The late 1980s boom turned the Suzuka Eight Hours into the most lavish bike race of all time. Mat Oxley was there
he weather is typical of Japan in July – so steamy hot the air you breathe feels second hand and rivulets of sweat run down every part of your body.
I shouldn’t care though – I’m lying on a couch with two girls draping nicely chilled towels across my legs and torso. I have an ice-cold drink in one hand and a bowl of sliced orange and banana within reach of the other. A Japanese doctor massages my body and an electric fan blows a cooling draft on my face, rustling the leaves of the nearby palms.
Heaven surely couldn’t be a much more delightful experience but the pleasure of this visit through the pearly gates is tainted by the knowledge that I soon have to return to the fiery torment of hell.
Hell in this case is the Suzuka racetrack, designed back in 1962 by some fiendish Japanese, obviously intent on giving racers sleepless nights well into the next millennium.
The circuit is tough enough in itself but it’s the viscous Japanese summer which makes the Suzuka Eight Hour bike racing’s Dante’s Inferno. As you get deeper into the race, the ogres of physical and mental exhaustion grow like monsters before you and devils dance around, laughing hideously at the sight of a mere mortal venturing so far into their terrible territory.
The exhaustion may not be tangible but the devils certainly are – they are dressed in colourful suits, mounted on evil 145 horsepower motorcycles and their names are Rainey, Schwantz, Gardner, Doohan, Sarron, Magee and Kocinski. They fly past, taunting you with daredevil deeds that would mean inevitable disaster if you were foolish enough to attempt to emulate them.
Sharing the track with these men is indeed like moving through a door into another world where the laws of physics mean more to some people than others. You can no longer smugly announce, ‘I could do that,’ and walk away from the spectator area safe in the knowledge that, if someone put you a million dollars in your hands and sat you on a factory race bike, you could cut the same lap time as these guys.
I can only watch through my visor in wonder as Mick Doohan slips by me into Suzuka’s first-gear hairpin aboard his RVF750, lays the bike on its side until both tyres must surely exceed their traction limit, cracks open the throttle as he progressively moves his body weight to the front of the machine, and lays a streak of scorched rubber on the tarmac. The thick black arc curves outward towards the kerb and continues unfalteringly through the shift to second for another 20 yards until Doohan hits third. Then the tyre hooks up and the RVF’s power finds another way of showing itself – the front wheel jumps two feet in the air before slamming back down onto the deck, just in time for Doohan to snatch fourth and lay the bike into the next, fast right-hander.
Since the hairpin Doohan has been climbing a shallow rise but after the brow, halfway through the fast right, the track drops away. I’m still close enough to see what’s happening as his rear tyre again breaks traction, this time at very high lean, and lays another wild trail of rubber, thicker and darker than the hundreds of others already etched on the tarmac. As the rear tyre gets more and more out of line, Doohan turns the handlebars onto opposite lock to control the slide, shifts into fifth and lifts the bike momentarily before laying it into the next, even faster right that leads into Suzuka’s famous Spoon Curve.
I’m given similar exhibitions of what it takes to be a superhero on a million-dollar factory contract by the other stars. I don’t try to follow them. I can hardly learn from them – all I know is they are going a lot faster and that, if I try to go as fast, I’ll crash. That’s why they’re rich boys and I’m not.
But for one week I’m a factory rider – well, almost. I’ve got just about everything I need: a mega-trick RC30 prepared by Honda’s Hamamatsu boffins (including forks machined from solid), flash leathers created specifically for this race and emblazoned with the logo of our sponsors Kawai Steel (motorway bridge builders), a pit bristling with Japanese mechanics, a PR man, a doctor, two assistants and three bikini-clad girlies who are trained to smile for the cameras, presumably to save me the effort of doing so.
My team mate in this expensive lark is French bike journalist turned TV commentator, Gilbert Roy. We’re both part-time racers pretending to be pros in what is arguably the world’s most important race. I hear that the team’s budget for the race is £80,000. And I know there’s room for 60 bikes on the grid. Fifteen of those will be full factory bikes from Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha; the rest will be semi-factory missiles and massively-funded privateer teams piloted by pros imported from Down Under, Europe and the USA. Names such as Graeme Crosby, Carl Fogarty, Rob McElnea, Paul Lewis, Herve Moineau and Malcolm Campbell litter the programme. The pressure is on.
