To motorcycle racing fans in Japan it is a yearly “midsummer festival”, and to endurance racing fans it is a special round of the Endurance World Championship with a strong tradition and history behind it. The Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance Race is one of the biggest motorcycle races in the world, and the scorching asphalt of Suzuka Circuit has produced countless spectacles through the years.
In 2015, Yamaha formed the Yamaha Factory Racing Team for the first time since 2002, a 13 year gap since Yamaha had entered with a full factory effort. The impetus behind this move was a push to invigorate racing scenes in Japan and across the globe with the introduction of a new model YZF-R1. Japan’s top rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga and MotoGP riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith formed the team’s lineup and were entrusted with a YZF-R1 based factory machine.
In addition to being the star rider of the team, Katsuyuki Nakasuga was also the development rider who had worked hard to boost the YZF-R1’s competitiveness. MotoGP riders Espargaro and Smith relied on Nakasuga as the three carried out a detailed plan over the course of the eight-hour race. The race itself was an eventful one, with the safety car entering the track a total of six times, but once the team took the lead on lap 55 they went unchallenged as they opened a gap to the team in 2nd before taking the win. It was Yamaha’s fifth ever win in the event and ended a 19-year drought.
In 2016 Yamaha World Superbike rider Alex Lowes joined Nakasuga and Espargaro, and the three went on to win again, completing 218 laps in the process. In 2017 and 2018 it was a team featuring Nakasuga, Lowes and Michael van der Mark that took a third, then a fourth consecutive win. In 2018 Nakasuga was unable to ride due to an injury, and his teammates van der Mark and Lowes dug deep to ride a tough 2-man race. Afterward Nakasuga was moved, saying “I can’t imagine having stronger teammates.”
Lowes, van der Mark and Nakasuga lined up again to attempt a fifth consecutive win in 2019, and in the closely-contested race the machine in 1st place crashed just before the checkers and it appeared that Yamaha had won, but an post-race decision saw the team demoted to 2nd. That year the YZF-R1 sported a replica of the famous TECH 21 livery made popular by Kenny Roberts and Tadahiko Taira in 1985.
Participating as a factory effort in the 8 Hours was a project aimed at invigorating the racing scenes each country and region, and that became a reality with racers making the YZF-R1s shine on racetracks across the globe. It also spurred rival manufacturers to put together strong teams for the 8 Hours, which resulted in returning the event to its former glory and capturing the interest of motorcycle racing fans everywhere.