High stakes at Suzuka as ARRC mid-season approaches

After literally breaking new ground at a brand new circuit in Round 2, the ARRC makes its sixth visit to Japan’s historic Suzuka Circuit for the third out of six rounds this weekend and promises another series of tough clashes between title contenders and strong local wildcards determined to steal their glory.

Suzuka holds its own special challenges for the 77 ARRC riders now preparing to do battle in the hills of Mie Prefecture. It is Japan’s first purpose built racing circuit, completed in 1962 by Honda, which owns it to this day through its Mobilityland subsidiary. Soichiro Honda realised that he needed expertise to create a world class track, so he invited John Hugenholtz, the Dutch designer of the Zandvoort Circuit to help him bring his idea to reality. In the 56 years since there have been only four changes made to the circuit, none of which changed its essential character. The motorcycle layout is 5.8153 kilometres in length, has a unique ‘figure of eight’ style overpass, 17 turns and an elevation change of 40.4 metres from the low point, between turns 1 and 3, to the high point at Turn 14, at the beginning of the overpass.

The circuit holds special memories for Youichi Ui, who took the first of his 11 career GP125 wins at Suzuka in 2000. Ui-san shared his insight as he prepared with Team One for All for ARRC Round 3.

“Suzuka is the most difficult circuit in Japan and there are many stories from the MotoGP times,” he reflected. “Really it is a two-part race track, with the East Course and the West Course both together making the longer circuit. The west side is technical and having good rhythm and getting the mid-corner right are the most important things. The east part is high speed with only two places where you need hard braking, but for the rest of it speed and control are most important. After each part you have to change riding style again.

“This year I will try to give best coaching to our riders,” he grinned, “And I will give them special lines for some parts of the circuit!”

The complexities of Suzuka mean that Japanese riders have historically gone well there, although 2017 was an exception to the rule, with Anthony West and Gerry Salim taking double wins in the Supersport 600 and Asia Production 250 classes.

THE SUPERSPORT 600 TITLE FIGHT is as finely balanced as ever. After missing Round 2 due to World Supersport commitments, West returns to the fray determined to extend the three point lead he holds over Yuki Ito, who took wins at Suzuka in 2014 and 2015. The Australian’s 45 point tally comes from first and second place finishes in Round 1 and his continuing lead in the standings can in part be attributed to the abandonment of the first race in Round 2, while he was away.

West’s Webike IKAZUCHI Team made more headlines by signing Joe Francis for the rest of the season. The 21 year-old Briton stood in for the championship leader last time out and acquitted himself well, qualifying second and finishing ninth, despite picking up injuries from crashes during the weekend. As a regular rider in the British Superbike series, which runs at many classic style circuits, the challenges of Suzuka are unlikely to faze him. Soichiro Minamimoto will be in the same garage as a wild card on the Akeno Speed Yamaha.

Defending champion, Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman, has been struggling to find the right balance for his Manual Tech KYT Kawasaki, but still lies third with 38 points. The Malaysian has yet to claim a podium finish at Suzuka, but will be in the mix if the team, led 2014 Race 1 winner, Katsuake Fujiwara, can get the set-up of the bike somewhere close to his liking. Azlan’s team-mate, Ahmad Yudhistira, can also be expected to push close to the front of the field.

Ratthapong Wilairot, currently fourth in the table with 32 points, has hit a rich seam of form following his move to Yamaha Thailand. He finished a strong second to Ito in Australia and knows Suzuka well, benefitting from having raced there in the All Japan series, as has his team mate, Decha Kraisart. The two times former champion goes to Japan in need of good results, having only finished one race out of three so far this season. Decha took the Race 1 win in 2016 from Yuki Takahashi and Tomoyoshi Koyama, so is capable of putting himself back into contention by the time the weekend is over.

Thailand’s Keminth Kubo, 19, who partners Yuki Ito in Yamaha Racing Team Asean, goes to Japan fifth in the standings and leading an exciting new generation of Asian riders that is asserting itself in the series. Indonesian Andi Farid Izdihar has racked up three sixth places for Astra Honda, while Hong Leong Yamaha Malaysia’s Mohammed Ramdan Rosli and Kasma Daniel Kasmayudin have both featured strongly, with Ramdan making the podium with a third place finish in Australia. Azroy Hakeem Anuar, who jumped from Underbones last season to the 600 class with MUSASHI Boon Siew Honda, is fulfilling the team’s belief in him, having scored 22 points, just five short of Keminth. Although a familiar front-runner in the class, Idemitsu Honda India’s Taiga Hada is still just 19 and finished fourth in Race 2 last time out at Suzuka, less than one second behind the winner.

MUSASHI Boon Siew Honda’s senior riders, Zaqwan Zaidi and Tomoyoshi Koyama have some catching up to do after erratic starts to their 2018 campaigns. Zaqwan had fourth place and a DNF in Round 1 and missed Round 2, while Koyama got up to speed in Round 2, but crashed out of the only race for which points were awarded. The Japanese, who was second and third in AP250s last year, banked another three SS600 podium finishes from four race starts in the preceding two seasons.

