Things are hotting up in Suzuka. The first private tests have started in Japan, and if the line-ups announced by the big-hitting teams are any indication, we can look forward to some spectacular on-track action. MotoGP, Moto2, FIM Superbike and British Superbike riders will take their place on the grid alongside FIM EWC top players intent on winning the final round of the world championship—the 40th anniversary of the Suzuka 8 Hours.
The winners of the two previous editions are in prime position. Yamaha Factory Racing Team is going after a third victory with Japanese Superbike champion Katsuyuki Nakasuga and WSBK rider Alex Lowes. The two 2016 winners will ride with Michael van der Mark, Alex Lowes’s WSBK teammate, who took top spot at the Suzuka 8 Hours in 2013 and 2014 with the Musashi RT Harc-Pro team. Now a Bridgestone partner, the Yamaha Factory #21 is well equipped to chase the win. Yamaha will also have GMT94 Yamaha (David Checa, Niccolò Canepa and Mike Di Meglio) and YART Yamaha Official EWC Team (Broc Parkes, Marvin Fritz and Kohta Nozane) in the thick of the action up front, waging battle to conquer the FIM EWC 2016-2017 title which will be awarded after the grand finale of the season in Japan.
Honda to make strong showing with Jack Miller and Randy de Puniet
As to Honda, a veritable armada will be setting out to wrest back a Suzuka 8 Hours win after a two-year dry spell. Musashi RT Harc-Pro, the Suzuka winner in 2010, 2013 and 2014, will be leading the fleet. This year the Honda #624 will be in the capable hands of Takumi Takahashi, who helped engineer Musashi’s three previous wins, Moto2 rider Takaaki Nakagami, and MotoGP rider Jack Miller. F.C.C. TSR Honda is also likely to take its place among the front-runners. The Honda #5, which is competing in the full season of the FIM EWC, will be ridden by a battle-ready team featuring German rider Stefan Bradl, a Suzuka 8 Hours newcomer, alongside Swiss rider Dominique Aegerter, a Suzuka 8 Hours insider. Stefan Bradl is Honda’s official rider in the 2017 FIM Superbike world championship after spending five seasons in MotoGP and winning the Moto2 championship title in 2011. Dominique Aegerter, currently a Moto2 rider, stepped on the Suzuka podium in 2014 and 2015. F.C.C. TSR Honda has confirmed that Randy de Puniet, who was also on the podium after the 2014 Suzuka 8 Hours, will round off its line-up.
Honda is also counting on Team SuP Dream Honda #79 with Shinichi Ito, a four-time winner of the Suzuka 8 Hours, Gregg Black, who usually rides for F.C.C. TSR Honda, and Australian rider Josh Hook, runner-up at the 2015 Suzuka 8 Hours with F.C.C. TSR Honda. Other Honda teams to watch out for: Moriwaki Motul Racing with Yuki Takahashi, Ryuichi Kiyonari (seeking a fifth win at Suzuka) and British Superbike rider Dan Linfoot; Teluru Kohara RT with Kousuke Akiyoshi (the 2011 and 2012 winner), World Supersport rider Hikari Okubo and Moto2 rider Tetsuta Nagashima; Honda Dream RT Sakurai with Ryo Mizuno, Jason O’Halloran and Jamie Stauffer, and Honda Team Asia featuring three Asia Road Racing Championship riders. Honda Endurance Racing’s Julien da Costa, Sébastien Gimbert and Freddy Foray will have to jostle for position amid all the Japanese Honda squads.
Suzuki among top challengers
Yoshimura Suzuki Motul Racing, winner of the 2007 and 2009 editions, scored a third-place finish last year and will be targeting victory again in 2017 with Takuya Tsuda, a Top 5 finisher at the Suzuka 8 Hours since 2012, and British Superbike rider Josh Brookes. Another BSB rider, Sylvain Guintoli, the 2014 FIM Superbike world champion, will make up the third member of this top-notch team in the saddle of the GSX-R 2017. Sixth past the finish line last year, Team Kagayama is also fielding a 2017 Suzuki with Yukio Kagayama (the 2007 winner with Yoshimura) and two Moto2 riders, Naomichi Uramoto and Hafizh Syahrin. Suzuki Endurance Racing Team will entrust its GSX-R1000 2016 to Vincent Philippe and Etienne Masson to give itself a fighting chance at its 16th world title. Suzuki will name its third rider at a later stage. MotoMap Supply (Yoshihiro Konno, Josh Waters and Nobuatsu Aoki) will also be GSX-R1000-mounted.
Kawasaki on the attack
After shadowing the Yamaha Factory to place second last year, Team Green Kawasaki is back with a bang in 2017, fielding Leon Haslam, who achieved podium success in 2013 and 2014 with Musashi RT Harc-Pro, Kazuma Watanabe, a former F.C.C. TSR Honda rider, and Asia Road Racing Championship standings leader Azlan Shah Bin Kamaruzaman. Eva RT Webike Trick Star, which is competing in the full season of the FIM EWC, has lined up a team with every chance of being among the front-runners: Erwan Nigon, Hitoyasu Izutsu and Gregory Leblanc. It will also be worth keeping an eye on Team JP DFR’s ZX-10R #83, RS Itoh with Masahiro Shinjo, Mark Aitchson and World Supersport rider Kasuki Watanabe, and Bolliger Team Switzerland, regularly among the Top 15 at Suzuka, with a 2017 line-up composed of Horst Saiger, Roman Stamm and Michael Savary.
Meanwhile, Rafaele de Rosa (FIM Superbike World Championship) and Christian Iddon (British Superbike) have teamed up with seasoned rider Daisaku Sakai to ride for BMW Motorrad 39: another squad worth watching at Suzuka.
All in all, the 2016-2017 FIM EWC final round—the 40th anniversary of the Suzuka 8 Hours—looks set to round up the season with a spectacular grand finale in Japan on Sunday 30 July.