- All Japan Road Race Championship Round 1, Tsukuba
- J-GP2 / ST600 / J-GP3
- Date: 9 April, 2017
- Circuit: Tsukuba Circuit (2.070 km)
Yanagawa Consistently Breaks 300 km/h Barrier on Way to 3rd Place Podium Finish.
Watanabe Plagued by Problems but Perseveres to Finish 8th.
The season was scheduled to begin with a bang – a bang in the form of an endurance race right from the first round. Not only that, road racing fans surely felt pangs of nostalgia when they heard the season would kick off with a 200 km endurance race. 13 years have passed since the last time a 200 km endurance race was included in the All Japan Road Race Championship. Intended to be a precursor for the Suzuka 8 Hour Endurance Race, this race would consist of 35 laps around the 5.8 km Suzuka Circuit, and would include the tyre changes, fuel refills and frantic action by each team's pit crew that always prove to be a highlight. For this year's Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance Race, the requirements for entry have changed drastically. The top 20 teams of last year's race will be seeded in directly, however teams with no previous results will be required to place in the top 10 to earn a spot on the starting grid for the race.
For this, the All Japan Road Race Championship season's opening event, the new model Ninja ZX-10R fielded by Team Green shares many performance features with the factory machine currently being campaigned in the Superbike World Championship. In addition to the extremely powerful engine, machine control has been improved by the inclusion of an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) that monitors the bike's acceleration in three planes, as well as roll and pitch data. Combined with Kawasaki's original dynamic modelling program, it boosts the bike's electronic performance. Making its Japanese racing debut, the new Ninja ZX-10R has already received a quite a bit of attention both inside and outside the paddock.
With over 70 machines vying for a spot on the grid, the qualifying that took place on Saturday, April 23rd had to be separated into two groups, A and B. Both Akira Yanagawa and Kazuki Watanabe were slotted in into Group A. Yanagawa, who had been gradually building up his speed since the previous day, put in 12 laps with a best time of 2'07.706, placing him in 2nd. Watanabe followed right behind in 3rd with a 2'08.230. When the times were combined with those of Group B, Yanagawa placed 4th overall while Watanabe earned the 7th spot. This being an endurance race though, the riders wouldn't be lining up on a normal starting grid. The race would feature a Le Mans style start, in which riders line up on the opposite side of the starting straight before sprinting across to their machines, starting the engines and charging forth toward the chequers, some 200 km away.
Following the qualifying practice, the team worked on quick tyre changes and speedy fuel refills until they achieved their target 11 second pit stop. These pit stop practice sessions continued late into the evening as the rain began to fall.
Sunday, April 24th, race day, saw the race get under way at 12:45pm local time. The circuit announcer counted down the seconds until the much-awaited Le Mans style start. From his starting position of 4th, Yanagawa improved by one position to 3rd by the first corner, while Watanabe ended up in 7th, just as he has qualified. Lap 2 saw Yanagawa make a pass at the end of the main straight to take over the lead as he headed into the first corner. By the end of the same lap he would cross the line in 3rd, already locked into a three-way dogfight for the lead. The three riders involved were Takuya Tsuda (Suzuki), Yanagawa and Katsuyuki Nakasuga (Yamaha). They began to put distance between themselves and the chasing second group. Further behind, Watanabe had his work cut out for him trying to make up positions. He caught and passed the steadily-paced Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki) before doing the same to Tatsuya Yamaguchi (Honda) on Lap 7 to take over 6th position. By Lap 11 he had passed the race's early leader Takumi Takahashi (Honda) for 5th before going on to catch the slowing Kouta Nozane (Yamaha) and claim 4th. Up to that point he had been setting laps in the mid-high 2'08s, so he was running a pace considerably slower than expected.
The battle for podium positons went on until the middle stage of the race. Tsuda was running at the front, while Nakasuga and Yanagawa followed. Yanagawa's lap times were in the low 2'08s. His top speed down the straights regularly exceeded 300 km/h as he pulled alongside the lead rider several times coming out of the spoon curve onto the back straight, piling on the pressure. Yanagawa's top speed was, in fact, the fastest of the race at 308.2 km/h, and the only lap he didn't surpass 300 km/h was the opening lap. An error by Tsuda on Lap 14 at the chicane forced him wide, allowing Yanagawa and Nakasuga to come through. It then became a battle to see who could navigate the lapped riders better. Yanagawa was setting laps in the 2'07 range, but Nakasuga, who was able freely choose his lines through the corners, allowing him to open a gap.
Meanwhile, Watanabe had moved into 4th spot and was approaching the perfect timing for a pit stop on Lap 18. It was during his pit stop that trouble started. The crew had difficulties installing the front tyre, which meant that the stop took over 30 seconds. This forced Watanabe to concede several positions, but he stuck it out and fought his way back to an 8th place finish.
Yanagawa elected to make his return to the pits two laps later. His stop required 18 seconds, which stretched his 0.4 second gap to Tsuda to over 6 seconds. Yanagawa got on the gas straight away, setting laps in the 2'07s, but when a crash left a machine on the track in the final corner the race was red-flagged. Enough laps had been completed by that point that it was declared a result, in accordance with the regulations. For Yanagawa it was his first podium finish since the Autopolis round in 2014, and for Watanabe it was a solid 8th place finish to start his season.
Akira Yanagawa (3rd):
"I'm happy with my return to the podium after a long absence, but more than that I'm relieved that we were able to achieve a positive result in the first round. Looking back on the week, I think it was really just a matter of me, the rider, figuring out how much I needed to adjust my riding to the new Ninja ZX-10R and its full complement of electronic management technology. Even at the end of the race the powerful engine was still able to do consistent 300 km/h plus runs on the straight. Combine that with the new electronics and I think we have a machine with a really high potential, something I was able to feel on the track. I'll work with the mechanics to tap into that extra performance and we'll shoot for a 1-2 finish at the next round."
Kazuki Watanabe (8th):
"It was my first run with the much-anticipated new Ninja ZX-10R, but a lack of preparedness meant that we couldn't get an ideal setup. Consequently, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the bike. You could say that the bike and I had only just met, yet it was already time to go racing. I still didn't fully have the hang of controlling the huge amount of power on tap or the trick electronics as I headed into race day. I wasn't able to up my pace in the race and had to run in a position that wasn't the best. But, the important thing was to get some points on the board in the first round, which was why I pushed hard until the chequers. We'll come back better prepared to fight in the next race."
Toshiro Shakado (Team Manager):
"This was the debut round for the long awaited new Ninja ZX-10R. Unfortunately, we weren't able to gather as much testing data as we had planned before the race weekend. That, combined with some unforeseen difficulties during the race, prevented us from achieving the results we had hoped for. Even so, Yanagawa's podium finish this weekend was a majorly positive takeaway for us. Also, the fact that we were clocking blistering top speeds over 300 km/h on almost every lap of the race just highlights the strong potential of the new Ninja ZX-10R, which of course shares much of its DNA with the World Superbike machines. The new Ninja ZX-10R has plenty of room to improve even further, so we'll put the data we gathered this weekend to good use as we prepare for the next round, with the aim of putting on a display of this machine's true potential."