MONDAY, AUGUST 14: Japan's emergence as a growing power in international motorcycle racing is reflected by a strong list of 15 entries in the Vodafone Australian Safari international cross country rally through the Northern Territory, which starts this Sunday.
Heading the Japanese challenge in the Moto Division are Masahito Kamata and Hiroyasu Ohno, who previously contested the Safari in1999 and will ride Honda XR400 machines in this year's event from August 20-27 from Alice Springs to Darwin.
"They have experience from racing in the Safari before so this will be an advantage," said Kato Tetsundo, the Australian-based Japanese Competitor Liaison Officer for the Safari.
Japan has long been a world force as a motorcycle manufacturer with Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki, and Kawasaki, and in the past decade it has produced more top-flight international riders, especially in road racing, with Tetsuya Harada winning the 250cc grand prix world championship and Haru Aoki and Kazuto Sakata each securing the 125cc title twice.
This year five Japanese riders have won world championship grand prix races, with Norifume Abe in the 500cc class, Shinya Nakano, Daijiro Katoh, and Tohru Ukawa in the 250cc category, and Youichi Ui in 125cc. As well, Noriyuki Haga and Hitoyasu Izutsu have won races in the World Superbike Championship, and Katoh and Ukawa finished first in the prestigious Suzuka Eight-Hour round of the World Endurance Championship in Japan on July 30.
"If you look at 10 years ago the Japanese had good bikes, but now they also have more fast riders and they are improving all the time," said Tetsundo. "So far a Japanese rider has not won the Safari (Moto Division), but one day it will happen soon I hope."
Kamata and Ohno will contest the Safari in Class 2 for Production Motorcycles, the same category as former 500cc world champion Kevin Schwantz of the United States, who will race a Suzuki DR-Z400.
The Hondas raced by Kamata and Ohno will be prepared by Gary Williams of Wombat Motorcycles in Sydney. Williams is preparing seven machines for Japanese riders, who will race under the banner of Team Wombat.
Others in Team Wombat include Tomoyuki Fujita, a class winner in the 1999 Safari, and Makiko Sugino, the only female in the Moto Division, who will both race Yamaha 250cc machines.
Tetsundo said one of the challenges faced by the Japanese riders in the Safari was the unfamiliar terrain of the Northern Territory and the length of the 4,067km event.
"In Japan most of these riders do enduro races of maybe two to three hours on mountain-terrain and in forests so they need some time to adjust to the Australian conditions," said Tetsundo. "Once the Japanese riders adapt they enjoy the Safari very much."
The Safari is promoted by Octagon Motorsport, with backing from the Northern Territory Government, and is sanctioned by the Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM), and the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).