There’s already an air of growing tension when we arrive at Suzuka six days before the race with five days of practice scheduled (that’s how seriously people take this race – at GPs you get three days). Right away I’m anxious to pick up any tips from the stars who fill the Suzuka’s in-house hotel and restaurants. On the first night I dine with Wayne Gardner, but all he wants to talk about is his new 1700 horsepower motor yacht. Practice starts next morning, so I’m a little surprised when he orders the biggest beer in the house. If this is how the pros do it, then I’d better have one too. I discover too late that Gardner is not practising until Wednesday.
Next morning the pits are already swarming with Japanese factory staff, with inscrutable race bosses keeping an inscrutable eye on their teams. By race day there will be 250,000 fans here, and that’s why winning the Eight Hours comes a close second to a 500 world title in the Big Four’s sales battle. The hype in the Suzuka pit lane easily matches the intensity of racing on the track. Each team has its own ‘Race Queen’, and each pit includes its own pre-fabricated rider and hospitality lounge which varies from the simple to the exotic – ours is very much the latter with palm trees and a neat little bar, where journalists can have a drink while watching Gilbert and I go through hell.
Qualifying begins and we know we’re going to have to cut something like a 2m 24s lap to qualify. Rainey (teamed with Magee on a Yamaha YZF750 Genesis), Gardner (with Doohan on a Honda RVF750), Schwantz (with Doug Polen on a Yoshimura GSX-R750) and Co are expected to battle for pole at around 2m 16s on their factory rocketships.
In untimed practice I kick off with 2m 28s laps, which I whittle down to a 2m 26. Over the next two days I have a further two 45 minute timed sessions to slice off at least another two seconds, or suffer humiliation at the hands of the stars who I have to interview at every GP in my position as GP reporter for Motor Cycle News. The trouble is that it’s three months since I last sat on a race bike. That’s enough time to lose the confidence you need to flick into turns and slide out of them. Not only that, it’s not easy setting up a race bike when you do it so infrequently. It’s like speaking a foreign language a few times a year – you forget the vocabulary you need to make things work.
In the first timed session I manage a 24.371 – which might just get us on the grid. I come across Rob McElnea scrubbing in a new set of tyres on his RC30. I follow him, hoping for a tow – a trick that riders employ to great effect in GP qualifying. He signals me to tuck in behind him but he’s doing 21s and I can’t hack it. He drags a few hundred yards on me in a lap, snatches a look at me over his shoulder and I can almost see his mocking grin behind the blackout visor. I pit again with ten minutes of qualifying left and get a fresh soft rear Michelin radial.
This time I have to get a fast lap in. I try to give chase to Dominique Sarron on a factory RVF – but halfway through the lap that I feel is going to be The One, the RC30 springs a water leak, forcing me into the pits. I have to wait until my final Saturday session to get us on the grid.
At dinner Rainey asks me how things are going – and he’s managing not to be too patronising. I tell him I’ve gone two seconds faster every time I’ve been out and I feel I can go quicker. “Hey, I can go faster,” he says. “You sound like a real racer. I’ll have to come over and interview you guys sometime.” He grins, “Anyway, just get into the low 20s and you’ll be okay.” Rainey manages to make ‘low 20s’ sound so easy, and lying in bed thinking my way round Suzuka’s 18 corners I reckon I can make a 2m 22s lap on Saturday. But I haven’t taken Japan’s freaky climate into account – when I wake up there’s a typhoon outside. The rain is lashing down. I don’t even bother going out but I give up all thought of slashing my wrists when the final grid sheet arrives – we’re 57th on the grid, five short of disaster.
Race day dawns a little sunnier, but a few clouds keep the temperature down to a ‘cool’ 30 degrees. Normally Suzuka can be 35 degrees with stifling 85% humidity.