THIS YEAR IT IS IN THE AP250 class where the championship contenders are most likely to have their cages rattled by wildcards. Leading the onslaught is 2015 champion, Takehiro Yamamoto, who returns with the Trickstar Kawasaki Team he enjoyed two successful seasons with. Yamamoto has two wins and four second places from six AP250 starts at Suzuka and comes in, unburdened by title pressure, to break up a two way battle for supremacy Rheza between Indonesia and Thailand. He is joined by five other wildcards, including two, Masaharu Ono and Narita Akito, being fielded by 2013 Asia Dream Cup champion, Hiroki Ono’s, Team Hiro.

Yuta Kasai and Kota Sunatomari will be on Hondas for Team TEC2 Honda and IDEA & Kurodaya, while Karen Ogura is a female rider looking to take no prisoners on the PRO POWER ASIA DOG FIGHT Racing Yamaha.

Yamaha Philippines have two wildcards, McKinley Kyle Paz, who impressed with his underbone podium in Round 2 and Masato Fernando, both of whom carry high expectations to Japan.

Such a powerful wildcard entry list could easily increase membership of the leading group to 15 during the two races.

Back in the championship, Indonesia swung the balance of power in their favour largely thanks to Astra Honda sweeping up five out of six podium places in Australia. That has left Rheza Danica Ahrens on 73 points, seven clear of team mate, Mario Surio Aji. Yamaha Thailand’s Anuparb Sarmoon is third on 62 points, 11 ahead of AP Honda’s Muklada Sarapuech. Behind them a group including Rafid Topan Sucipto, Andy Muhammad Fadly, Peerapong Boonlert, Awhwin Sanjaya, Kritchaporn, Kanatat Jaiman and Richard Taroreh can all contest podium positions.

Many of the top contenders have plenty of experience at the circuit, including Anuparb and Peerapong, who won last year’s 4 Hours Endurance, which supports the iconic Suzuka 8 Hours. Muklada finished fourth in the same race and has a swagger about her which she is likely to convert into more podium appearances this weekend. Rheza finished fourth in both races last year while fast and fearless 14 year-old ‘Super’ Mario won’t see his lack of experience as any reason why he shouldn’t win. Andy Fadly came of age in Round 2, putting together two good races and claiming his first podium for Manual Tech KYT Kawasaki.

In other words this should prove to be the most openly contested, and certainly the most difficult to forecast, AP250 battle of the season.

THE UNDERBONE 150cc CLASS IS FLOURISHING, following the increase in displacement from 130cc in 2017 and the change to Dunlop slick Moto3 tyres this season. The Suzuka round features a 20 bike grid and riders from six countries.Helmi Azman

Although there is no underbone racing in Japan, 16 year-old FIM Asiafemale prodigy, Miu Nakahara, comes in on the United Oil M-Mate Yamaha, while in other news, Australian Travis Hall, 13, who was not only fast, but gelled well with the SCK Rapido Hi Rev team at The Bend, has signed up for another wildcard entry for this round.

Team boss, Soon Chee Kieong, noted Hall’s flair for underbone racing.

“He knows instinctively how to make the bike work. For Suzuka, I would like to see him wading into the group and getting down and dirty with the other riders. During the Australian round, I found him to be a bit tentative, often hovering along the edges of the fighting group.”

Thailand’s multiple AP250 podium finisher, Peerapong Luiboonpeng, joins 2009 champion, Mohd Affendi Rosli in Team All for One under the mentorship of the aforementioned GP125 wizard, Youichi Ui. From Vietnam, Le Khanh Loc comes into the Yuzy Honda Vietnam Racing Team.

It is Mohd Izzat Zaidi who leads the championship into Round 3 after two wins and a total of 67 points from four races. Mohd Helmi Azman is 11 points back on 56 points and would probably have been closer but for breaking an engine in Race 2 in Australia. Affendi Rosli has also been putting good results together and lies third on 44 points.

Behind the Malaysian top three, Yamaha Yamalube SND Factory’s Syahrul Amin is the top Indonesian rider going into the third round and has so far been outperforming his team mate, none other than two times champion, Gupita Kresna Wardhana, who returned to the class in 2018 after a two-year adventure in AP250s.

Defending champion, Mohd Akid Aziz has had a disappointing start to the season, the high point of which was being the third man in UMA Racing Yamaha’s sensational podium lockout at The Bend Motorsport Park. In front of him were the aforementioned McKinley Kyle Paz and race winner Mohd Haziq Mohd Fairues, so all three men in purple should again be in podium contention.

Another former champion looking to assert himself is Yamaha Indonesia’s Wahyu Aji Trilaksana, who took pole position and a race win at Suzuka in 2017. The 2016 champion picked up 21 points worth of infringement penalties in Thailand and crashed out of Race 2 in Australia after grabbing third place in Race 1 to leave himself sixth in the table, two points behind Akid.

The action from all three days will be streamed live on the Asia Road Racing Championship Facebook page, while there will be live telecasts for all six races on Fox Sports, true4U, Astro Arena and iNews TV.

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Editor in chief: Paolo Gozzi, italian journalist engaged in motorcycling from early ’80.

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