The Yamaha Factory Racing Team of Alex Lowes, Michael van der Mark, and Katsuyuki Nakasuga completed a historic hat-trick of wins at the Suzuka 8 Hours this year after dominating the legendary endurance race. Not only did they win by over a lap, but they qualified on pole and smashed the lap record during the race by over a second. It was also the third time that van der Mark had tasted victory at Suzuka but his first with Yamaha, so yamaha-racing.com caught up with the 24-year-old Dutch rider to find out what went on behind the scenes during their epic win.
Yamaha-racing.com chatted to Michael van der Mark ahead of his return to WorldSBK action with the Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team at the Lausitzring for round 9 of the 2017 FIM SUperbike World Championship:
Michael, you were part of the history making Yamaha Factory Racing Team that completed a hat-trick of wins at the Suzuka 8 Hours and it was your third victory too but first for Yamaha, what was the weekend like?
“It was an amazing weekend, to be honest! The competition this year was so strong, every session was so close, we were very aware of the other teams. Even in the Top Ten Trial, Alex and Katsuyuki Nakasuga did amazing lap times but if you look at the gap between us and the rest of the field, in the last couple of years Yamaha’s advantage was a lot bigger so this year it was a lot harder. We knew it was going to be a tough race but endurance racing always is. If you look at the screen you just see one lap time and you have no idea how consistent they have been, so it’s hard to gauge another teams pace.
“We had a really good weekend. In qualifying Nakasuga-san and Alex got some fresh tyres and they did some amazing lap times, this meant I had to ride with the used tyres, but to be honest, I really didn’t care as I was really fast on the used tyres and that is more important for endurance racing.
“The beginning of the race was hard, as although we started from pole we didn’t get the best start and the first hour was a bit scary for us. It was really cloudy and there were some drops of rain and in Spoon corner, we saw a couple of riders crash. At that point, Katsuyuki had Takahashi in front of him and it was so scary as it was not quite wet enough for rain tyres. We just sat there, hoping for every lap! Nakasuga was very smart to follow Takahashi, as he is always very fast in tricky conditions and, in the end, they opened up a huge lead to the guys in third. Then it was Alex’s turn on the bike and he did a really good stint, he was really fast so I just watched and thought wow! When he came in to swap over to me, we had a six-second lead, but when I left pit-lane it was only 3 seconds, so we lost some time on the pit stop. So, I decided to push as hard as I could in the first stint for an hour and I was doing similar times as Alex. I kept opening up a gap, then it kept getting closed down but then at one point I saw the board and it said I was 90 seconds in front. I had to check it three times as I thought they had made a mistake, I even checked on the big screen! Then I relaxed a bit and we kept such an amazing pace that by the end of the third hour we had a comfortable lead, but that is when it gets really hard!
“On my second stint the team asked me to slow down and I found it difficult to find my rhythm because I was riding alone, I had no pressure, but I didn’t want to go too fast. It was really, really tough to just ride around. I still managed to open up another ten-second gap, but it was really hard to manage my pace when I am used to pushing at 100% all the time.
“I felt great when I got off the R1 after my second session and handed it to Katsuyuki who put in another amazing stint. To be honest, during the last two hours I almost didn’t check the screen as it was completely out of my control and anything can happen. During a normal race, you are nervous in the morning but when the lights go out at one o’clock it’s gone, but in the Suzuka 8 Hours, you start off nervous in the morning and you are still nervous at 9pm that night! It is one of the reasons endurance racing is so draining and tough, you can never relax. Even between your stints, sure, you get food and a massage but you are still checking everything and thinking about the situation, so you never sit still.
“In the end, everyone did an amazing job. The Yamaha was working so, so well! We didn’t change anything on the bike all weekend, which is incredible. To have three different riders on the bike, just riding the bike, not worrying about setup, lapping at similar speeds and not having problems…this never really happens! To be honest, it was an amazing weekend, to just get on the bike and ride and be so fast.”
Mentally, how do you prepare for something so demanding and different to your normal racing in WorldSBK?
“You get into a rhythm. For example, the first hour on the bike is the most difficult. It’s such a long time as you have to do 27 laps but by the second stint, you are in a rhythm and it’s easier. It is a bit like when we had two WorldSBK races on the same day, the second race was always easier because you were had found a good rhythm and knew what to expect.”
What was it like racing with your teammate Alex Lowes instead of competing against him?
“It was a different experience! It was less stressful as all three of us felt really good on the bike and it was good to work in a different way. We had such a perfect weekend, enjoying each other’s company, making jokes and having fun. It is obviously different to when we race against each other normally and we both just changed our mindset and enjoyed working together.”
Not only did you help the Yamaha Factory Racing Team complete a hat-trick of wins, it was your third victory at Suzuka, it must be a special place for you?
“Yeah, it really is a special place. I have been lucky, I won here in 2013 and 2014, but then I was unlucky for the next two years, so to win it for a third time, it’s an amazing feeling. The race is so, so special for all the Japanese manufacturers that to come here and win like we did, when you know how much it means to everyone at Yamaha, is just incredible!”