Suzuka Michelin preview

SUZUKA EIGHT HOURS, Suzuka, August 5 2001 World Endurance Championship, round six ROSSI & EDWARDS ALL SET FOR EIGHT HOUR CAULDRON There is no other motorcycle race quite like the Suzuka Eight Hours. The Japanese event is extreme in every...

SUZUKA EIGHT HOURS, Suzuka, August 5 2001
World Endurance Championship, round six

ROSSI & EDWARDS ALL SET FOR EIGHT HOUR CAULDRON

There is no other motorcycle race quite like the Suzuka Eight Hours. The Japanese event is extreme in every way: it is the single most important race of the year for the big four Japanese factories, it affords a unique opportunity for some of the fastest Grand Prix and World Superbike stars to race head to head, it takes place during Japan's withering high summer and the race itself is more like an eight-hour sprint than a nurse-it-home endurance event.

Michelin, current leaders of both the 500 World Championship and World Superbike series, have an illustrious record at Suzuka, with a total of 12 wins, including three from the past four races.

And for the second year running the event's highest-profile team will be equipped with Michelin tyres. World 500 leader Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) and reigning World Superbike king Colin Edwards (Castrol Honda-Michelin) get together again, riding a Cabin Honda VTR1000SPW. Last July Michelin's dynamic duo led the race but crashed out. It was Rossi's first-ever race on a four-stroke.

Now the duo aim to turn last year's promise into victory, along with third rider, multiple All- Japan champion Shinichi Itoh. Both men travelled to Suzuka for crucial pre-race tests during mid-July, taking time off from their full-time World Championship jobs. Rossi currently leads the 500s from Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin), while Edwards lies second in World Superbikes, behind Troy Bayliss (Ducati Infostrada-Michelin).

Their aim during the tests was to find a machine set-up that will offer a perfect compromise for their physiques and riding styles.

"We're lucky because we have fairly similar physiques, so the riding position isn't much of a compromise for either of us," says Rossi, whose only previous endurance experience before last year's Eight Hours was some minimoto endurance racing he did as a child. "The only real difference in our riding styles is that Colin goes into corners a little earlier than me, but it's not a huge difference. Overall the difference in settings isn't so big -- where my 500's settings are more personal, the Superbike's are more neutral."

"During the tests our priorities were tyres and suspension settings. Without a good set-up it's impossible to win the race, because you need settings that really look after the tyres. I really want to win this time, especially after crashing last year."

Edwards reckons that he and Rossi are a perfect match as team-mates. "We can ride with everything set up pretty damn similar," he says. "Plus we're pretty much the same size, I may have a kilo or two on him but thatis all. During the tests we both did our own thing on set-up and I could do nines (2m 09s) on his bike and he could do nines on mine, so weill have a great compromise. Sometimes it can be like pulling teeth getting a compromise for this race, but with Valentino it's been real easy."

Michelin's Eight Hour test programme has been briefer than in past years, because Rossi and Edwards don't want their World Championship campaigns jeopardised by frequent doses of jet lag from commuting between Europe and Japan. Both men rode just one session, while Rossi's fellow 500 rider Alex Barros (West Honda Pons-Michelin) has ridden two, one during May and one at the end of July. The Brazilian will contest the race aboard a Cabin Honda VTR1000SPW, alongside World Superbike rider Tadayuki Okada (Castrol Honda-Michelin) and Manabu Kamada. All the riders will run Michelin's 16.5in tyres front and rear, as Edwards does when he's on World Superbike duty.

"This is a tough race for us, no doubt about that," says Michelin's chief of motorcycle racing, Nicolas Goubert. "Michelin no longer contest the All-Japan Superbike series so we have very little data for Superbikes at Suzuka, which makes the few tests weive done all the more useful. Our focus for the race is to offer good traction over the hour-long sessions, but when the track temperature is over 50 degrees, that's very difficult. Of course, we have plenty of data from the Suzuka Grand Prix, but the bikes and the track temperature are different, so it's difficult to use that data for the Eight Hours. We could definitely do with more information!"

Edwards is nonetheless mightily impressed with Michelin's efforts. "We got some good information from the tests but they're squeezing a year's testing into a few days, they're working their asses off," he says. "Back in Europe we're getting new constructions and new compounds every race and I know they're cooking up some more new stuff for Suzuka."

Although the Eight Hours is an endurance race, it is totally unlike other endurance races, as Edwards explains: "Last year Valentino was asking me what kind of pace you have to do. I was like, hey man, it's a sprint, it's eight hours flat-out, hauling ass, giving it everything youive got. And it's so hot that you're sliding around from the fifth lap of each 27-lap session. Youive got to learn to spin the thing and keep it under you. The race teaches you throttle control and feel, so you can get the bike stepped out one or two inches so it's still driving forward, rather than having it out six inches, which looks cool, but you ain't going anywhere. It teaches you a lot, that's why the last few years Iive gone straight from Suzuka to Brands Hatch and won."

Rossi adds: "You slide a lot, so you have to be calm about the way you ride. Also, the way a Superbike slides is very different from a 500. But the race is good training for me, both for my style and for my fitness. Compared to my 500, I don't like the Superbike's front end so much, it's heavier and more neutral, so you don't get as much feeling as you get from a 500."

The physical demands of the Eight Hours are unique in bike racing. While other endurance races are longer, the Suzuka weather and ultra-fast pace make life hell for riders. The event takes place during Japan's high summer when temperatures can nudge 40 degrees and humidity can surpass 80 per cent. Competitors ride the limit in these conditions for four hours each, while clothed in full safety gear, sitting on a red-hot motorcycle! It's normal for riders to suffer blisters and sometimes even burns to their hands and feet.

"The temperature and humidity are like the Malaysian GP, except we each ride four hours in one day, so it's like riding five GPs in one day," Rossi adds. "It's so humid that there's not so much air, so it's hard to breathe when you're on the bike, especially going down the straights when your head is in the bubble. Very tiring!

"The team does everything to help us recover after each session. We have a plunge pool, full of ice, which we jump into after each ride, and we have saline drips and massages too, though we don't use oxygen like some teams used to."

Edwards, an Eight Hour winner back in 1996, knows better than most just how withering this race is. "Physically it's tough, my hands get real beat up with blisters. But it's even more mentally draining, you start thinking some pretty goofy stuff when you're out there going round and round, chasing down another rider and trying to stay with the whole deal!"

- www.michelinsport.com

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