
1995: Aaron Slight/Tadayuki Okada (Honda-Michelin)
1997: Shinichi Itoh/Tohru Ukawa (Honda-Michelin)
1998: Shinichi Itoh/Tohru Ukawa (Honda-Michelin)
1999: Tadayuki Okada/Alex Barros (Honda-Michelin)
2001: Valentino Rossi/Colin Edwards (Honda-Michelin)