Valentino Rossi’s autobiography is a fantastic read, even if you aren’t among the racer’s innumerable and aggressively loyal fans. One thing that stood out, in particular, was the love-hate relationship Rossi talks about when it comes to endurance racing, particularly the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance race. This annual Japanese event is the final round of the FIM World Endurance Championship, but it towers ahead of the rest of the races as one of enormous pride for the big quartet of Japanese manufacturers.
Gear scrutiny can get awkward!
Winning here is a matter of great honour, right up there with winning a MotoGP championship. To this end, the manufacturers often factor into contracts that their top riders must represent the factory in Suzuka at least once, if not more. This creates the unique situation of MotoGP riders slugging it out on the same grid as riders from other top championships like WSBK, BSB and more. But eight hours of racing a motorcycle shared between three racers is absolutely brutal on the mind, body, and machine. It’s this gruelling challenge that both attracts and repels the best riders in the world and makes endurance racing as romantic as it can be cruel.
Bike swaps in the pitlane added to the drama of the race and getting the timing right was vital.
Things aren’t quite so intense in India, but endurance racing is not completely unknown here. Earlier this year, the MMRT played host to a 90-minute endurance race for two-wheelers called the AVT Gold Cup Million Endurance Race. Compared with the eight hours at Suzuka, a 90-minute AVT race sounds trivial, but when you consider that the average motorcycle race in India is around 15 minutes long, the usage of the term ‘endurance’ is justified.
Having done a little racing myself, I know that 15 minutes flat out on the track has me completely drained at the end of a race. So when Suzuki sent out an invite for an endurance race designed especially for wannabe-racer journalists, I knew the proposed 75-minute competition time would be no joke but that the race would be a great laugh either way.
The Gixxer SF race bike is tiny, agile and entertaining.
It was good to hop back on the Gixxer Cup bike. Not much has changed in the three years that this championship has been running and the race bike is still based off the friendly Gixxer SF. Modifications come in the way of low-set clip-ons and more aggressive rearsets, and the engine benefits from a new air filter, a re-jetted carb, and a freer flowing exhaust. Power is up by around 1.5-2hp, but considering that the stock bike makes a humble 14.8hp, it’s no surprise that this tiny little race bike is all about corner speed – you’ll be lucky to see over 120kph on the main straight.
Since this was an endurance race, we were put in teams of two that were decided by a draw of chits. I was paired with Sukesh Suvarna from Drivespark and our starting grid position for the race was decided as a combination of our individual qualifying times. This was Sukesh’s first outing on a racetrack and our individual times were at the two extremes of the timesheet. Together, we qualified 8th out of 9th place.
The rules for the race were simple enough. We were to share one bike, with each rider having to set a minimum of one riding session and no session could last longer than 25 minutes. Since our race had a delayed start, the organisers reduced the duration from 75 minutes to 60 minutes flat. Rider swaps were to happen in the pit lane and this is where the most time stands to be lost. With that in mind, we decided to go for the bare minimum of a three-session strategy. I’d start the race, Sukesh would run the second session and I’d bring the bike home to the chequered flag – if all went well, that is.
Perhaps the most fun part of the race was the Suzuka-style running start. In this format, the riders sprint across the track when the lights go green and hop on to the bike being held upright by the teammate. I managed a clean start and was in the lead by the third corner. The priority was to pull as big a gap as I could and hand the bike over to Sukesh. Exactly 23 minutes later, Sukesh took over and he stayed out for about 15 minutes before handing me the bike for the final run.
I had no idea where we were positioned throughout the final session, so I concentrated on setting as clean laps as possible without pushing too much, to avoid the easy trap of exhaustion. It’s funny how the brain starts to wander after the initial rush of adrenaline wears off, and the big challenge was to stay focused and avoid mistakes. Finally, as the muscles started to seize up and my brain cried for mercy, the chequered flag came out and we made it to the end!
Back at the pits, a happy surprise awaited in the announcement that we’d finished in third place. I don’t think anyone expected it – least of all us, considering that our combined qualifying lap time was a whole 8sec off the riders on pole. But keeping the rider swaps down to a minimum and staying clean and consistent out on the track made all the difference. After all, endurance racing is just as much about strategy as it is ability.
A third-place finish was a pleasant surprise.
Despite the fact that endurance racing was a new flavour of fun, we took home the same sense of awe and respect for those who race professionally at the top level. One hour on a friendly little race bike pushed us to the edge of our laughably low fitness limits. It only reinforces the admiration for the men who do so for eight times the duration on some of the fastest race bikes on the planet.
WHAT IS THE GIXXER CUP?
The Suzuki Gixxer Cup runs as part of the JK Tyre FMSCI National Racing Championship. This series is targeted at young and upcoming racers and Suzuki hosts selection rounds from across the country. Costs are exceptionally affordable, and if you’re looking to get a taste of racing, this is a good place to start.
But that’s not all, the Gixxer race bike also facilitates the annual Red Bull Road to Rookies Cup. This is a two-round championship that runs alongside the Gixxer Cup and is open to riders from 12 to 16 years of age. The winner gets a seat in the Red Bull Rookies Cup qualifier in Spain. If they manage to break into the incredibly competitive Rookies Cup series, it paves the way into top championships like Moto3 and beyond.