Three current MotoGP stars have been entrusted with carrying Honda's hopes of a seventh consecutive victory in this weekend's 26th running of the Suzuka 8 Hours.

The HRC assault will be spearheaded by the two Seven Stars Honda teams, equipped with the latest version of the VTR1000SP-W.

Repsol rider Nicky Hayden, the reigning AMA Superbike Champion and fellow rookie Ryuichi Kiyonari, the All Japan Supersport Champion, will race one of the machines, with Tohru Ukawa, a three-time winner, partnered by Hitoyasu Izutsu.

Having suffered a disappointing MotoGP season so far, Ukawa is a man with a special mission since victory on Sunday will see him equal Wayne Gardner's record of four 8-hour victories.

The Camel Pramac Pons regular missed the race in 2002 due to a broken ankle sustained in a crash at the British GP, at Donington Park. He crashed at the same event two weeks ago but this time emerged with a gashed elbow and heavy bruising, not serious enough to prevent him racing at the German GP, or Suzuka.

"I'm not thinking about equalling Wayne Gardner's record of four wins, if I win the race the record will come naturally," said Tohru. "The race is a one off a podium place has no meaning, only a win matters in the 8-hours.

"This year I'm racing with Izutsu San, for the first time. He's a good rider, fast," he said of his team-mate. "We used to race against each other before I started GP racing. He's a good guy - we will do well, of that I'm sure. In the test after Assen our machine set up was almost the same, and our lap times were also very close, so I'm confident we will be fast."

It will be Izutsu's first 8-hours with HRC prepared machinery but he has a good record at Suzuka and will match Ukawa's speed and determination in the race. His best result so far was in 1999, when he partnered Akira Yanagawa to third place.

"This is my first 8hr race on Honda and am really looking forward to it," said Izutsu. "When I was riding Kawasaki, Honda was a high barrier but I wanted to beat Honda. Now I am in the Honda camp and all the circumstances are ready for me to win the race.

"I want to win the race and I am quite confident about it as my partner is the experienced Ukawa, and the machine I will be riding is the same as the last year's winning machine," he added. "As we are doing 6 pit stops, Ukawa will be riding longer than me. Our goal is to mark 220 laps (previous record 219 laps last year). I have marked 2min 08secs during the test but the race time will be around 2m9-10'. We will not try hard to get the pole position as the pole-sitter hasn't won the race past
ten years or so. Our main aim is to win the race and not to get the pole-position."

Hayden is making his eight-hour debut but the young American has already tested the VTR he will race on Sunday, an up-dated version of the machine that carried him to the US Superbike title in 2002.

"I'm really excited about racing the 8 hours, it will be the first time for me. As a kid you read about your hero's racing the 8 hours and hope you will take part one day. I like the idea of the pit stops, race strategy, and racing at night, sounds pretty cool," he smiled. "The only pit stop race I've done is Daytona, but this is a whole lot different I'm sure. The race is really important to Honda so I want to do well.

"After the GP at Assen we tested the bike at Suzuka, it was the first time I rode a RC51 (VTR) since last August, this bike is pretty much the same as my US Superbike was last year," he continued. "I'm racing with Kiyo San (Ryuichi Kiyonari) so we tried each other's bikes at the test, but only in the rain. We're pretty close on set up, and we both use similar riding positions so I think we will have no problems riding together.

"It's a long race but I like the track, doing a lot of laps will help with other races at Suzuka. There seems to be a lot of traffic to get passed in the race, which will be interesting. I'm looking forward to the experience," he concluded.

Kiyonari has virtually no experience on a big twin VTR1000SP-W. His sole All Japan Superbike Championship appearance was aboard a CBR954RR Honda, a wet race at Aida last season, which he won handsomely.

Nevertheless, the partnership will be aiming to emulate the US - Japanese combination of Edwards and Kato who took the win in 2002.

"This will be my third Suzuka 8 Hours and my first on a VTR, I raced a CBR last time out, in 2001. We broke the engine after my first session so I hope this time to have a good result," he explained. "Although I have not much experience at the 8 hours I have raced many times at Suzuka circuit, I stared my road race career there in 1991, at the 'Suzuka Racing School.' I've also raced the Suzuka 4 Hours, I like the track and I think I will enjoy racing the VTR on Sunday."

Fuel consumption is a vital element in race strategy and HRC Team manager Nobuo Ohno will work with a six-stop race plan. The VTR had previously run a seven-stop race plan but the six-stop strategy was successful in 2002 and the HRC teams will go to the start with the intention of repeating that performance.

However, Ohno has prepared contingency plans in the event of accidents, inclement weather, and the intervention of the pace car disrupting his plans.

Completing the factory prepared VTR1000SP-W line-up will be the Sakurai Honda team, entering former MotoGP star Tadayuki Okada and Chozum Kameya, with Yukio Nukumi and Manabu Kamata on the second bike.

Other Honda entrants include former grand prix riders Takeshi Tsujimura and Shinichi Ito, near veterans but still very fast particularly at Suzuka. The two seasoned campaigners will race a CBR954RR F.C.C TSR for the Zip - FM team.

Former two-time 125cc World Champion Haruchika Aoki is teamed with Osamu Deguchi for team Weider Honda Gakuen, while Tatuya Yamaguchi is paired with Yuki Takahashi, so impressive on his way to third at the 250cc Pacific GP at Motegi last year, on a 555 Honda. Both squads equipped with CBR954RR's.

The circuit has been changed slightly for the 8-hours, the chicane reverting to near pre-grand prix lay out.