The hype fuels the tension as the 11.30am start approaches. I was faster than Gilbert in practice so I’m doing the Le Mans start. And from where I stand it’s a long, long way to the front of the grid where Doohan stands on pole. After a few mouthfuls of electrolyte ‘energy’ drink I line up for the sprint. My mouth is parched, my heart racing and my legs nervy like jelly as Suzuka’s electronic grandstand info board flashes up ‘GO!’. I make a good getaway but within two seconds all hell breaks loose. Two bikes collide in the getaway melee, I swerve wildly to avoid the exploding debris and I can’t believe it when another bike alongside me ploughs into the wreckage. The last I see, the rider is two yards in the air hanging on to his motorcycle – upside down.
Incredibly, the marshals have cleared the mess by the end of the first lap and the Eight Hours isn’t going to be stopped. The next lap brings more crashes as the banzai locals get carried away with the occasion. I soon discover that riders who had qualified in front of me can’t keep up at that kind of pace for more than a few laps. I’m steadily making up places.
But after five laps or so the heat is getting to me. Sweat from my forehead is splashing like rain on the inside of my visor and stinging my eyes. I begin to wish I could crash and get it all over with. A few laps later the heat begins to take its toll on the tyres too. Another rash of crashes proves that some riders haven’t prepared themselves for this – it’s so hot and slippery at Suzuka that you have to slide the rear tyre to keep going at a decent pace.
My only worry is getting in the way of Doohan and his fellow GP stars when they lap me – and my pet nightmare is bringing down Rainey, currently locked in a duel with Eddie Lawson for the 500 crown. I can see the headlines – ‘RAINEY BREAKS LEG AND RUINS WORLD TITLE CHANCE IN JOURNALIST SMASH’. So I take a few glances over my shoulder as the session draws on. Doohan is way ahead when he effortlessly swoops by me followed by Rainey. Kocinski comes past at the rapid turn one, puffs of smoke coming off his right knee scraper as he chases the leaders.
By the end of the first hour we’re up to 24th. The bike is flying, revving hungrily to 13,000rpm and handling well through Suzuka’s twists. There were no less than 28 RC30s on the 60 start grid – that’s nearly 50 per cent of the bikes and adequate proof that the RC is as near as any normal human being can get to a factory bike.
In between sessions I’m given the full treatment by the team doctor. I’ve got wrist problemsmso he gives me acupuncture. Every hour off the bike – while Gilbert is out there doing his bit – is spent on a bed being massaged and rehydrating. There’s even a canister of oxygen on hand if I need it. And the two girl assistants who help me dress and undress give me a new pair socks for every session.
Doohan is receiving similar treatment in the next door pit but he doesn’t look as knackered as I feel. He doesn’t get new socks either. The awesome pace begins to tell at the front of the pack. Doohan and Gardner are stretching their lead but Doohan collides with a backmarker and goes to hospital with a badly mangled hand, putting fellow RVF pilots Dominique Sarron and Alex Vieira into the lead.
Despite the massage and acupuncture, I feel more drained each time I get on the bike and I can’t maintain my early pace. Joker Schwantz comes past me on the back straight, wildly waving both legs at me. In the next session he powers underneath me out of a fast left hander, shaking his head mockingly. Earlier I had passed him pushing his Yoshimura GSX-R after he’d run out of fuel and I begin to wish I’d slowed right down and had a good laugh at his predicament.
Rainey and Kocinski’s teams go out too – after five hours we’re 16th, one place out of the championship points. In the later hours of the race the temperature cools but my wrists weaken. My last two sessions are not enjoyable at all, but we’re 12th at the flag as darkness falls. The relief of the finish is both breathtaking and frightening – the last lap is lit by a massive, booming firework display and as we arrive back at the line the track is invaded by the frenzied crowd. We just get the bike back into the pits when we’re engulfed by the seething masses who snatch whatever they can as a Suzuka souvenir – I feel they’d be quite happy to have one of my arms, or legs.
The team celebrations begin with huge bottles of Moet & Chandon. We all shake hands, Mr Kawai beams, the two girl assistants burst into tears. Next morning we pick up £1000 prize money each. My head hurts and every bit of my body aches. But I could get used to being a pro racer.
Words Mat Oxley